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The Underappreciated President

Gerald R. Ford, 1913-2006.

1:00 PM, Dec 27, 2006 • By FRED BARNES
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GERALD FORD WAS an underappreciated president. His greatest feat, leading America out of the traumas of Watergate and Vietnam, has routinely been viewed as an important but hardly towering achievement. But it was no small accomplishment. It was not something that any politician who stepped into the presidency, unelected, in August 1974 could have pulled off. It took a strong personality and guts.

Ford was a genial, likeable man, not entirely guileless but still an antidote to Richard Nixon, whom he replaced as president. Ford saw the best in people and assumed that even his political adversaries--he insisted he had no enemies--usually had good intentions. Nixon saw his opponents as sinister. Nixon was paranoid. Ford wasn't.

His appealing personality--his openness, his unperturbed reaction to critics, his cheerfulness and warmth--was a necessary factor in suturing the wounds left by the bitter political battles over Watergate and Vietnam. But imposing his personality on the nation wasn't sufficient for the task. That's where Ford's guts came in.

The fallout from the pardon, which Ford issued a month into his presidency, was predictable. His approval rating was instantly cut in half--from the 70s to the 30s. His election to a full term in 1976 became problematic at best, impossible at worst. And, as expected, he lost to Jimmy Carter narrowly in the 1976 race.

Ford knew the political downside of the pardon. But he went ahead anyway, and it had an extraordinarily benign effect in two ways. The pardon spared the nation the trauma of bringing a former president to trial, a polarizing drama that would have lasted for years. And it allowed Ford to govern without the distraction of a Nixon prosecution. Absent the pardon, Ford would have been a crippled caretaker in the White House.

By the time he became president, Ford was fast becoming a politician of the past. He was representative of an earlier era--the post-World War II years--and a fading brand of non-ideological Republicanism. He was a moderate who got along famously with Democrats, especially the crusty conservatives from the South and West. He felt strongly, as others did in that era, that politics should stop at the water's edge. In other words, he believed the foreign policy pursued by presidents, whether Republican or Democrat, should have bipartisan support.

But bipartisanship in foreign affairs had died in Vietnam. And Ford had to preside in 1975 over the fall of South Vietnam to the army of communist North Vietnam. This occurred after Congress, with its lopsided Democratic majorities, cut off funds to the South Vietnamese over Ford's fervent objections. As best he could, he sought to put the defeat in Vietnam behind him and prevent it from being a national obsession.

Ford was more or less a small government conservative. His favorite saying in speeches was: "A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have." In his 29 months as president, Ford vetoed 66 bills, mostly on the grounds they cost too much.

Though he defeated Ronald Reagan for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination, Ford did not embody the party's future. Reagan did. Ford, with Henry Kissinger as his Secretary of State, championed détente with the Soviet Union and its bulging empire. Reagan rejected co-existence and pursued victory in the Cold War as his goal, and he achieved it.

It was two decades before Ford's success as president began to be appreciated. When presidential scholar Fred Greenstein of Princeton developed a half-dozen non-partisan, non-ideological measures for judging modern presidents, he found that Ford scored surprisingly well. Greenstein labeled Ford "underappreciated."

Ford's greatest strength, Greenstein wrote in his book The Presidential Difference, was his "emotional intelligence." This is the quality of emotional soundness that allows a president to avoid distractions, not be intimidated by his high office and its obligations, and to take criticism and even policy defeats with equanimity.

Greenstein wrote: "Ford's own remark about himself upon assuming the vice presidency in December 1973 was that he was 'a Ford, not a Lincoln.' In the second half of the 1970s, it was more to the point for the nation that he was not an emotionally roiled Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon."

As a young reporter, I covered Ford as vice president and then as president. And, like a handful of other reporters, I got to know him quite well. Ford was the last president who actually liked reporters. His fondness grew out of his experience with the press in the friendly atmosphere of Capitol Hill, and he refused to let the harsher media environment at the White House alter his dealings with the press. Best of all, he didn't let what reporters wrote or broadcast faze him in the least.

Every year since he left the White House in 1977, Ford held a dinner in Washington in which he gathered with officials from his administration. Not only were reporters who covered him invited, they showed up as well. My wife and I always did.

The last time I talked to Ford was several years ago. He called me after reading a piece I'd written for the Wall Street Journal, a piece that mentioned Hillary Clinton. Into his 90s, Ford kept up with politics and he had an insight about her that he wanted to pass on. I was flattered he called.

Ford had spent time with Hillary Clinton in the mid-1990s when she and President Clinton visited him at his vacation home in Vail, Colorado. He found her a bit scary but also very formidable. He was more impressed with her than with her husband, or at least I got that impression. She was someone to watch, he said, a woman with a political future. And of course he was quite right.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.