When I think about the passing of Gerald Ford several things come to mind: that unforgivable pardon of Nixon, his unfortunate participation on the Warren Commission, even Chevy Chase’s mercilessly funny parodyof Ford on the early days of Saturday Night Live. But his deathrepresents something else to me, something fundamental about thecurrent political landscape.
Ford, despite a brief tenure in office, has had reaching influence. AsJonWeiner pointed out, the leadership of Justice John Paul Stevens and the ascension of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney all lead back to Ford. But also he was one of the last of a dying breed: the moderate Republican.
By today’s standards Ford was a real moderate Republican –maybe evena liberal. In 1976 when Ford ran for re-election he was besieged onboth sides. The left wing never forgave him for pardoning Nixon whilethe right didn’t like his extension of détente policies with regards to Communism. They also didn’t like the presence of a moderate Republican on his ticket, in the form of Nelson Rockefeller.
Ronald Reagan launched one of the most successful insurgent politicalcampaigns in modern history and nearly stole the Republican nominationfrom the sitting president. Reagan ran hard to the right and forcedFord in that direction in order to save his political life. When Fordfinally emerged the winner of the ’76 Republican nomination he knew he had to extend an olive branch to the hardcore conservatives of his party to retain their support in November. His compromise was handing the vice-presidential nomination to the 1976 equivalent of right-wing Republican, Bob Dole.
Not only did this move backfire on former President Ford, by making him seem indecisive, but it also signaled the slow death of the liberal wing of the Republican party. Ford’s nomination of Dole was meant to be a concession but it really ended up ceding the party’s future. Ford lost a close election by 1970’s standards to Democrat Jimmy Carter, but the groundwork for a conservative revolution was definitely solidifying. In 1980, Reagan returned, steamrolled over the competition, and. won the GOP nomination. The GOP never looked back. In retrospect, Ford looks like a model of bipartisanship and decency, but then again all of our leaders grow in stature in the shadow of George W. Bush.