I was awoken late last night to hear that former President Gerald Ford had passed away. At 93 years old, he was the oldest living ex-President in the whole history of our republic.
Thus awake, I watched a bit of the first television coverage which included a sound bite from Alexander Haig reminding us that he has served seven presidents, including Gerald Ford. He had the good sense, however, to not speak totally of himself, but to emphasize Gerald Ford’s loyalty to America and to the people in and out of Congress who made up official Washington at that time. I had the opportunity to meet Ford on a few occasions and he was always engaging and candid, never distant or distracted, although he must have been both quite often during the time of his unprecedented administration. The fact was that Ford was never arrogant and was always open to receive suggestions from many men and women both of the Nixon Administration and those of his own choosing.
I was awakened again at 6 a.m. by a call from an obviously novice producer for NPR’s “Morning Edition.” He wanted to talk to Cap Weinberger on the air in order to get his reaction to Ford’s death. Understandably, I was not so polite to him, telling him that as a national current events producer he should know better since my father has been deceased now for nine months and that event was not hidden from the world.
But both phone calls started a thought process that I think is relevant to our national political arena now. First, of course, we are a nation of people that has learned to grow old and we are doing so at a very rapid rate. We live longer and this fact is supported via our former chief executives as it is with almost everyone else. Gerald Ford surpassed former President Ronald Reagan for the “oldest” honors by just one month, but both of these men were late 20th century presidents, reflecting accurately a culture that has educated itself enough to add years to our so-called “normal” lifespan.
We are also a nation of news and entertainment and often one cannot tell the difference. It seems that every electronic and print news source rushes to get the same news, but to get it first. In the process, they quite often do not check their facts very well. While I was personally annoyed at the producer who called me so early to talk to a man long since gone, I thought of perhaps a larger omission by the press:
Over and over again, we hear of the disgraced Nixon Administration, and of how lucky the nation was to have Ford in the White House as Nixon’s replacement. What does not come across quite as clearly, however, is that Ford was Nixon’s exclusive choice to replace him when he realized that he would have to resign or be impeached by Congress.
Did Nixon really have the right and the authority to name, on his own, a replacement for Vice President Spiro Agnew, who resigned himself because of scandal? Maybe and maybe not; however, he managed, nearing the height of his own troubles, to do so without the Congress getting up in arms about it or the American public for that matter. He also managed to have Gerald Ford be the designated president with no large outcry from the nation. Yet, our Constitution is very clear that these offices are to be selected by the people first and then by the direction of the various state legislatures, via the Electoral College. Yes, “incapacitated” and “cannot serve” are reasons for the vice president to take over from the president, but first becoming vice president generally requires approval of the people. Additionally, Nixon’s authority to be president or make any executive decisions was being daily challenged in the summer of 1974.
What happened? Fundamentally, the nation was so caught up in Watergate that Nixon had the room to maneuver an acceptable vice presidential replacement, while basically making up his own rules as to how that should be done. The nation bought it hook line and sinker and Gerald Ford became our 38th president: the only one who was never elected.
“My fellow Americans,” Ford said just moments after Nixon had left town, “our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works. Our great republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule.”
In truth, though, it was Richard Nixon who ruled and even as his power was stripped away he managed to get another Republican and a sensible one at that to take over the helm without going through any of the Constitution’s prescribed procedures for electing a president. Maybe he saw what awaited him in the after-math of the Agnew resignation and yet still before his own.
Gerald Ford would pardon Nixon just a month after he took office and that caused a huge outcry which no doubt contributed to Ford’s defeat at the polls just two years later. But it was a sensible move, and not one that was ever brokered ahead of time. While many of course wanted Nixon to answer and pay for his “crimes,” Ford knew it would be bad for the country and terrible for the office of the president, which cannot be allowed to be weakened or corrupted by any one man. Nixon, he knew would suffer enough on his own with personal reflections of his actions in office, while the presidency itself did not need to be further weakened by the judicial or legislative branches. Just as the founding fathers envisioned checks and balances as the over-riding necessity of a free country, Gerald Ford had the common sense and innate wisdom to know that the office he served was more important than any individual. What is also less commonly seen is, at the end, so did Richard Nixon.