DON'T FEEL SORRY FOR GERALD FORD. He was a president who was never elected, lost his bid for a full 4-year term, and served during the rough post-Watergate years (1974 - 1977), a low point for the presidency. But the week before last, Ford and his former aides were in a happy mood as they celebrated the 30th anniversary of Ford's inauguration as president. And they had every reason to be. Ford, still genial and upbeat at 91, delivered a speech generous to friend and foe alike. More important, historical revisionism is beginning to give his presidency higher marks.
Fred Greenstein, the presidential scholar and professor emeritus at Princeton, contrasts the Ford presidency with Bill Clinton's. Ford stumbled at first, then got his act together. Clinton started strongly, stumbled, but never got his administration back on track. In his influential book on evaluating presidents, The Presidential Difference, Greenstein says Ford is "underappreciated."
Indeed, he is--but not by Greenstein and a growing number of admirers, both among politicians and scholars. Ford was the first president who had not been elected either vice president or president. He was appointed vice president after Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973 and became president when Richard Nixon left office involuntarily in 1974. Ford offered "an invigorating contrast to the emotionally convoluted [Lyndon] Johnson and Nixon," says Greenstein.
But the Ford presidency amounted to more than a personality transplant at the White House. His "leadership style and his solid personal qualities were well suited for governing without an electoral mandate," Greenstein writes. He was not intimidated by his high office, nor by Congress or foreign leaders or the press. "Presidents and presidential advisers who dismiss the Ford experience will miss out on a rich set of precedents about how to manage the president," according to Greenstein.
In a survey of history, politics, and law professors in 2000, Ford was ranked 28th among presidents. This put him slightly behind Clinton but ahead of Jimmy Carter and Nixon. But law professors put him at 21st and political scientists rated him 26th. Many would put Ford a bit higher, if only because he was so successful in applying a healing touch to a dejected nation after Watergate and the war in Vietnam.
Ford managed despite the odds. In a new book entitled Presidential Leadership, columnist Thomas Bray of the Detroit News says, "Few presidents have ever come into office holding a weaker hand than Gerald R. Ford." And in many areas--politics, foreign policy, opinion polls--Ford struggled. But after wisely abandoning the idea of a tax hike, he helped jumpstart a moribund economy. "Ford did show the courage of his convictions on spending, issuing a record 66 vetoes in 18 months, 54 of which were upheld," writes Bray. "The economy began to surge."
At the recent celebration in Statuary Hall of the Capitol, Ford was in a cheerful mood. He gave distinguished public service awards to two of his top aides who are now major figures in the Bush administration: Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Cheney, who was Ford's White House chief of staff, praised Ford's personal traits. He was "careful, thorough, and unswayed by the pressures of the hour. And for all his achievements, there's no pretense or guile in him. He is a man of loyalty. He gives it and he receives it." The hall was filled with several hundred ex-Ford aides, loyal all.
Rumsfeld reminded the audience how down to earth Ford is, a man without a sense of irony. About his golf game, Ford once said, "I know I'm getting better because I'm hitting fewer spectators." Rumsfeld said, "People thought he was kidding." He wasn't.
Finally, Ford delivered a speech he promised would be "short, to the point, and from the heart." It was. He made no great claims for his presidency. "History will judge our success," he said. "No one can doubt our commitment." No one has. He ended on this optimistic note: "In America, the best has ever been and is always to be. God bless America." Ford was the right man for the moment, which doesn't make him a great president but it does mean that in his special way he was an awfully good one.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.
Correction appended, 8/23/04: The article originally stated that Gerald Ford replaced Nelson Rockefeller as Richard Nixon's vice president in 1973. He replaced Spiro Agnew.