Monday, May 20, 2013

"Gerald R. Ford" by Douglas Brinkley: A Review

"The true public courage exhibited that day didn't emanate from Nixon fleeing Washington but from Ford, who was anxious to heal a deeply divided nation. He was being asked to assume the presidency in a White House sinking in the quicksands of Vietnam and Watergate. Ford said "yes" not because he wanted power but because it was his duty. (64)


For some time now, I have been slowly reading biographies of the Presidents of the United States in an effort to read at least one such book regarding each and every former President. The next President on the list was Gerald R. Ford, the "accidental President." In his book Gerald R. Ford (part of the The American Presidents Series), Douglas Brinkley writes a fascinating story emphasizing Ford's rise to the Presidency and his brief time in the White House.

Ford is the only President who was never elected for such an office. In fact, he wasn't even President Richard Nixon's first vice-president. As the Watergate controversy was heating up, Nixon's VP stepped down in light of tax evasion and other criminal probes. That opened the door to Ford, who at the time was the House's Minority Leader who's ultimate goal was to be the Speaker of the House, a same choice and as Brinkley argues, the right choice. Ford was not VP for long and his role in this position seemed to have been Nixon's bulldog and defender. A role that Ford had not fulfilled before and something he was not known for.

We all know what happened. Nixon, who had won one of the most lopsided election in history just a few years before, stepped down and Ford became the next President of the United States. I like how Brinkley describes the day before Nixon announced his resignation.

On Thursday, Ford was summoned to the Oval Office to meet with President Nixon at 11 a.m. "the President's face was ashen, but his voice was controlled and measured," wrote Jerald F. terHorst. "The two men shook hands and Nixon motioned Ford to the chair beside him. There was an awkward moment. Then Nixon broke the silence; 'I know you'll do well,' he said. Ford nodded silently. The Presidency had passed from one man to the other."

After agreeing that Secretary o State Henry Kissinger should remain in his post, the pair spent the next hour chatting nonchalantly about the quarter century they had shared in politics and as friends. Ford later revealed that he felt only sadness at his old pal's plight that morning, and no joy for himself. As he had made no effort to do so, he claimed, becoming president of the United States hardly seemed a triumph. that evening, August 8, 1974, in a televised address to the nation, Richard Nixon announced that he would resign its highest office the next morning. Gerald Ford was about to learn what Thomas Jefferson meant when he wrote, 'The second office of the government is honorable and easy, the first is but a splendid misery."

On Friday morning, August 9, the president's formal resignation was submitted to the secretary of state as Nixon flew off to his exile in San Clemente, California. At three minutes after noon, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger swore in Gerald R. Ford as the thirty-eighth president of the United States. With a notable lack of ceremony n the White House East Room, Ford delivered a short but pitch-perfect inaugural address, telling his scandal-weary nation, in part: "I assume the presidency under extraordinary circumstances never before experienced by Americans. . . . I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your president by your ballots and so I ask you to confirm me as your president in your prayers. . . . I have sought this enormous responsibility, but I will not shirk it. I believe that truth is the glue that holds government together, not only our government but civilization itself. That bond, through strained, is unbroken at home and abroad. In all my public and private acts as your president, I expect to follow my instincts o openness and candor with full confidence that honesty is the best policy in the end.

My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.
"

But the nightmare wasn't really over. The one decision that Ford made that remains his legacy was his choice to pardon Nixon. Brinkley rightly highlights this and leaves the reader with how history is now viewing that decision. Needless to say, it was an unpopular decision. Ford's approval ratings were high before and low afterward. Most thought Nixon had bribed or made some deal with Ford before leaving office and Ford agreed. But Ford remained his reasons for pardoning the former President was simply practical. Ford couldn't escape Watergate and so in order to move the country forward, he put it behind him by pardoning him.

But that is the interesting thing. To Ford, it went well beyond politics. Brinkley's conclusion into how even Ford's most vocal opponents of the pardon eventually came around. This is most clearly seen in the late Senator Edward Kennedy. But Brinkley shows that this decision was bigger than moving the country forward. Ford argued later in life that according to a previous Supreme Court case, a man who accepts the pardon is confessing his guilt. In Ford's mind, when Nixon accepted the pardon, he was confessing before the country his involvement and criminal guilt in Watergate. Case closed. Let's move on.

This is a great book. Brinkley offers a full account of the life and work of President Ford. Though he was not in office long, most will look back and agree that he was the right man at the right time when the nation needed him the most.


Biographies on the Presidents:
President Barack Obama - "The Audacity of Hope" by Barack Obama: A Review
President George W. Bush - "Decision Points" by George W. Bush
President Bill Clinton - "The Natural" by Joe Klein: A Reiew
President Ronald Reagan - "Ronald Reagan" by Dinesh D'Souza
President Richard Nixon - "Breach of Faith"
President Abraham Lincoln - "Abraham Lincoln: A Man of Faith and Courage"


PBS Documentaries on the Presidents:
Clinton: An American Experience
HW Bush: An American Experience   
Jimmy Carter: An American Experience
Richard Nixon: An American Experience
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