Remembering a Leader And the Party That Was
Wednesday, January 3, 2007
The honorary pallbearers who walked slowly up the aisle at Washington National Cathedral yesterday at the funeral of former president Gerald R. Ford were as familiar as when they served the 38th president, symbolizing continuity through four decades of Republican administrations.
The names included Cheney, Rumsfeld, Baker, Greenspan and Scowcroft, officials who have served multiple Republican presidents. But their presence masked a far different reality, which is that the Republican Party that spawned Ford and his brand of Midwestern conservatism barely exists today.
It was a tribute to Ford's character that the speakers at yesterday's funeral devoted their remarks largely to personal attributes -- honesty, integrity and modesty -- that they said helped stabilize the country after the traumas and divisions of the Watergate scandal and the end of the Nixon presidency.
But in sharp contrast to the commentary after the death of former president Ronald Reagan, there were no remembrances of Ford as an architect of modern conservatism or a force behind the GOP's ascendance. The Republican Party has turned away from Ford's conservatism, moving sharply to the right ideologically and to the South and West geographically.
The names ascribed to those changes include Reagan, Barry Goldwater, Newt Gingrich and George W. Bush. But not Ford. His passing served not only to highlight how the party has changed, but how he felt increasingly estranged from some elements of the party's new doctrine. Ford was long uncomfortable with the party's shift to the right on issues such as abortion and made that plain in many interviews. As is now known from an interview published posthumously, he also harbored great doubts about Bush's Iraq policies.
"It is a lot different party now," said Vin Weber, a former Republican House member from Minnesota. "I have enormous regard for Jerry Ford. He campaigned for me in my first election, and it made a great difference. But he was the last of the old order. When he picked [Nelson] Rockefeller [as vice president], it reverberated very strongly with younger Republicans as an effort to undo everything we'd worked for since Barry Goldwater."
As a World War II veteran, Ford came into politics as an internationalist. As a Midwesterner, he practiced a fiscal conservatism that was grounded in balancing budgets and controlling spending. The Bush administration has adopted a different model for dealing with the world, one that has relied on a go-it-alone strategy in the battle against terrorism, and for much of the past three decades, Republicans have embraced tax cuts over controlling spending as the foundation of their economic policy.
Gingrich believes that Vice President Cheney and former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, alumni of the Ford administration and now emblematic of the Bush administration's foreign policy, have changed because the world has changed. "Cheney and Rumsfeld have experienced a different world than Ford experienced and are genuinely frightened, and their policies are born out of this fear," he said. "They just don't know how to communicate to the country."
No one would seem to represent a break with Ford's Republican Party more than Gingrich, whose brash style and disruptive tactics upset the GOP's old guard in the 1980s but ultimately helped usher in a Republican congressional majority in 1994.
Ironically, he attributes to Ford the model he and Weber and other young Turks used to help transform the party in the 1980s and 1990s. In his younger days, Ford was an insurgent who helped depose then-House Republican leader Charles Halleck. Rumsfeld was part of that younger, hard-charging cadre.
"We literally modeled the Conservative Opportunity Society after them," Gingrich said. "They were doing all sorts of things that irritated the old guard. . . . But in many ways, they represent a pre-Reagan, pre-Goldwater party."
Clarke Reed of Mississippi, the veteran party leader who at the 1976 Republican National Convention helped deliver his state's delegation to Ford over Reagan and preserve Ford's nomination, remarked yesterday that the party was then "just on the cusp of going Southern." Reagan's conservatism, he said, brought a new emphasis on social issues and religious values that was distinctly different from Ford's more moderate conservatism.
The midterm elections have brought a round of soul-searching among Republicans, who wonder whether they have become too conservative, too Southern, too indebted to the religious right. Ford's Republican Party may never return, but what replaced it has begun to show its limits.
Yesterday's tributes to Ford also served to underline that he will be forever tied to Richard M. Nixon -- first, as Nixon's choice to succeed the disgraced Spiro T. Agnew as vice president and then as Nixon's successor and the author of Nixon's controversial pardon.
In every eulogy to Ford's honesty, openness and trustworthiness, there was a contrast drawn with his predecessor. In some respects, they are the two sides of the Republican heritage. It carries over to the present day. Bush was helped to two terms in the White House in part by the public belief that he is a plain-spoken man. But Republicans paid a high price in November's elections for the "culture of corruption" in Congress, which the Democrats exploited.
Something else has been lost in the Republican Party, according to Kenneth M. Duberstein, who served in both the Ford and Reagan administrations: what he called "the sweet bipartisanship of Jerry Ford." That pattern "died in the last 12 years," and he sees little prospect of its reviving.