These days a hefty slab of the teenagers alive in America will supposedly live to be 100 (presumably working till they drop to pay for the rest, jobless and dying from diabetes). Given the reproductive shadow hanging over America–poor semen quality, cryptorchidism, impaired fecundity–they won’t have that many children, although the sparse litters will contain people likely to live to be 125, handing down horrible recipes for turkey giblet gravy to the next generation. In short, there’ll be a lot of centenarians about, and the name Gerald Ford will mean absolutely nothing to any of them. You had to have been born in 1960 to have been 14 in 1974, hence even vaguely conscious of the genial interregnum between Nixon and Carter, over which Ford presided.
Ah, the 1970s! More precisely, the mid-1970s, an interval–from Nixon’s resignation on August 9, 1974, to January 23, 1977, when Jimmy Carter installed Zbigniew Brzezinski as his National Security Adviser–when people thought America might head down a different path.
A Maryland-based former weapons designer with a nose for conspiracy suggested to me the day after New Year’s that Karl Rove masterminded the hoopla over Ford’s passing–the postal holiday, the solemn elegies–all as a way of associating the beleaguered presidency of G.W. Bush with the supposedly popular Ford. If so, chalk it up as another clunker from Karl, whose magic touch has brought his employer’s popularity ratings close to the lowest in the history of the Republic.
Early in the proceedings, so the wire services reported, only twenty people were mustered at Capitol Hill to view Ford’s casket in the Rotunda. George Bush excused himself, staying home in Crawford, Texas, presumably watching reruns of Saddam’s execution. Almost 500 of the 535 members of Congress had prior commitments. They had to scramble to find enough pallbearers after Donald Rumsfeld missed his plane. Even Justice John Paul Stevens, whom Ford installed on the Supreme Court and who has long been its most liberal member, did not feel impelled to show up, though he and Bush did attend the funeral at the National Cathedral on Tuesday.
Few speak well of Ford. The neocons think he was weak. The libertarians regard him as a statist. The liberals and the left can’t get over his pardon of Nixon. Enthusiasts for the man from Grand Rapids seem pretty much confined to Dick Cheney and me.
On the grounds that he didn’t have the time and maybe not even the inclination to do too much harm, I’ve always regarded Ford as America’s greatest twentieth-century President, with the possible exception of Warren Harding, a very fine man. Ford reached the White House without vote fraud. He presided over a Keynesian binge. On his benign watch the pork barrel did its noble duty. Nonmilitary appropriations rose by 7.2 percent, in contrast to Nixon’s 4.3, Carter’s 2.2, Reagan’s 1.3. On his watch, with funding cut off by Congress, the United States quit Vietnam. The arts flourished.
Ford belonged to the age of détente. The neoliberal age and the Second Cold War really began with Carter. Had Ford beaten back Carter’s challenge in 1976, the neocon crusades of the mid- to late 1970s would have been blunted by the mere fact of a Republican occupying the White House. Reagan, most likely, would have returned permanently to his slumbers in California after his abortive challenge to Ford for the nomination in Kansas in 1976.