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Friday, January 05, 2007

Did Gerald Ford Really Heal The Nation?

Watergate meant everything to the press and to Washington. The so-called third-rate burglary certainly threatened the DNC's internal security. The public scandal derailed Republican political power, as enough voters in 1976 would unfairly lump the GOP at large with the key Watergate figures. Many Silent Generation Democrats held a grudge against Nixon for what first thrust him into the national spotlight during his Congressional days - his critical role in the Alger Hiss case; Watergate was their ticket to sweet, savory revenge. A major scandal is any journalist's dream, and one going as far as the White House is like winning the lottery.

But were average Americans was all that traumatized by Watergate? The scandal was seen as something distant, an affair involving political operatives digging dirt on other political operatives. Except for the hearings constantly preempting the soap operas, Watergate didn't seem to make any real difference in everyday lives.

Gerald Ford was wrong. For most of us, Watergate was a long national nuisance.

I emailed the original draft of this post to fellow Boomers and fellow bloggers Beth Elliott and Jay Manifold, and asked for their responses. I also asked this:

I'm curious to know if Gerald Ford did anything good during his term. All I know about are one controversial event - the Nixon pardon - and two really bad moves - the idiotic assumptions behind the Whip Inflation Now campaign (debunked in the inflation chapter in Free to Choose), and the appointment of John Paul Stevens to SCOTUS.

Ladies first:

Well, I suspect you're right. But follow down the years from the Silent Generation Democrats to those for whom the 1968 election was their first or second chance to vote. The year started with Gene McCarthy's bite out of LBJ in New Hampshire ... but did the young Democrats get "Clean Gene" or Bobby Kennedy into the White House? No--not even Hubert Humphrey, seen as a sell-out of his original Happy (Liberal) Warrior self for his loyalty to LBJ and the Vietnam War.

Then Nixon went and cleaned McGovern's clock in the 1972 election. We boomer young adults felt pretty much entitled to a victory for the presidential candidates of our choosing, and hated Nixon for destroying the illusion that we were the real Americans and could change the world. Ergo all the vilification of "Silent Majority" Americans as not only uptight, but clueless ... Compare, e.g., those calling Bush II "our worst president ever" while Dhimmi Carter is still living and kissing up to murderous dictators.

And don't forget our cultural revulsion at the squeaky-clean Nixon kids.

Meanwhile, I don't think people who shared our revulsion (and dismay!) really cared that much about Nixon either way. He wasn't a Ronald Reagan, who evoked either admiration or the same combination of political and cultural antipathy--amplified at least one order of magnitude with each victory (starting, don't forget, with his two terms as Governor of California).

But see the recently reprised theme of the 1968 episode of Tom Hanks' "From the Earth to the Moon": what people wanted was for things to stop being so sucky, for and end to the uproar and division. Ergo Ford's "Our long national nightmare is now over." The nightmare being radical venting, incl. demonstrations, being at full throttle. He brought the Nixon impeachment drama to resolution ... and continued with mediocre economic policies, which cleared the way for Carter's worse policies.

Don't know that I have a clever remark, but I think your thesis is right on.

Jay follows up with this:

Beth covered it, leaving me to answer the secondary inquiry of whether Ford did anything good (I note only that anybody who's read Caro's bio of LBJ wouldn't likely be impressed by any of the Nixon Admin's shenanigans, but see the more biographical works of Charles Colson for some perspective). I've got a couple of answers to the question of Ford's accomplishments, both based on the idea that there's a lot more continuity of policy across Administrations than their partisans care to admit:

  1. Signed the Helsinki Accord. Carter's human-rights policy was largely a follow-on to this.
  2. More fuzzily but also perhaps more importantly -- and yes, this is just my perception -- Ford set the stage for significantly more laissez-faire domestic policies.

I see JFK/LBJ/Nixon as being relatively more interventionist, which Ford began, even if just barely, to turn around. (The heavy lifting got done, like it or not, by Carter: lotsa dereg, a capital-gains tax cut, and the really big decision, which was the appointment of Paul Volcker to the Fed.) But Nixon and Ford were two very different species of Republican.

We'll never know what might have been if the KC convention in '76 had been able to somehow heal the rift between Ford's and Reagan's supporters, over 1/3 of each of whom vowed to vote for Carter if their man didn't get the nomination. I suspect, though, that it would have made less difference than some people like to think.

A final comment, which almost answers the first question ... consider, for a moment, the difference between the '72 and '76 elections: we went from choosing between a crook and an idiot to a race between a couple of the cleanest guys around, in one Presidential election cycle. That generation we loved to hate knew how to turn things around after all.

On the Helsinki Accords, the Wikipedia article has this to say:

According to the Cold War scholar John Lewis Gaddis in his book "The Cold War: A New History" (2005), "[Leonid] Brezhnev had looked forward, [Anatoly] Dobrynin recalls, to the 'publicity he would gain... when the Soviet public learned of the final settlement of the postwar boundaries for which they had sacrificed so much'... '[Instead, the Helsinki Accords] gradually became a manifesto of the dissident and liberal movement'... What this meant was that the people who lived under these systems - at least the more courageous - could claim official permission to say what they thought."

A first step toward ending many long national nightmares in Eastern Europe. Which were ultimately our nightmares as well.

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