Friday, January 05, 2007

The Symbolism of Gerald Ford

At the moment Idaho was shifting from purple to (sugar) beet red, Gerald Ford sat in the White House. I lived in a home with two mid-century labor Democrats (my parents) who were excited about Jimmy Carter, but they seemed to be the last holdouts. Idaho had had its experiment with the Democratic Party, having gone for LBJ in '64, but ten years later, it was spoiling for a movement conservative. (In 1980, Reagan beat Carter by 41 points.) Idaho ultimately went for Ford, but no one was happy about it. People said his name with boredom, as if it should always be preceded by the word "Oh"--"Oh, Ford. He's fine, I guess." Dems didn't hate him and Republicans didn't love him.

So it was with serious mystification that I watched the beatification of Jerry this past weekend. There was much about Ford to like as a person--he scooped up his own dog's poop off the White House lawn--but really, he was no great shakes as a President. He was playing out the last 30 months of another man's second term, and he governed like a congressman not a president. He didn't make any major policy gaffes, but he isn't remembered for anything except pardoning Nixon, for which he is now uniformly celebrated. (Also bizarre.)

And still: "It was said of Franklin D. Roosevelt that he had a second-class intellect but a first-rate temperament. Something of the same might be said of Jerry Ford." (WaPo)

These kinds of comments--from far right, left, and center--were the norm. I heard a word or two of dissent on the Nixon pardon, but even those were half-hearted. So how could a man go from a legacy of oblivion in 1980 to this universal praise in 2006? In a word: Bush.

Ford, a cipher among presidents, is the perfect symbol for all that Bush is not, and Americans jumped at the chance to celebrate his not-Bushness. At this point, conservatives are as sick of Bush as liberals; they realize his arrogance, ignorance, and incompetence threatens to put them in the minority for years to come. Whatever glory came with Reagan has died irrevocably with Bush's reign. Looking back at Jerry is, for conservatives, a pleasant reverie. While Bush stammers and smirks, they can turn to good 'ol Jerry, who was honest and straightforward and humble. Liberals, of course, remember Ford as one of the last non-insane Republicans, and although he does not stand in our mind as a pinnacle of achievement, we also enjoy locating a Republican who doesn't make us gag. (And he was from Michigan! Remember when there were Republicans who weren't from Texas?)

Jerry Ford was a vessel into which the nation poured its emotion. The mourning, however, wasn't for the dead president, but for the state of affairs under this living one. When a nation says "Thems were the days," what it really mean is, "Man, things sure suck ass now." Jerry may not have been a pinnacle; he just looks like one when you're standing in Death Valley. Had Ford died in 1996, I suspect we would have seen a muted, respectful adieu. In 2006, however, he stands as a symbol for everything that is wrong with the White House now.

Oh Ford indeed.

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