In the obituaries, they tend to skip lightly over his congressional career, but at one time, Gerald Ford was the choice of the Young Turks of the House Republicans who sought a more open and modern leadership. As Republican House Conference Chairman, he helped to corral Republican support to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
It took real political courage to pardon Richard Nixon one month after taking office as president. At the time there was tremendous outrage and it surely didn't help the Republicans in those midterm elections. And, as his campaign manager in 1976 said, outrage over the pardon most certainly accounted for Ford's loss to Carter.
All those crediting Ford today for healing and bringing the nation together after Nixon's resignation are discounting the tremendous, burning anger there was in the country after the pardon. Democrats in Congress even held hearings to see if there had been some sort of a quid pro quo between Ford and Nixon. The goodwill that Ford had earned with his graceful ascension after Nixon almost immediately dissipated. Fortunately for Mr. Ford, he lived long enought to see the verdict of history come around to think that he probably made the right decision to spare the country months of seeing Nixon on trial. Perhaps such a trial would have been cathartic, but we were in an economic crisis and still deep in the Cold War. We didn't have 24-hour cable news back then, but can you imagine what the saturation coverage would have been of a Nixon trial? The country needed to stop obsessing over Watergate and the pardon helped facilitate that change. Ford made a difficult decision without worrying about the polls or the effect on his political career. After the pardon, he certainly wasn't regarded in the media as a unifier, but he demonstrated true character and, in time, that pardon and his conduct as president did help the country to move on.
The obituaries extolling Ford's ability to unify the country overlook the atmosphere at the time, especially the bitterness after the Nixon pardon. It was not a time of unity in Washington as the Congress overrode 12 of Ford's vetoes. Congress refused to send aid to South Vietnam as North Vietnam violated the Peace Accords and invaded the South forcing the U.S. to evacuate and finally abandon the South. Untold thousands in South Vietnam and Cambodia died as a result.
It wasn't realized at the times, but the Helsinki Accords actually were a major step in helping dissidents in the Soviet Union to publicize human rights violations in the Soviet Union. Natan Sharansky in The Case for Democracy writes about how the Helsinki agreements "Turned out to be one of the most fateful decisions of the Cold War." John Lewis Gaddis in his superb book, The Cold War, said,
the pact’s commitment to “human rights and fundamental freedoms” became a trap for the Soviet Union, which was facing ever-bolder condemnations by dissidents.The Helsinki Accords were derided by both conservatives and liberals at the time. COnservatives criticized its de facto recognition of the Soviet Union's domination of Eastern Europe while liberals said that the provisions on human rights were unenforceable and meaningless. Both groups turned out to be wrong. Again, Ford had the benefit of living to see history recognize his contributions to ending the Cold War.
“Thousands of people who lacked the prominence of Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov began to stand with them in holding the U.S.S.R. and its satellites accountable for human rights,” Mr. Gaddis wrote. The Helsinki process, he added, became “the basis for legitimizing opposition to Soviet rule.”
I am sorry to say that I did not vote for Ford in 1976. I was one of those voters whom Ford lost when he had that terrible gaffe in the debate with Carter denying Soviet domination of Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe. That was my first time voting and I've regretted that vote ever since. It just goes to show that a one-time mistake in a debate should perhaps not be the determining factor in choosing whom to vote for.
Mr. Ford lived to a ripe old age and had the benefit of seeing his role in history reassessed and appreciated. As with another president who died on December 26, Harry Truman, historians have come to revise contemporary impressions of his presidency, proving once more that we need time to evaluate historical events. May memories of his life be comfort for his family and friends now.
UPDATE: Ford's passing has restarted a debate on whether or not he was right to pardon President Nixon. Mark Tapscott has links to several posts on each side of this debate. Personally, I feel that whatever value there was in proving that no man was above the law was achieved when he resigned. The pardon helped the country to start putting the Nixon era behind us and, amid the economic and foreign policy problems we were facing in the mid-1970s, that had more value than the transitory enjoyment of the sight of Nixon in the dock.