In the hours since the passing of Gerald Ford, some wild claims have been offered in tribute to him. The wildest is that he basically saved the United States upon his ascension to the presidency in August 1974.
Ford was a fine man and a distinguished public servant, and he deserves to be remembered warmly. But the idea that his presidency saved America is ahistorical sentimentality.
Through no fault of Ford's, the man from Michigan presided over two of the worst years in American history. It would not be fair to call his presidency a failure, since he found himself in an impossible situation and managed as best he could. But there's no sense pretending that the 30 months between August 1974 and January 1977 were anything but dire.
The inflation rate skyrocketed. The nation's largest city, this one, went broke. The national crime wave continued to wreak havoc. In September 1975, Ford himself was the subject of two separate assassination attempts.
The most notable, and most awful, moment of the Ford years came on April 30, 1975, as the last American helicopter seemed to scurry into the sky off the roof of an apartment building in downtown Saigon days after the city fell to the Communists.
Ford made three key decisions on his own during his presidency: one that was necessary and historic; one, brave and tough - and one both weak and pusillanimous.
You probably think the necessary and historic decision was the pardon of Richard Nixon, who would've been subject to criminal charges following his resignation were it not for Ford's action. To my mind, that was the brave and tough call - brave because Ford knew he'd be raked over the coals for it, tough because he was willing to suffer the heat to move the country beyond an obsession with the petty crimes of the immediate past.
But I don't think that's the most important thing he did. The most important thing he did, only weeks after the fall of Saigon, was to send a message that the United States had not entirely lost its nerve.
Cambodia's Stalinist Khmer Rouge government seized the SS Mayaguez, a civilian freighter, in a shocking act of international piracy. Ford ordered the U.S. Marines into action - and the result was one of the most daring and inventive naval rescue missions of all time.
Ford made his point. America had not gone pacifist, and would not be attacked with impunity.
The worst mistake of the Ford presidency - both morally and politically - was his decision not to invite Alexander Solzhenitsyn to the White House after the Nobel Prize-winning dissident was thrown out of the Soviet Union. Ford and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, fretted that an invitation would scuttle sensitive arms-control negotiations.
Morally, the snub was a black mark on a great nation. Politically, it ignited Ronald Reagan's insurgent bid to unseat Ford as the GOP nominee in 1976.
Reagan almost beat Ford, and the primary battle put Ford so far behind his rival, Jimmy Carter, that Ford's dramatic 30-point leap in the polls in the fall of 1976 couldn't put him over the top.
Ford was dealt a bum hand. He conducted himself admirably for the most part. But his presidency was overwhelmed by the disastrous national and international policies of the 1970s - which would only be undone when his rival, Ronald Reagan, did his heroic best to restore America to greatness in the 1980s.
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