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Monday, January 1, 2007

Gerald Ford was not ordinary. He was extraordinary

Over at Mt. Blogmore, Kevin Woster raised a question which recalled the 1976 presidential election between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Gerald Ford's presidency was served in the penumbra of Watergate.

Over the 30-some years since Watergate, the real sense of alarm it caused among the general public has been forgotten. That alarm was to find that vicious and devious tactics in election campaigns were not confined to a few places, like Chicago, but were being practiced on the national level. It was a stunning relevation to most voters to learn that there was actually such a thing as a dirty tricks squad, let alone campaign-funded burglars.

When President Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, it was very difficult for most people not to assume it was not another act done in the spirit of Watergate. Both Jerry Ford and Jimmy Carter campaigned as devout democrats who eschewed the trappings of elevated status, privilege, and power. The winner even made a display of carrying his own suit bag to the White House and, after settling in, talking to us from his new home wearing his folksy sweater, not unlike Mr. Rogers. (A great day in the neighborhood. We wonder if he wore sneakers, too.) It was a time when voters were looking for a sign that their politicians would talk to them again and be accountable to them, rather than deceive, manipulate, and betray them.

But Watergate changed politics. While dirty and vicious campaigns have existed as long as politics, Watergate made it clear that on the national level, such tactics had become a standard of operation. While some politicians may have resorted to such tactics, they were careful to hide the fact from the voters. But as time went on after Watergate, people began to accept its campaign standards as a customary way of doing political business. Some political operatives openly and joyously proclaim deception and attack as a key to their political acumen. Just read some of the partisan blogs for examples of such exuberance over meanness and deception.

At his death, Gerald Ford has been noted to have risen above that kind of politics. Although some news accounts claimed that he had a close and intense friendship with Richard Nixon, suggesting that it may have motivated his pardon of Nixon, people close to Gerald Ford have quickly said that is not true. His former chief of staff, his biographer, and a journalist who wrote extensively about Ford have stressed that he had a friendly relationship with most politicians of his time, and his friendship with Nixon was no different. It was the respectful regard with which he treated everyone. His claim that he issued the pardon to get a terrible political obstruction out of the way and to restore the country to political viability has assumed credibility over time. That move, which did cost Ford the election, was consistent with Ford's eminent sense of decency and political intelligence.

We live in a time when feudalism has resurged throughout the world, as is evident in in Islamic countries. But it is also apparent in American popular culture. We, too, look to celebrate royalty, survivors, power-figures, connivers. The obsession with celebrities, with power figures, with cult leaders, with chicane politicians is a betrayal of those democratic values of competence, integrity, effectiveness, and decency.

So when eulogists celebrate Gerald Ford's "ordinariness," they are being merely smarmy and foolish. Ordinary means of common occurence, of no exceptional ability, degree, or quality. The fact is that Gerald Ford was never like the majority of us. He practiced his politics with decency, intregrity, and graciousness. He was not pretentious, or ego-driven, or power-mad. He was not ordinary.

It may be nice to think of him as being ordinary, but even though we may profess an esteem for his kind of honesty and decency, few of us make an effort to emulate it. Gerald Ford was extraordinary. We are fortunate he rose to power when he did. Perhaps a knowledge of him can restore some of our regard for decency.

He was extraordinary.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States