Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The "Accidental President" passes away

Gerald Ford will be remembered for a lot of things. He was the only President of the United States to hold office without being elected either as President or Vice-President (insert snide remark about the 2000 election here). He was the president who inherited a White House rocked by the Watergate Scandal and the abrupt resignation of Richard Nixon. He was the president who later pardoned Nixon, a controversial decision which is widely believed to have cost him the 1976 election. He was president during the fall of South Vietnam, which was a painful ending to a painful chapter in US history.

Ford, however, will never be remembered as a president who was effective at tackling the issues facing the country at the time; in fact, there have historically been many criticisms regarding his short tenure in the White House: that he was ineffective, that he was an obstructionist (he vetoed a ponderous 66 bills during his two-and-a-half years in office), that he was merely a "caretaker" president, somebody who stepped in after the Nixon administration collapsed whose sole job was to keep the Oval Office seat warm until the next election.

And it's true: Gerald Ford will never be remembered as an "effective" or a "proactive" president in that his administration never successfully resolved the nation's problems or substantially succeeded in establishing its own goals and agendas. But I think the role of Gerald Ford's presidency in American history is more important for what it represented - a necessary period of healing and calm after the trauma of Watergate and the seething disappointment of Vietnam - than what it actually accomplished.

Obviously, I don't have much of a memory of Gerald Ford's presidency; I would have been less than a year old when Ford took office and would have been three and a half years old when he left office. But as a junior in high school, I was required to extensively research Gerald Ford's life and presidency for a major project in my US history class. As I researched his presidency, I developed a sense of respect for him, because I discovered just how awkward and difficult a situation Ford - a man who never had aspirations of becoming President - was placed in once he assumed the role of Chief Executive. The social, economic and political situation of the early seventies was such that I really don't think that anybody could have been a "good" or "effective" President at that time.

The economic circumstances that the United States found itself in when Ford took office was particularly troublesome. By the early 1970s, the industrial and technological superiority that the United States enjoyed after World War II had been eroded. The economies of other nations, notably in Europe and Japan, had finally caught up to the United States and other countries were producing and exporting their own industrial products. The resulting international competition had an adverse effect on several components of the US economy; notably the steel and automobile industries. This shift in the international economy was occurring at the same time a major shift in the domestic economy was occurring: baby boomers were moving into the job and housing markets en masse, driving up home prices while simultaneously driving down wages. Most importantly, however, was the Oil Shock of 1973, when Arab nations turned off thir petroleum spigots in protest of the United States' support of Israel, which had just won the Yom Kippur War. This caused energy prices to soar, which was particularly damaging for an economy and a way of life that relied on cheap energy. The results of this "perfect storm" of economic factors - the recession, inflation, and high unemployment that plagued Ford throughout his two-year term - were simply too much for Ford's administration to overcome.

Added to that was the political turmoil that affected Ford's presidency: the fallout from the Watergate scandal, his decision to pardon Nixon (which, in retrospect, seems sensible but which at the time was incendiary), his battles with an opposition-controlled Congress, the fact that Saigon fell during his watch (even though US military operations in Vietnam had effectively ended by the time Ford became Vice-President) were all political obstacles and setbacks that Ford faced while in office. He also had to deal with his wife's battle with breast cancer, two assassination attempts, international crises such as the Mayaguez incident, the lingering Cold War, continuing turmoil in the Middle East including the outbreak of Lebanon's civil war in 1976, and even a couple of public stumbles that were relentlessly ridiculed by Chevy Chase on early Saturday Night Live skits.

Needless to say, Gerald Ford didn't have it easy. But he accepted his role, he did what he thought was best for the country, he made decisions (such as the Nixon pardon) which he feltto be best but which would ultimately cost him, and I have a great deal of respect for him because of it. He might not have been an "effective" president, but I contend that his calm, unassuming, honest persona was exactly what the nation needed during his term in office. Gerald R. Ford was a good man and a great American, and I mourn his passing.

One final note: Gerald Ford played for the University of Michigan Wolverines in 1932 and 1933; some AP reports about his death claim that he played for "national championship" teams during these years, which is not entirely accurate because at the time Ford played football there was no mechanism for determining a national championship. The AP, of all organizations, ought to be able to acknowledge this: they began crowning football national champions a few years later, when the first AP college football poll was unveiled in 1936.

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