Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Lord, Mr. Ford

At noon on this date 31 years ago, August 9, 1974, Richard Nixon officially resigned his office, succeeded by Gerald R. Ford as the 38th President of the United States.

I am in the process of reading a fascinating history of the Ford administration by Yanek Mieczkowski of Dowling College, entitled Gerald Ford and the Challenges of the 1970s.

I have to say, despite having some admiration for President Ford for his handling of a difficult transition during a difficult decade, I really underestimated him as a politician and as a thinker.

Though Mieczkowski never says so in so many words, as a Member of Congress and as President, Ford was very much a Goldwater conservative. Mieczkowski writes:

Ford had been a fiscal conservative throughout his career, and since he had not campaigned for the presidency, he transformed his political beliefs into a presidential program, making his ideas a nostrum for the nation's challenges. This process was critical; to lead, a president must articulate a philosophy and establish policies to implement it. For his vision of a good America, Ford repaired to the Constitution and the idea of limited government. As Philip Buchen [Ford's law partner and longtime political associate] recalled, Ford was "very realistic about how government works and the effects of its action; he knew what its limitations were." Buchen explained that his longtime friend and colleague "was not a great one for initiating a wide variety of programs. He limited his so-called 'agenda' to what really concerned him, and to what he thought the governmnet had the opportunity to do something about. He was a minimalist as far as the government was concerned" [emphasis added].

One page later, Mieczkowski notes:
Ford's concept of an activist president was that of a budget cutter. The administration's constitutional scholar, Robert Goldwin, recalled that the "closest [Ford] came, in my view, [to enunciating] something far-reaching and broad was a simple formulation: no new spending programs. He said that over and over again, trying to get a grip on the budget." Goldwin credited Ford with realizing long before other public officials did that "unless there were some powerful restraint exercised, that the budget would just run away without anyone being able to control it." Yet this position carried political risks. When the president pledged that he would support no new spending programs, he immediately deprived himself of potential constituents and weakened his political base.

In other words, he would not play the political game of bribing voters with taxpayers' dollars in return for their votes and the power that came with him. Now that's integrity!

Ford also used his veto pen as an effective political instrument. In just over two years in office, he vetoed 66 bills, of which only 12 were overridden by congressional votes. (That's 66 more times than our current president has utilized his constitutional veto power.) In most cases, the vetoed bills were rewritten in a more acceptable fashion -- by cutting out pork-barrel spending, for instance -- and Ford signed their replacement bills.

Mieczkowski writes:
Some critics charged that Ford used the veto promiscuously. But the relative number of vetoes was surprisingly small. in 1975, Congress passed 1,436 measures; Ford vetoed 13 of them, and was overridden three times. During his presidency, Ford vetoed 66 bills (50 regular vetoes and 16 pocket vetoes), more than Nixon, Carter, Bush (senior), and Clinton, all of whom served longer. Among presidents since Ford, only Reagan, with 78 over eight years, vetoed more than Ford. Ford's average of 26.4 vetoes a year gave him the fourth-highest annual average among all presidents in history. (Grover Cleveland heads the list with 73 per year; Franklin Roosevelt is second with 53; and Truman comes in third with 31.3.)

It is somewhat disconcerting to find a history book being published about an era, however brief and however long ago, within my lifetime. I remember the Ford presidency but, as a teenager at the time, I had concerns other than politics (though I was politically literate and hungry for information, particularly in my role as a high school debater). They were typical concerns of teenagers such as popular music and movies, cute boys, and auditioning for the school play. I had not taken time to assess the Ford presidency since then, however, and for that reason I appreciate Mieczkowski's efforts.

Another remarkable aspect of the Ford presidency is how many of his staffers are still active in government service: Dick Cheney was his chief of staff, as was Donald Rumsfeld, who also served as Secretary of Defense for Ford; Alan Greenspan was his chief economic advisor, and Paul O'Neill was also a top economic aide, to give a few examples. 'Tis a pity that these top Bush administration officials have not been able to reflect Ford's limited-government philosophy in their current roles.

Once I finish reading Gerald Ford and the Challenges of the 1970s, I plan to write a fuller review of it. One fault I have with the book, so far, is that it does not discuss more completely the cultural milieu of the middle 1970s. There are some references to popular culture, but they seem rather stilted and sparing and do not, as the author seems to intend them to, add much to the context of the times. Still, by the time I come to the end of the book, I may have changed my mind on this single quibble.

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