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31 Days: The Crisis That Gave Us The Government We Have Today

Barry Werth

(Nan A. Talese)

The crisis that forced Richard Nixon to resign in disgrace made an unlikely hero of the man who became the 38th President of the United States, Gerald Ford. A career politician of relatively modest ambition, the 1972 election had thwarted his goal of becoming Speaker for a Republican House majority. At this point he and his wife Betty had almost resigned themselves to a graceful departure from public life and a quiet retirement. This was before Spirow Agnew was forced to resign the Vice Presidency facing indictment for charges of tax evasion. This was before congress had offered Ford as a replacement almost as a fait accompli: by no means an ideological firebrand, his comparatively moderate views and genial manner made him an acceptable candidate for congressional Democrats accustomed to dealing with him in his position as House minority leader. At the same time, he had the dubious qualification of having been an associate of Nixon’s since the late 1940s. Acceptable to both sides, he was nobody’s first choice for the job, not least the American people. On Friday, 9 August 1974, as has often been recounted, Ford became the first and to date only American President to gain the office without having stood in a national election. 


History has been, and will most likely continue to be very kind to Gerald Ford. Although he was never fated to preside over the kind of massive paradigm shifts that followed the likes of Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan or even—ironically—Richard Nixon, he was a quiet man well suited to the solemn duties which he inherited. Perhaps unique in the annals of American politics, Ford could say with some degree of honesty that he had never held a serious ambition to be President of the United States. After the tumultuous decade-and-a-half which preceded him, marked by the traumatically curtailed optimism of the Kennedy years, through the quixotic aimlessness of Johnson and finally the climactic crescendo of Richard Nixon, Ford represented a calming denouement.


Few presidents have ever assumed the office under a greater cloud of inauspicious fortune: in addition to the ongoing paralytic crisis of Watergate and its aftermath, the 1973 Arab oil embargo had triggered a full-scale recession, single-handedly putting the brakes on the unprecedented economic expansion of the three decades following World War II. The Middle East reeled from the aftershocks of the 1973 October War between Israel and her neighbors. There was still the matter of the United State’s painfully slow withdrawal from Vietnam, a crisis that would eventually end in total defeat as North Vietnam pressed their advantage over the orphaned armies of the South. And, literally within hours of assuming the presidency, Ford was faced with the prospect of war between Greece and Turkey over the island of Cyprus, a situation that posed a disproportionately grave threat to the stability of NATO in the face of an omnipresent Soviet threat.


With all this in mind, it is almost comically absurd to conflate the entirety of Ford’s tenure to a single issue; and yet, while it may be absurd, it is also inevitable. The scope of Werth’s narrative is the 31 days that passed between the day of Nixon’s resignation and Ford’s subsequent pardon of Nixon for any and all wrongdoing committed while in office. Exactly one month, the span was long enough for Ford to pass through his brief honeymoon and into the crushing realization that, with Watergate and its associated trials still obscuring the headlines, there was literally no other way to move the country in a forward direction than to put the matter behind him with a single, sweeping gesture. The trials and continuing investigations of Nixon’s underlings and accomplices exerted a paralytic force on the body politic. The continuing specter of Nixon himself receiving an indictment haunted Ford as well as Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski, the man to whom the responsibility of indicting the former president fell. Neither seriously doubted Nixon’s guilt, but both knew that the trial of a former President would present a crisis of almost unprecedented proportions—as, all the while, the American economy slumped into stagflation, the Middle East seethed, and enemies both across the aisle and around the globe waited to pounce on any sign of weakness from the untested chief executive.


In retrospect, the decision was inevitable, the only real choice available out of a smorgasbord of progressively disastrous options. On a purely strategic level, the move, while lethal in the short-term for Ford’s presidency, proved to be the Republican Party’s saving grace. If Nixon had actually been indicted, the ensuing spectacle would have dragged the matter onward for years, definitely through the fall elections in 1974 and onward through at least the next Presidential election cycle. By cutting the matter off before it could metastasize, Ford threw himself on his sword, practically ensuring Carter’s victory in 1976, but also paving the way for the conservative landslide of the 1980s—when Reagan, free from the shadows of Watergate that had dogged Ford, presided over two consecutive landslide victories. This is highly ironic considering that Ford held no affection for then-Governor Reagan, dismissing him outright as a contender for Ford’s own Vice-Presidency. But such is politics.


The decision was and remains controversial, among the most controversial decisions in the history of American politics. But if there is one overriding lesson with which readers emerge from Werth’s narrative, it is that Ford was an inherently decent man who made what he wholeheartedly believed was the only honorable decision possible in an ignoble situation. Werth takes us through every step on the road to the pardon, painting an unmistakably vivid picture of the presidency as a pressure cooker. Beset by crises on every front, Ford still carried on through the most mundane responsibilities of the office: meeting Boy Scout troops, giving state dinners, speaking before Rotary clubs and keeping a hand in partisan party politics with an eye towards the next election cycle. Werth even spares time for the details of the Fords’ move into the White House residence, the rearrangement of furniture and the forbidding stress on his already-fragile wife. Given the circumstances, it is important to see Nixon as Ford must surely have seen him: as a chain fastened firmly to Ford’s ankle, dragging him down at the most crucial junctures and threatening to carry him and the country both into a never-ending morass of recrimination and faithlessness. The pardon offered Ford his only chance at breaking this chain. In offering the hand of forgiveness Ford was hoping to provide Nixon with the necessary grace to admit his own complicity; Nixon refused this opportunity, and would continue to do so until his own death. Nixon’s intransigence undoubtedly hurt Ford’s immediate political fortunes, but in the longer view Nixon’s ingratitude serves only as a final, fitting nail in the coffin of his ruinous legacy.


It is unfortunate that the spirit of grace and attempted reconciliation that marked Ford’s term was almost entirely lost on his Republican contemporaries. In the wake of Watergate a generation of Republican politicos grew to believe that the tragedy of Watergate had not been the tragic malfeasance and corruption of Richard Nixon, but a criminal overreach of the legislative and judicial branches onto the prerogatives of executive power. The men to watch, popping their heads up in a Zelig-like fashion throughout the endless power struggles and machinations of Ford’s presidency, were Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. Rumsfeld had been on Ford’s shortlist for Vice Presidency (a position which was eventually filled by Nelson Rockefeller), and eventually served as Secretary of Defense; Cheney had been Rumsfeld’s right-hand man and would serve as Ford’s chief-of-staff. Both men have dedicated their careers with an almost monomaniacal focus to restoring a perceived loss of power and prestige in the executive branch in the wake of Watergate. Congress and the courts took every opportunity to ensure that the mistakes of the Nixon presidency would never recur (whether they succeeded is open to debate); and for their part, both Ford and Carter would go a long way towards restoring something of a constitutional balance, offering a chastened and at least somewhat humbled vision of the presidency in transition. Of course, Reagan, George H. W. Bush and even Bill Clinton would spend the next two decades attempting to revive the same imperial presidential power that Nixon had enjoyed and subsequently destroyed.


It is all to easy to read Oedipal overtones into the policies and prerogatives of George W. Bush’s presidency, but it is perhaps more illuminating to see his presidency in the light of the men under him, dedicated to righting the perceived mistakes of Ford’s tenure by projecting an illusion of limitless presidential power. Totally absent are any concessions that a properly empowered executive branch could ever be in serious error. Whatever Nixon did wrong is apparently meaningless compared to the perception that congress should not be allowed to exercise their constitutional mandate to be ever vigilant against the emergence of ruinous and dictatorial presidential power. Ever vigilant to protect the power of the presidency from the predations of the federal government, it never occurs to them that the government might occasionally need to be protected from the power of the presidency. For all his faults, Gerald Ford implicitly understood that the office of the presidency was a great burden, one that could only be approached with the greatest humility. It is unfortunate that so few of his peers in the history of presidential politics have understood this; while Gerald Ford may not qualify on any list of the greatest Presidents, he will perhaps be remembered as one of the greatest men who just happened to be President.

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