Walter Shapiro: The Man Who Ended Our Nixon Nightmare

Walter Shapiro observed the Ford administration from the vantage point of working for the Carter campaign. He found that Ford was often ineffective as President, but also acknowledges that the 1970’s were a difficult time for any American President (including Jimmy Carter), and that Ford was the right person to become President following Watergate:

With three decades of hindsight, however, it is hard to see how Ford could have been a successful president, even without the pardon. Ford, whose Midwestern conservatism was built around balanced budgets and Chamber of Commerce verities, was a transitional figure in the history of the Republican Party, destined to be swept aside by the ideological certainties of the Reagan right. Nothing better symbolized Ford’s fecklessness than his selection of Republican liberal hawk Nelson Rockefeller as his vice president, only to publicly dump Rocky from the 1976 GOP ticket when he was challenged by Reagan. Still, Ford’s most enduring gift to liberals was his appointment of still-serving Justice John Paul Stevens to the Supreme Court in 1975.

In fairness to Ford (and Carter), the 1970s would have been a miserable decade for any occupant of the Oval Office. As president, Ford had to endure the most humiliating defeat in modern American history — the 1975 fall of Saigon, complete with the desperate helicopter evacuation from the American Embassy. The Soviet Union was still seen as a formidable military adversary, not the fast-deteriorating nuclear power of the late 1980s. Inflation was spiraling out of control, and Ford’s WIN buttons (the initials stood for “Whip Inflation Now”) were a poor excuse for a coherent economic policy.

Modesty is not a characteristic of great leaders. It is hard to imagine another future president saying anything analogous to this self-summation when he succeeded Agnew, “I am a Ford, not a Lincoln.” But Ford, for all his limitations, was the right person to step into the presidency in 1974 after the most wrenching constitutional crisis in more than a century. Ford’s blaze of glory may have been fleeting, but its brightness more than counterbalanced its brevity. Not a bad career capstone for a man who in 1973 seemed poised to join the roster of nearly forgotten congressional leaders who never wielded real power.

Be Sociable, Share!

Leave a comment