The shorthand version of history will remember Gerald Ford as the “accidental president” (no pun intended), the only man elevated to the nation’s highest office without being elected. Such assessments are not only incomplete, they are also unfair. In reality, Mr. Ford was a thoroughly decent and honorable man who served this country well for much of his life, as a World War II naval officer; a member of Congress; House Minority leader, Vice-President (following Spiro Agnew’s resignation), and ultimately as Commander-in-Chief, after Richard Nixon was forced to step down for his Watergate crimes.
Today’s lead editorial in The Wall Street Journal provides a nicely balanced summation of the Ford presidency, noting that while history dealt him a weak hand, Mr. Ford played it very well. In the aftermath of Watergate and Vietnam, President Ford provided a steady, healing touch in the Oval Office, at a time such qualities were in short supply. The editorial also raises many of the great “what ifs” associated with Ford’s brief tenure in office. What if he had not pardoned Richard Nixon, a decision that caused his poll numbers to plummet, putting him at a disadvantage in the 1976 presidential campaign? What if he had selected someone other than Nelson Rockefeller to serve as Vice-President, a move that infuriated the GOP base, and opened the door for Ronald Reagan’s primary challenge? What if he hadn’t committed that famous gaffe on Russian domination of Eastern Europe in the presidential debate with Jimmy Carter?
What if, indeed. Such questions provide interesting fodder for presidential scholars and political junkies, but they ignore history’s ultimate verdict on Mr. Ford and his time in the White House. While Gerald Ford served admirably during one of the nation’s most difficult periods, he will best be remembered as a transitional figure, perhaps the last Republican president elected from the Eisenhower Wing of the party, representing the GOP’s eastern establishment and its traditional base in the upper Midwest.
Despite his admirable personal traits, Mr. Ford embodied what was wrong with the Republican Party in the mid-1970s. Forget about Watergate and the post-Vietnam malaise; by the time Gerald Ford entered the White House, the GOP had been a minority in both houses of Congress for two decades. As the party’s leader in the House of Representatives during the 1960s, Mr. Ford became a symbol of the prevailing, “me too” brand of Republicanism, going along with most of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, but at slightly reduced spending levels. It was a formula for a permanent Republican minority, a mindset that still prevailed in some Republican circles after Mr. Ford left the Oval Office. In 1978, a House Republican leader told a newly-elected Newt Gingrich to mind his p’s and q’s, because the GOP would “always” be a minority in Congress.
Using that frame of reference, the defining moment of the Ford presidency came not with the Nixon pardon, but two years later, when Ronald Reagan challenged the sitting president for the Republican nomination. It was an audacious enterprise, superbly recounted in Craig Shirley’s 2005 book, Reagan’s Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All. As Mr. Shirley recalls, Reagan’s decision to seek the nomination created severe turmoil within the party; while many rank-and-file Republicans were electrified by the governor’s passion for smaller government, lower taxes and the defeat of communism, those messages didn’t resonate with the GOP establishment. Donald Rumsfeld, Ford’s chief of staff in 1976, described the Reaganites as a “bunch of right-wing nuts.” Status-quo Republicans greeted Reagan’s candidacy with the enthusiasm typically reserved for a root canal.
Despite Ford’s advantages in fund-raising and media access, Reagan waged a spirited campaign against the incumbent, losing the nomination in Kansas City by only a handful of votes. It was the only campaign Mr. Reagan would ever lose, but in that defeat, he saved the Republican Party. The future of the GOP was on display at Kemper Arena that summer, and it did not reside with the country club Republicans of the northeast, nor the Midwestern moderates embodied by Gerald Ford of Michigan.
While Mr. Ford waged a skillful, uphill battle against Jimmy Carter in the fall campaign, it became increasingly evident that his time–and his brand of Republicanism–had already passed. The Reagan Revolution would reach full flower four years later, sweeping Carter from office in an electoral landslide, and delivering what Mr. Reagan promised on the stump in 1976: lower taxes (and the greatest economic boom since the late 1940s); smaller government (or, more correctly, curbs on the growth of government) and the collapse of communism. Reagan’s popularity also helped his party recapture control of the Senate in 1980, and paved the way for Republican majorities in both houses in the 1990s–something unimaginable during the era of the “go along/get along” GOP.
Here’s a better “what if:” Imagine Mr. Ford had won the election in 1976. America–and the world–would have been vastly different. Detente with the Soviets would have remained a cornerstone of foreign policy, postponing the demise of communism, and even emboldening Russian adventureism. The U.S. economy of the late 1970s would have been just as bad under Mr. Ford was it was under Carter (remember those silly WIN buttons?); moreover, it’s unlikely that Ford would have prescribed the sweeping tax cuts of the Reagan era that finally unleashed the American economic machine, ushering in two decades of economic growth. Even worse, the Democrats would have maintained their stranglehold on Congress, continuing the marginalization of the GOP, and (perhaps) leading to its eventual demise.
Upon his passing, President Ford should be honored for his decades of public service, and his successful efforts to restore trust to the presidency after Watergate. But we should also be grateful that others had a better vision for the party of Lincoln, and the eventual triumph of that vision over Mr. Ford’s ideals. The final legacy of our 38th president may be that of a man who delayed the revolution in that Summer of ’76, but thankfully, couldn’t stop it.