Compared with Nixon and the Republicans who followed him, Gerald Ford looks like the embodiment of Main Street decency and prudence. Ford’s judgment seems even better when we learn that he told Bob Woodward that the Iraq war was “a big mistake," concluding, "I just don't think we should go hellfire damnation around the globe freeing people, unless it is directly related to our own national security." Ford’s words should give strength to all of us who’ve questioned the war and were attacked as unpatriotic in the process. They reflect well on his common-sense willingness to acknowledge discomforting truths. But because he’d told Woodward to keep the interview private until after his death, they don’t represent courage, but in fact a failure of nerve.
Think of the impact had Ford spoken out, on the record, to question the war in July 2004, when he conducted the interview with Woodward. Or acknowledged that he was “dumbfounded” when Bush initiated his domestic surveillance program. Had Ford publicly questioned the war, it would have opened up room for others to dissent, across political lines, at a time when the administration and its media allies were calling dissenters “allies of terrorism” for speaking up. It would have made possible a real discussion about the cost of our actions and the options available, when media gatekeepers were largely still insisting that the war was justified and saying it was being won. Had Ford voiced his reservations aloud, it might even have shifted the 2004 elections, at least in some of the Senate races that Democrats lost by the smallest of margins after being baited for not falling in line. Ford might well have taken some political heat for raising his reservations, but as a Republican ex-president he’d have been hard to attack, and any challenges would have let him elaborate further on his principles and conclusions.
Instead Ford responded with silence, echoing those whom Hannah Arendt, in her book Eichman in Jerusalem, called “inner immigrants,” good Germans who claimed to have always abhorred Nazi actions but publicly said nothing. I’m not equating Bush’s regime and the Third Reich, but in a time of profound crisis people have a responsibility to speak out. If you have the podium of a former Republican president but bury your deepest apprehensions about the current Republican administration, you’re doing America a disservice. That’s also true for the rest of us, whatever our visibility. The more we know things are wrong and stay silent, the more we allow destructive actions to prevail.
I suspect Ford stayed silent because he didn’t want conflict. From all accounts he was a decent man who believed in compromise politics over slash and burn. So why create a firestorm if he didn’t have to? The same avoidance of controversy may have fed Ford’s decision to pardon Richard Nixon, as Ford talked of wanting to avoid “polarization,” “ugly passions,” and "years of bitter controversy and divisive national debate." Yet Nixon gained and regained office through spearheading an approach of “positive polarization” based on demonizing those who disagreed with him--an approach developed still further by key Republican strategists like Lee Atwater and Karl Rove. Ford’s pardon allowed America to evade seriously grappling with the destructive implications of this approach. It removed a chance to unequivocally reject the premise that, as Nixon said in May 1977, "When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal." The pardon created precedent and encouragement for further abuses, like Bush Senior pardoning his own defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, 12 days before a scheduled perjury trial in which Weinberger was likely to implicate Bush in Iran-Contra. Or the illegal surveillance of ordinary citizens undertaken by both the Reagan administration and the current Bush regime. By pardoning Nixon, Ford removed the chance for our nation to learn from the most profoundly destructive actions of the Nixon administration, and avoid even skating close to their edge in the future.
Dealing with such fundamental threats to our democracy isn’t pleasant. Sometimes the public conversations and disagreements are discomforting. Our country would be stronger, I believe, if we’d come to grips with the lessons of Nixon, Iran-Contra, Jeb Bush’s Florida disenfranchisements, and the Swift Boat lies of 2004. I believe Gerald Ford was an honorable man and that he’d have rejected taking power through such dubious methods. But we’re still paying for his failure to let the full ugly truths about Nixon be publicly displayed, just as we’re still paying for the failure of so many to speak out with their better judgment and question this administration on Iraq, both before and after the war started. In both cases Ford could have helped--and didn’t.
Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of "The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear," winner of the 2005 Nautilus Award for the best book on social change, and "Soul of a Citizen." See www.paulloeb.org.
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