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“The right sort of sports fan” is how McGeorge Bundy in 1974 described America’s newly-installed President Gerald Ford, immediately after the resignation of Richard Nixon.
Bundy at the time was president of the Ford Foundation, a major target of the political right, and previously had been national security adviser to presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. He appeared on the very long “enemies list” maintained by the Nixon White House,and personified the Eastern seaboard elitists who used to run foreign policy and particularly galled the now-disgraced former president.
Gerald Ford, a star football player at the University of Michigan, turned down more than one offer from the pros. Congressman Ford’s “regular guy” demeanor personified the classic American athlete. Perhaps that was one reason Nixon made him vice president after the resignation of the disgraced Spiro Agnew. Nixon, by that time drowning in political fall-out from the Watergate scandal, may have sensed what the country would need to recover from his own political demise.
Nixon seemed to personify how seeking national political office could become distorting torture. In the 1960 presidential campaign, working reporters in the field on balance clearly favored the Democrat, Kennedy, over Nixon. Unfair jibes included the point that the athletic Kennedy was sports-minded, in contrast to Nixon.
In reaction, relentlessly determined Nixon became an expert on big-time sports, knowledgeable about teams and players – especially football. After each Super Bowl, he would phone the winning team (Ronald Reagan would call both teams). When massive numbers of anti-Vietnam War protesters came to Washington, the White House announced that the president was unconcerned, and planned to watch a football game.
By contrast, Ford, the “positive president”, ran an open and upfront White House. He was willing to testify before Congress, as Abraham Lincoln had done. He avoided recrimination against his own political opponents – who were never viewed as “enemies”.
Ford even took the risk of formally pardoning Nixon, avoiding the spectacle of the resigned president on trial and perhaps in prison. Many observers believe the ensuing controversy was one factor in Jimmy Carter’s victory in the 1976 presidential election, which rendered Ford our only president not elected to national office.
Time, however, has confirmed Ford’s judgment. An informal AOL online poll immediately after his death indicates about two-thirds of respondents believes pardoning Nixon was the right thing to do.
Without the mandate of popular election, and assuming office in the shadow of Nixon’s resignation, Ford was never able to assert presidential strength. A large proportion of his legislative vetoes were overturned. Congress tried to run foreign policy through the War Powers Act. That law is now defunct, but the atmosphere of the time prevented the Ford administration from intervening effectively when South Vietnam was overrun by North Vietnamese troops in 1975.
Unavoidably, any discussion of the Ford presidency involves Nixon, in ways that go beyond policy. Each man seemed to represent the average American, far removed from east coast elitists who led America into Vietnam. Reagan’s election to the White House in 1980 dramatically confirmed this popular reaction.
Meanwhile, Gerald Ford remains the right president at one particular moment in history.
The writer is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin and author of “After the Cold War” (Palgrave/Macmillan, New York University Press); firstname.lastname@example.org