Gerald Ford, who died last week at age 93, lived longer than any other president and survived after leaving office longer than any other president but Herbert Hoover. So we’ve had time to reflect on where he and his presidency stand in history. As commentators have been reminding us, Ford healed the wounds of Watergate and provided steady leadership in difficult times. But there is more to be said.
Ford came to office when the postwar consensus on foreign and economic policy was in ruins. The nation seemed on a downward trajectory at home and abroad. By dint of hard work and with the help of top-flight appointees, he helped to steer us toward a different course.
This, despite the fact that he was very much part of the postwar consensus himself. He was elected to Congress in 1948, defeating an isolationist Republican incumbent. This was a victory for the bipartisan Cold War policies of President Harry Truman and Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, who, like Ford, was from Grand Rapids, Mich.
In the House, Ford served on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee and specialized in defense and foreign policy, mostly supporting the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations at a time when politics tended to stop at the water’s edge. On domestic policy, Ford took a standard Republican line, favoring less spending than Democrats but declining to challenge New Deal programs. He supported some limits on labor unions, but basically accepted the postwar consensus that big decisions should be hammered out by big government, big business and big labor.
In 1973, Ford was thinking about retiring from Congress: He might have gone on to play golf in Rancho Mirage, Calif., and ski in Vail, Colo., entirely out of the public eye. History had other ideas. When Vice President Spiro Agnew was pushed to resign, Richard Nixon needed to appoint a loyalist who could be confirmed by a Democratic Congress: Ford filled the bill.
When Nixon was forced to resign, Ford was suddenly president. The postwar consensus was gone. Since 1968, there had been fierce debate about Vietnam. Most Democrats wanted to slash defense spending, while conservatives grumbled about Nixon’s detente with the Soviet Union and opening to China. Nixon’s Keynesian economic policies, and the oil shock of 1973, produced a sharp recession and high inflation — stagflation. Experts told Americans that the days of low-inflation growth were over and that America was in retreat in the world. The trajectory would be ever downward.
Ford did not succeed in turning that around instantly. But he put into place policies that in time directed those trajectories upward. His negotiations with the Soviet Union and our European allies produced the Helsinki Accords, which ratified the status quo in Eastern Europe but also contained human-rights provisions that in the 1980s helped to delegitimize the Soviet empire.
Ford was forced to accept the communist victory in Vietnam (because Congress would not fund aid promised to our allies), but was able to respond vigorously to the attack on the Mayaguez. At home, he moved toward policies to tamp down inflation and to start the deregulation of transportation and communications, which vastly increased the productivity and resilience of the American economy.
Politically, Ford was written off as a failure. He nearly lost the 1976 Republican nomination to Ronald Reagan, and he lost the general election to Jimmy Carter. The Reagan challenge — and Ford’s own dumping of Vice President Nelson Rockefeller — showed that the Republican Party was shifting to the right, away from the postwar consensus. But Ford’s rally in the general election, from 25 points behind in the polls to only a 50 percent to 48 percent defeat, showed that the Republican Party had greater residual strength in the wake of the collapse of the postwar consensus than most people thought.
Ford was ridiculed as a bumbler, though he was a gifted athlete, and was dismissed as a lightweight, though he entered the White House with a considerable command of foreign and domestic policy. He healed the nation and, more importantly, proved that it was possible to get America off its downward trajectory and heading upward again, as it did in the 1980s. Something to remember in these pessimistic times.