The Contender
A historian argues that Gerald Ford came close to being a great president.

Reviewed by David S. Broder
Sunday, May 27, 2007


By Douglas Brinkley

Times. 199 pp. $20

When historian Douglas Brinkley was asked by the late Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., general editor of the American Presidents series published by Times Books, to undertake a short biography of Gerald R. Ford, the man from Michigan who served less than three years in the White House was a neglected subject.

By the time Brinkley had finished the manuscript, Ford's story had been told, copiously and repeatedly, in newspaper obituaries recording his death at age 93 last December, and his contributions to American life had been praised in memorial ceremonies in California, Washington and Grand Rapids, Mich. -- and in dozens of columns and editorials. As his body was carried across the country, from his final home near Palm Springs, to the Capitol where he had served, and then back to Michigan for burial, the praise rolled in for the man who had applied the healing comfort of his common sense and goodwill to a nation badly bruised by the ordeals of the Vietnam War and Watergate.

After all that, the current generation of readers -- unlike those who in future decades may turn to Brinkley's book for basic information about the life of the 38th president -- will wonder what fresh insights the author offers. He had only one personal interview with Ford for this project, back in 2003, and he mines it for a number of autobiographical comments, none of them groundbreaking. But Brinkley does address -- and help settle -- some of the unresolved questions about Ford's career.

He has delved deep, for example, into the relationship between Ford and Richard Nixon, the man who appointed Ford to the vacancy created by the resignation of Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew, and thereby put Ford in line for the presidency. After Ford's death, journalists who had interviewed him late in life quarreled among themselves about whether the Ford-Nixon relationship was simply one of mutual political advantage or a genuine friendship.

Brinkley makes a strong case that they were far more than partners in partisanship. He quotes Ford as telling him that Nixon was "my close friend," a man whose views on both foreign and domestic issues "were almost mirror images" of his own, as he quickly discovered when they met as members of the House. Beyond that, both men had grown up in families struggling during the Depression, so, as Ford said, "we understood what it meant to rise on merit, not privilege."

In a private collection of Ford's correspondence, still in the hands of a New York dealer, Brinkley unearthed a number of letters written by Nixon after his resignation, counseling and offering moral support to his successor, whose brief tenure was beset by troubles. In August of 1976, with Ford's approval scores around 30 percent, Nixon wrote from exile urging Ford to "keep that confident, fighting spirit -- and the only poll that matters will come out alright on November 2."

It did not, of course. Brinkley sympathetically repeats Ford's own complaint that it was the long battle that the unelected president had to wage just to keep the Republican nomination in 1976 from Ronald Reagan that fatally weakened Ford for the battle with Jimmy Carter. Ford called Reagan's decision to challenge him "a low-down stunt" and said the Californian's standoffish attitude after losing the nomination fight probably cost him the election. "He snubbed me," Ford said. "Put his nose up in the air."

That bitterness was at odds with most of Ford's life. He had a talent for reconciliation, forging friendships with past antagonists, including Jimmy Carter and many of the journalists who had ridiculed or criticized him as president. Brinkley does full justice to those qualities of Midwestern goodwill exhibited by Ford all his life, and he excuses Ford's anger with Reagan and the right-wingers because he plainly shares Ford's preference for a more tolerant, pragmatic version of conservatism.

The result is a highly sympathetic but largely accurate appraisal of Ford's accomplishments. I would fault Brinkley's account of Ford's rise to the White House in one respect. When discussing the series of backbench revolts that moved Ford into the post of Republican leader of the House, Brinkley makes it sound as if Ford himself were the ringleader in all these efforts. In fact, much of the strategy and organizing was done by others, who were smart enough to recognize that the rapport Ford had gained among his colleagues made him the ideal candidate to put forward against the Old Guard leaders. But a biography of Jerry Ford that contains no mention of the work of Melvin R. Laird, Charles Goodell and Glenard Lipscomb in advancing his career is hardly complete.

That said, I can fully endorse Brinkley's contention that Ford did the right thing in pardoning Nixon -- I thought, and wrote, so at the time -- and that he accomplished more as president than "healing" the wounded presidency. "It was Gerald R. Ford who dissipated the pall of Richard Nixon, however controversially, and who shepherded the nation safely through to the end of its most divisive war while living up to the United States's ensuing responsibilities to South Vietnam's refugees. It was Ford whose help in forging the Helsinki Accords opened the way for the collapse of Soviet communism. It was Ford who acknowledged the seriousness of the global energy crisis and who conveyed the urgent need for cooperation to do something about it to the rest of the industrialized world, and whose careful fiscal policies cut inflation in half and boosted the U.S. economy out of its direst fix since the Great Depression. And it was Ford who, purely by dint of coming across as a really nice, normal guy, restored Americans' faith in the validity of their government."

All of which, Brinkley argues, should boost him into the rank of "near-great president." ยท

David Broder is a columnist for The Washington Post.

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