An obituary for Gerald Ford

Dateline: 03 January 2007

Michigan is the eighth largest state and sits at the heart of the tightest swing region. It is the Mid West that chooses presidents. Just as a Republican would find it hard to win without Ohio, a Democrat who cannot carry Michigan would be struggling to find a majority in the Electoral College.

So it is slightly odd that Michigan has produced only one President, and he the only President who was never elected. Even odder, the coincidence that brings your British born columnist to Michigan on the date that the death of the 38th President was announced. I write not only from Michigan but from Ann Arbor, home of the Gerald R Ford School of Public Policy, and the Gerald R Ford Presidential Library.

Ford was 93, the greatest age to which any President has ever lived. Nationally, and internationally, he is known for only two things: never being elected by the Electoral College, even as Vice-President, and his decision to pardon Richard Nixon. The pardon defined, and probably ended, Ford's presidency. His narrow defeat by Carter was undoubtedly influenced by that one act. But how different would things have been if Nixon had been publicly tried? Would Ford's presidency have been stronger for it? Would the US? With the benefit of several decade's hindsight both propositions seem rather doubtful. Ford never had a proper inauguration, yet he coined in his address to the nation the most memorable phrase of any incoming president since Kennedy when he told Americans "our long national nightmare is over".

Here in Michigan, of course, Ford is remembered for many other things. He led the Michigan Wolverines to back to back victories and is rated by the NCAA as the fourteenth most influential student athlete of the Twentieth Century. He represented Michigan's fifth congressional district from 1949 until his appointment as Vice-President in 1974. He was Minority Leader from 1965 until 1974.

Ford's achievements as president were necessarily limited. The Vietnam War ended on his watch, but the processes which ended it were put in place by Richard Nixon. He served two and a half years in the White House, and the Democrats held large majorities in both houses of Congress throughout. He set records for the number of bills vetoed, and for the number of vetoes overridden by Congress.

And yet, his successor, Jimmy Carter, served a full term and with the advantage of his party controlling Congress throughout, and his achievements were no greater than Ford's. The 1970s saw America lose a war for the first time; a massive shock to the energy markets; and high inflation and high unemployment at the same time. Governments across the world were typically defeated after a single term. At such a time what could a President be expected to achieve? Ronald Reagan - who unsuccessfully challenged Ford in 1976 and then defeated Carter in 1980 - changed the pattern of leadership in America.

Yet could Reagan have done what he did if he had directly succeeded Richard Nixon? In 1974 America was not looking for leadership. With good reason, America distrusted its leaders. Without the self-evident decency and integrity of Gerald Ford, America would not have healed so rapidly from the wounds of Vietnam and Watergate. He laid the groundwork for leadership that changed the world. His achievements were far less obvious and dramatic than those of Ronald Reagan, but that does not mean they were not important.

Quentin Langley is editor of an academic at the University of Cardiff and is a columnist with Campaigns & Elections. This article was first published in the Common Sense series for Lake Champlain Weekly.

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