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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 93

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This is the grave of Gerald and Betty Ford.

Gerald Ford was a conservative Midwestern Christian. This defined him and it defined his politics. We don’t really remember Ford as a strong conservative these days. That’s for a few reasons–Reagan ran to his right in 1980, he was a pretty genial guy, and Chevy Chase’s portrayal of him on Saturday Night Live. But make no mistake, Ford is a critical figure in the national shift to the right.

He was first elected to Congress in 1948. He served there until 1973. He basically did nothing of note in terms of policy. He never wrote a major piece of legislation. But he was good at the internal politics of the Republican Party. No one really disliked him. He was honest. Because of these personal qualities, he was named to the Warren Commission investigating the assassination of John F. Kennedy. After the landslide election of 1964, which left Republicans trailing Democrats 295-140 in the House, the increasingly small group of House Republicans convinced Ford to become Minority Leader. Lyndon Johnson had little respect for him, telling reporters “Jerry Ford is so dumb he can’t fart and chew gum at the same time.” But Johnson’s own disastrous policy in Vietnam undermined him and his party and Republicans won the presidency in 1968. Ford became a key player in Congress in promoting Nixon’s agenda. But in the end, his achievement as a long-term Congresscritter was pretty modest.

When Spiro Agnew resigned as Vice-President in 1973, Nixon turned to Congress for help selecting a new VP. Congressional Republicans pushed for Ford very hard. First, he was honest and inoffensive, which Nixon needed. Second, he was at the end of his political career and really wasn’t a threat to anyone’s ambitions. It would be a nice cap to a nice career.

And then Nixon resigned.

Ford became a president at a time when white backlash combined with cynicism toward government due to Vietnam and Watergate to create a climate that was largely favorable to the Republican Party. Sure, Watergate was a huge weight on Republicans during Ford’s years. But Congress was moving to the right. The economics profession had already shifted far to the right, so policy experts were increasingly critical of Keynesian economic programs and they were influencing both Republicans and Democrats. The electorate had turned on 60s liberalism with ferocity and the white South was transitioning quickly to the Republicans. Ford contributed to this. In his heart, Gerald Ford was a small-town Midwestern politician with small-town Midwestern values. He distrusted government, disliked taxes, and while the climate of the times meant that creating a society of inequality and division such as Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan and Donald Trump are presently undertaking did not seem possible, he would use his power to turn the government back to what he thought its proper role.

Basically, Ford vetoed everything he could. In his short tenure, Ford vetoed 66 bills. That’s not much compared to FDR’s 635 vetoes(!!), but he had a very short tenure. It’s also more than the last 4 presidents combined, including the Cheeto we have in the Oval Office now. 11 of those were overridden. Most of these vetoes concerned spending measures and expanding the welfare state. For instance, he vetoed the 1975 amendment to the National School Lunch and Child Nutrition Act, which strengthened that law. I guess school lunch was offensive to Ford’s small government ways. That one was overridden. Basically, anything Ford thought would add to the size of government or not combat inflation was tossed. This was an important moment because Nixon, grumbling the whole time, signed these laws. But Ford did not. The rising conservative movement was making its presence felt, with very real national policy implications, as conservatives are currently smashing the poor’s face into the sidewalk with their extremist health bill.

And of course, he was the greatest friend New York City ever had.

On social issues, he was pretty liberal, supporting the Equal Rights Amendment and being pro-choice, even though he hedged his bets on abortion while in politics. Betty deserves a lot of credit for this.

On foreign policy, he basically did whatever Kissinger wanted, which of course implicated him in all sorts of horrible actions. The ridiculous response to the Mayaguez Incident of course did not hurt him at all because Americans always like a president who kills some brown people in a nation they know nothing about. Ford’s approval jumped 11 points after this. Ford basically funded Suharto’s genocidal attacks on East Timor, which became a nation during the Ford administration. Probably 90 percent of the weapons the Indonesian military had during this invasion came from the U.S., mostly since Ford took over. Ford and Kissinger personally gave Suharto their blessing for this. I guess the East Timorese were a communist threat or something. But hey, only up to 300,000 people died because of this. Of course, Ford continued the American support of Kissinger’s good buddy Augusto Pinochet, not to mention the other South American dictatorships. He did continue the detente policy with the USSR and China that Nixon began, which was largely positive.

He did do something that would be almost unthinkable today: suspend new arms agreements to Israel because of that nation’s continued intransigence in bargaining with its neighbors. Despite Congressional outrage over this, he held his ground until Yitzhak Rabin signed SINAI II.

Of course what I have not mentioned yet is Ford’s pardon of Nixon. This probably cost him the presidency. It was a fantastically stupid move for anyone harboring political ambitions. Yet it had no long-term implications for the Republican Party. He also won himself in 1976 and then of course Reagan wiped the floor with Carter in 1980. He was under consideration to be Reagan’s VP in 1980 but he demanded unprecedented power that included naming Kissinger Secretary of State. Reagan went with George Bush instead. Ford retired to elder statesman and golf status before dying in 2006.

As for Betty Ford, she had the fate of too many women married to politicians–a husband who was never at home. She always took a back seat to his political career. Even in the Ford Presidential Museum, Betty is portrayed as someone who really suffered because of her husband’s ambitions. She had to raise the four kids basically by herself. This drove her to drinking, for which she became famous when she finally quit and then used her resources to found a center where at least rich people could receive high treatment for addiction. She was also a social liberal and quite outspoken for a First Lady, commenting on many social issues from breast cancer (which she survived) to abortion to gun control. She talked openly about sex with her husband and understood why people smoked marijuana. Conservatives hated her. She died in 2011.

All in all, Ford was a pretty mediocre president, which makes me about 1 million times better than the last two Republicans.

Gerald and Betty Ford are buried at the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum, Grand Rapids, Michigan. There, you can see two great objects. First, Squeaky Fromme’s gun. Second, the staircase that led from the U.S. Embassy in Saigon to the last helicopter leaving. Unfortunately, you can’t climb it.

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