December 28th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

RIP or Good Riddance? Jerry Ford

I decided not to write about this when I heard about it Tuesday. I'm just too conflicted on the subject. But given another day to reflect, I'm going to write about my internal conflict whenever I hear the name of the recently deceased former President of the US, Gerald Ford. And it stems from this. I can find no shortage of truly reprehensible things that the man did. I feel no particular interest in having anything nice to say about the last surviving member, and to his death defender, of the Warren Commission. I feel that his moral and intellectual dishonesty about the JFK assassination stemmed from the same sick, sad source as the act that bought him his presidency, the pardon of Richard Nixon. (I am aware that he stated under oath that there was no quid pro quo. Bullcrap. Too many witnesses say otherwise, and I feel no reason to think that a member of the Warren Commission would feel any hesitation about engaging in further perjury.) The motive for both acts was a deep and abiding belief that the American people do not know the truth, and should not know the truth, that it is seldom if ever in their best interest to hear what's really true instead of what the government thinks will calm them down and soothe them. Nor do I think that it's a coincidence that the author of that legacy of lies was the man who gave George H.W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney their first real big-time government jobs, nor do I have any doubt that those awful men learned their habit of deceit and their contempt for the voters at Ford's knee.

And yet he may actually have been the best President of my lifetime so far.

The many of you who are much younger than I am can not possibly remember what the world was like in 1974. Nor will your textbooks have told you. Nor can, truly, anything that you have read have conveyed to you just what it was like. It is something that we have spent a lot of years being in national denial about. It is something that those of us who lived through it don't like to think about. It is something that not a few people think that you should never hear, and would censure me for harshly for telling you this even though they would quietly admit that it's true. And it is this: the Presidency that Gerald Ford bought with his act of personal dishonor in 1974 was of a country that was, in all probability, not much longer for this world. We were staring into the abyss. Vast portions of our cities had fallen into open anarchy, and the rest were rocked by periodic riots. The civil rights movement had been met with violent backlash including riots and assassination, and that right-wing racist counter-revolution had been answered with even greater and more wide-spread riots. In 1969 John Brunner wrote a science fiction novel in which our inner cities had defacto seceded from the Union, were armed camps into which no representative of the white government dared step, too heavily armed and defended for even the US Army to capture them. We read this now and think that it's wild invention, but when Gerald Ford took office 5 years later, there was no room for any thoughtful person to doubt that all it would take was one or two more sparks onto the tinderbox that was 1970s race relations in America to set the whole country on a very rapid course to a genocidal civil war that would have left most of our major cities burned to the ground.

Nor were there a shortage of other sparks flying around, seeking more opportunities to incite to riot. His Republican predecessor had finished the task of finally losing the war that Democratic President Lyndon Johnson had disgraced America with. Losing that war, and more importantly losing it in the way that we did, very nearly destroyed us as a country all by itself. It left our military a shattered, addled, and drug-addicted shell, a paper tiger at best, which left us as a nation helpless and powerless before the economic sanctions imposed on us by Egypt and Saudi Arabia over our support of Israel. That Vietnam War and our defeat there left us too impoverished from having to pay for that disastrous and disastrously expensive war to be able to afford to retool our industries, industries that had been taken by surprise by German and Japanese competition, from countries whose factories were now newer than ours, with more modern process controls and management philosophies, and just as importantly countries outside the OPEC oil embargo. The hyper-inflation of the 1970s was, by the end of Ford's term (and well into his successor's) accelerating so fast that we were facing the serious prospect of national economic collapse. And into that mess came the Watergate impeachment hearings, which presented more than enough evidence to convict the then-sitting (and still, in much of the country, popular) President of the US, President Nixon, of several serious felonies.

And yet what happened to the Soviet Union in 1989 did not happen to us in 1975. And that is almost entirely, I believe, to Gerald Ford's credit. Nor do I believe, truly, that anybody else could have done it. Because, alone of anybody who might have accepted Nixon's Faustian bargain and ascended to the Oval Office, perhaps only Gerald Ford had the wisdom and the humility to do what needed to be done, which was this: as near to nothing as possible. Alone of his party, perhaps alone in American politics of the 1970s, Gerald Ford understood that what the American people needed most was time to recover. What they needed was for the news from Washington to be no news. To stand there when everybody from out of work automakers to starving children to crippled Vietnam vets to the New York Times to senators from his own party were screaming at the top of their lungs for him to "Do something!," to do nothing. To not even respond to two assassination attempts. When he was relentlessly mocked for clumsiness despite being a star athlete, an All-American college football player, he said nothing in his own defense, let alone go on any counter-attack against his lying critics. Whether he was being shot at by deranged disciples of Charlie Manson or mocked by Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live, he just stood their and calmly and quietly took it.

At one of those times in American history when any more-activist President could only have thrown gasoline onto the raging fires of chaos, anarchy, and division that were threatening to splinter the country, only someone who truly understood that he was just an unelected caretaker President, a transitional figure of no importance, could have had the unique and quiet wisdom to be King Log, not King Stork. He was a true leader. He did only what needed to be done, if even that. He vetoed more bills, including from his own party, in two years than most presidents do in two whole terms. By quietly sitting there and refusing to scream back at all of the screaming people all over America, he was our exemplar. The same man who pardoned Richard Nixon specifically so that we would never know the depths of his psychosis at the end, the horrors of his crimes, was the very same man who first pardoned Vietnam war deserters and draft dodgers. And in both cases, despite paying a heavy price for it personally and politically, he refused to argue about either decision other that to say that until we stopped screaming at each other about Watergate and Vietnam, we were never going to heal, and saying that thing not much more than once and quietly at that, and then refusing to argue, he did what no other politician in this country or any other country has ever done so well: he healed us. He saved the country. That perjurious miserable lying opportunistic neocon-empowering scumbag saved my beloved country.

I hated him with the fiery passion of a thousand exploding suns. And I admired and loved him as the truest savior of our nation since Franklin Roosevelt, at the same time. And I really don't know how I feel about the fact that he's dead now and we're all talking about him again.