Sunday, November 12, 2006

Mr. President

Congratulations and best wishes to President Gerald R. Ford, who today becomes the longest-lived former American president, surpassing the lifespans of Ronald Reagan, John Adams, and Herbert Hoover. He is now 93 years, three months, and 29 days old.

In an editorial-page tribute, the Columbian newspaper of Clark County, Washington, states that the American people have fond memories of Ford, who took office during the dark days of Watergate, adding

when it comes to presidents who had just the right temperament, personality and empathy for the collective mindset of Americans at a crucial moment in history, Gerald Ford was one of the very best.
Ford's current hometown newspaper, The Desert Sun of Palm Springs, California, offers these memories:

In Washington, he's remembered as the great healer, the president confronted with the Herculean task of rebuilding trust in the White House on the heels of Watergate and Richard Nixon's resignation.

In Michigan, they recall the former Big 10 star who spurned a professional football career after graduation from the University of Michigan for a life in public service.

And in the Coachella Valley, he and his wife, Betty, are our neighbors in the desert, a former president and first lady who have contributed richly to the area's civic and social scenes.

As I have written before, Ford -- though much maligned and remembered perhaps too much for physical stumbles and not enough for principle and conviction -- represents an authentic conservative tradition of limited government, a "leave us alone" philosophy in tune with Barry Goldwater's and Ronald Reagan's and in contrast to the Republicans who just got "thumped" in the mid-term elections.

One of Ford's favorite maxims was this: "If the government is big enough to give you everything you want, it is big enough to take away everything you have."

Despite an undeserved reputation as an amiable if dull thinker, Ford actually had a consistent and well-considered political philosophy, as well as a deep understanding of the meaning of the American experiment. This latter vision was perhaps best expressed in his remarks at Monticello on July 4, 1976, on the dual occasion of the Bicentennial of the United States of America and the annual naturalization ceremony for new citizens held on the lawn of Mr. Jefferson's house.

Addressing the dignitaries present -- Virginia Governor Mills Godwin, Senator Harry F. Byrd, Justice Lewis Powell, and others -- but aiming his words more directly at the new Americans, Ford said:
After two centuries there is still something wonderful about being an American. If we cannot quite express it, we know what it is. You know what it is, or you would not be here today. Why not just call it patriotism?

Thomas Jefferson was a Virginia planter, a politician, a philosopher, a practical problemsolver, a Palladian architect, a poet in prose. With such genius he became a burgess, a delegate, a Governor, an ambassador, a Secretary of State, a Vice President, and President of the United States. But he was first a patriot.

The American patriots of 1776 who pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to declare and defend our independence did more than dissolve their ties with another country to protest against abuses of their liberties. Jefferson and his colleagues very deliberately and very daringly set out to construct a new kind of nation. "Men may be trusted," he said, "to govern themselves without a master." This was the most revolutionary idea in the world at that time. It remains the most revolutionary idea in the world today.

Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison and all patriots who laid the foundation for freedom in our Declaration and our Constitution carefully studied both contemporary and classic models of government to adapt them to the American climate and our circumstances. Just as Jefferson did in designing Monticello, they wanted to build in this beautiful land a home for equal freedom and opportunity, a haven of safety and happiness, not for themselves alone, but for all who would come to us through centuries.
I have attended several of the naturalization ceremonies at Monticello, and unfortunately on too many occasions, the celebrity speakers seem to offer little more than platitudes. There's nothing wrong with that -- the ceremonies tend to take place under the hot sun in the heavy humidity of Charlottesville's summers, and so keeping it light may be the polite thing to do -- but one wants to have a bit more to sink one's teeth into. Ford gave his audience something to think about.

Perhaps unconsciously, Ford used quite libertarian language to describe the benefits of living in a society made up of immigrants and the sons and daughters of immigrants. In terms that, say, Tyler Cowen might use, Ford continued his address:

To be an American is to subscribe to those principles which the Declaration of Independence proclaims and the Constitution protects -- the political values of self-government, liberty and justice, equal rights, and equal opportunity. These beliefs are the secrets of America's unity from diversity -- in my judgment the most magnificent achievement of our 200 years as a nation.

"Black is beautiful" was a motto of genius which uplifted us far above its intention. Once Americans had thought about it and perceived its truth, we began to realize that so are brown, white, red, and yellow beautiful. When I was young, a Sunday school teacher told us that the beauty of Joseph's coat was its many colors. I believe Americans are beautiful -- individually, in communities, and freely joined together by dedication to the United States of America.

I see a growing danger in this country to conformity of thought and taste and behavior. We need more encouragement and protection for individuality. The wealth we have of culture, ethnic and religious and racial traditions are valuable counterbalances to the overpowering sameness and subordination of totalitarian societies. The sense of belonging to any group that stands for something decent and noble, so long as it does not confine free spirits or cultivate hostility to others, is part of the pride every American should have in the heritage of the past. That heritage is rooted now, not in England alone -- as indebted as we are for the Magna Carta and the common law -- not in Europe alone, or in Africa alone, or Asia, or on the islands of the sea. The American adventure draws from the best of all of mankind's long sojourn here on Earth and now reaches out into the solar system. [Emphasis added]

Ford concluded his remarks on that historic occasion with a reminder about our responsibility to the past and the future:
Remember that none of us are more than caretakers of this great country. Remember that the more freedom you give to others, the more you will have for yourself. Remember that without law there can be no liberty. And remember, as well, the rich treasures you brought from whence you came, and let us share your pride in them. This is the way that we keep our independence as exciting as the day it was declared and keep the United States of America even more beautiful than Joseph's coat.
Historians are rightfully reconsidering the presidency of Gerald R. Ford and finding it better than it may have fared in the assessments of 30 years ago. If this be revisionism, let's have more of it.

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