Gerald R. Ford: Historical Perspective

Richard Shenkman
Presidential Historian
Friday, December 29, 2006; 12:00 PM

Presidential historian Richard Shenkman will be online Friday, Dec. 29, at Noon ET to discuss the life of Gerald R. Ford and how history will view his tenure as president.

Full Coverage: Gerald R. Ford, 1913 - 2006

Shenkman is author of "Presidential Ambition: How the Presidents Gained Power, Kept Power and Got Things Done" plus four other books and is editor and founder of the HistoryNewsNetwork, an Internet magazine featuring articles by historians about past and current events.

A transcript follows.


Alabama: I happen to be reading H.L. Mencken's obituary of Calvin Coolidge from 1933. The Sage wrote:

"Counting out Harding as a cipher only, Dr. Coolidge was preceded by one World Saver and followed by two more. What enlightened American, having to choose between any of them and another Coolidge, would hesitate for an instant? There were no thrills while he reigned, but neither were there any headaches. He had no ideas, and he was not a nuisance."

A fair assessment of Ford's presidency, I think.

Richard Shenkman: Ford as Coolidge. That's an interesting take!

I suppose an argument can be made that both men were plain and simple in speech and believed in small government. And neither man was strongly ideological.

But having said that I am struck as well by their many differences. Coolidge loved to play pranks and was witty. Ford wasn't known for his humor (though he pretended in public to appreciate the jokes made at his expense).

More importantly, Ford was a far more capable chief executive. Coolidge was indifferent to his duties and rather sluggish (perhaps because of his son's death early in his presidency, which seemed to suck the life out of him. Ford on the other hand was a hard worker who poured over the budget reports and was the last American president capable of personally briefing the press about the details of his budget.


Washington, D.C.: Thanks for taking my question Mr. Shenkman. Did Ford ever consider re-running in 1980 against Reagan in the primary?

Richard Shenkman: I don't believe that Ford considered running in 1980. When he left office he largely left politics behind.

Of course at the 1980 Republican convention he accepted an offer to become Reagan's running mate out of a sense of duty to party. But the deal fell apart after Reagan saw him chatting on television with Walter Cronkite about a "co-presidency." Reagan promptly told his aides to extend an offer to George H.W. Bush as veep.


Tampa, Fla.: In presidents, judgment is everything. Some brilliant men and well spoken men have failed miserably as president. Those we honor as great presidents, at bottom, are those whose judgment was sound.

Ford was a slow spoken man. In this age of wall-to-wall media coverage is a slow spoken man with good judgment at a disadvantage relative [to] a well-spoken man without a lick of judgment?

Could Washington -- the ultimate example of good judgment -- survive our presidential election process and emerge selected by a people addicted to sound bites?

Shouldn't a democratic republic do something to its electoral process to ensure the successful emergence of the best possible leaders?

Richard Shenkman: This is an excellent question.

I think that while it is appropriate at this time that we focus most of our attention on Gerald Ford we should also take the opportunity to reflect on what his presidency says about our democratic system.

This moment should be about us as well as him.

The question that we need to reflect on is whether a man like Ford could ever become president on his own. The short answer I'm afraid is no.

Our system, such as it is--keep in mind that nobody designed the system we have now; it just happened willy nilly as television transformed our politics and the party system collapsed--places a great emphasis upon sound bites, manipulation and propaganda. A fellow like Ford doesn't stand much of a chance in this environment.

That's too bad.


Weston, Fla.: Hi, I thought that the Nixon pardon would be the most controversial memory of Ford's legacy. But now I think the interview he gave Bob Woodward in 2004 expressing his dismay towards the Iraq war will also be controversial. Ford's loyalty to the Republican party trumped his loyalty to the country. How do you think the families of soldiers that died since 2004 feel about Ford now? Ford Disagreed With Bush About Invading Iraq ( Post, Dec. 28)

Richard Shenkman: Ford's stunning interview with Bob Woodward, which made all the news shows last night, will clearly be a major chapter in Ford's biography.

Just the day before leftists had been denouncing Ford for leaving as part of his legacy Rumsfeld and Cheney. Conservatives were trumpeting his presidency for its solid conservative values.

Then came the Woodward interview.

I suspect that a lot of people wish they had a chance to revise their remarks of the day before. Suddenly Ford was a hero of the anti-war leftists and a scoundrel to the pro-war suppporters.

You asked about the soldiers' families. I suppose if they are pro-war they will disapprove of Ford's interview and if they are anti-war they will approve it.


Richmond, Va.: No one seems to want to answer this question, but perhaps you will. Why did Mr. Ford delay his comments about how he felt about the Iraq war until after his death? It has been said about him that he put the country first, as one of his reason for pardoning Nixon. If that is so (i.e., he put his country first), then why hide his credible and respected voice about the Iraq war? Such a voice would have been enormously welcomed to those who also opposed this war.

Richard Shenkman: All we can do is speculate, right? We can't read Ford's mind.

I suspect that he thought that by the time the interview was published the war would be over. Then his comments would be a footnote to history.

Now they stand a chance of being part of history: part of his own history and part of the history of the Bush administration.

Surely as his health began to fail in recent months he realized that the interview would land with a thud while the war was still going on. But under the rules of journalism he couldn't go back to Woodward and ask him to hold back the interview until the end of the war.

And it may just be that he had become so fed up with the war--as so many Republicans have--that he was willing to let it be used by anti-war forces to pressure Bush to leave.


Bangalore, India:"A hard worker who poured over the budget reports." Surely he pored over the reports!

Hope it's just a typo.

Richard Shenkman: I am typing pretty fast. All kinds of typos are cropping up!


Arlington, Va.: How do you think history (or historians) compare Presidents Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton? Is there any thought that not pardoning President Nixon would have had positive effects on the country?

Richard Shenkman: Here's my take on the pardon.

It was well-intentioned but clumsily carried out.

A primary responsibility of presidents is to educate public opinion. Ford failed in that task by pardoning Nixon abruptly.

He could have taken a week or two weeks to raise the issue, let people think about it, and then try to shape public opinion.

And he needed to clear the air so that no one thought there was any kind of a deal with Nixon.

A little spade work up front might have saved him and the country a lot of grief.

As for comparisons between Johnson, Nixon and Clinton .... each was driven by demons that undermined their presidencies. All of them came from impoverished backgrounds, quite unlike most presidents. Both Johnson and Nixon's insecurities gave them a powerful desire to tweak the noses of the establishment, which distracted them from broader goals. Clinton's demon was sexual in nature.


Bethesda, Md.: Ron Nessen said yesterday that Pres. Ford asked that his comments questioning Pres. Bush's Iraq policy not be aired until after his death to avoid embarrassing Pres. Bush. While I expect history to judge Pres. Ford quite favorably, I think it might have been even more favorable, and his comments more effective, had Pres. Ford spoken his mind publicly at the time. Your thoughts? Thanks. Ron Nessen Live Online (, Dec. 28)

Richard Shenkman: This raises the important question of the role ex-presidents should play in our system.

It's always been a problem. Grover Cleveland, citing a contemporary, suggested half in jest that we should take our ex-presidents out and shoot them once they leave office.

The basic rule is that they should stay out of politics. But nearly all of them occasionally stray back in, as you would expect. It's difficult for somebody who has made politics his life to drop it abruptly.

Carter among recent presidents has most notably involved himself in politics. He's been critical of Reagan and Clinton and Bush II in particular. Nixon sabotaged Ford's presidency and his chances for re-election by accepting a standing invitation to visit with Mao in 1976, an election year, reminding voters of Ford's pardon of Nixon.

The most famous case of an ex-president involving himself in politics was Teddy Roosevelt. He ruthlessly went after Woodrow Wilson for Wilson's decision to "keep us out of war." TR called him a coward in public. When Wilkson finally took the country into World War I TR volunteered to lead troops on the battlefield. Wilson turned him down flat. He didn't want TR stealing headlines. And he wasn't in much of a forgiving mood.


Albuquerque, N.M.: In light of recent disclosure of the long friendship between Presidents Nixon and Ford, and how that may have played a role in the pardon, how will history view the pardon of Nixon by Ford?

Richard Shenkman: The pardon is certainly the key issue, isn't it?

Was there a deal? Woodward's fine reporting suggests that Al Haig played an ambiguous role in suggesting Ford consider a pardon. Who was Haig working for at that point? Nixon or Ford? If Ford, then there was nothing untoward in the discussion. If Nixon, it was nefarious.

Historians are likely to view Ford kindly and to see less mischief in this ambiguous situation than they might otherwise because of his sterling reputation for honesty.

In the balance Ford will be remembered as a healer of a divided country--that's not a bad legacy. But it's not the kind of legacy that gets the attention of historians. So Ford is remembered as an average president.

Of course, these ratings are little more than parlor games. What is important is what they tell us about us not the presidents. What values do we see in a president? We saw in Ford what we wanted to see in an American president: a man of honesty and character. In other presidents we see less favorable aspects of the American character. They all reflect America.

This is a big country. It's worth remembering that we aren't a bunch of saints.


Glenside, Pa.: How do you think Ford fits into the evolution of the GOP from Eisenhower to Reagan to Bush? I mean this fall kind of demonstrated a Republican party that's core appeal was in the South, and that's quite different from the GOP Gerald Ford walked into when he entered public service.

Richard Shenkman: Great question.

Ford represents the old GOP. He's the kind of Republican even Democrats like.

He could be partisan and on occasion went too far--as he did in championing the impeachment of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas--but most of the time he was civil and responsible.

Reagan changed the Republican Party in many ways. He made it more ideological. He gave the religious right more of a say in high-level discussions in the party. But the shift to the far right was pushed by powerful forces that can be seen from the fifties onward.

Ike was the quintessential moderate and modern Republican of the fifties. And many conservatives never forgave him. They didn't want to make peace with the New Deal programs like Social Security, as Ike did. And they weren't too happy about Ike's internationalism. With Goldwater's 64 nomination the old conservatives took back the party and then took it in a whole new direction. Ford was more a man of the Eisenhower years than the Reagan years.


Silver Spring, Md.: Would Nixon have been pursued to the end on Watergate if Spiro Agnew and not Gerry the Nice Guy was VP?

Richard Shenkman: Interesting question with current overtones.

I think some Democrats today are wondering what the consequences would be of having Cheney as president were Bush to be impeached.

I think the Democrats in the 1970s would have gone forward with impeachment even if Agnew were going to inherit the office. He would have been in such a weak position they could have dominated the government.


Manassas, Va.: How would you rate Ford's legacy and administration: Failure, Below Average, Average, Above Average, Good, Great

Richard Shenkman: Keeping in mind that these ratings are always clumsy tools of measurement, I'd rank Ford in the mid-range of presidents.

To be below average you've got to do something terrible. He never did. To be in the top you have to do something creative and interesting. He never did. So that leaves the middle range.

Give the disaster of the Bush administration, though, I'd bet most A,Americans would be happy for a middle range president. Bush overreached. Ford never did.

You want a president to reach for the stars. But they have to be awfully wise or they can take us astray.


Southern Maryland: Was Ford what the country needed after the divisiveness over Vietnam and Watergate, a mellow leader for the interim? Many of the postmortems describe him that way.

Also, I've read some speculation that Nixon's demons may have been caused by Asperger's Syndrome. I know that is off-topic, but have you heard of such a theory?

Richard Shenkman: David Broder has said that Ford was the least neurotic president he's known (and he's know quite a few).

We should ask ourselves why our democratic system doesn't produce more presidents like Ford.

Is it possible that under our system neurotics rise to the top? I think the answer unfortunately is yes. You can't be normal and put yourself and your family through what a candidate for the presidency has to go through.

I wouldn't call Ford mellow. But he was decent and normal and after Nixon that was a relief to the country.


Alexandria, Va.: I have to say I am very disappointed with some of what I have learned this week about President Ford. I am inclined to remember him fondly for his personal style, especially when I compare him to the crude, mean-spirited, deliberately provocative politicians who have followed him. And I love his wife and family. However, I had COMPLETELY swallowed the claim that his pardoning of Nixon was based entirely on his perception of the national good. It turns out, rather, that it was largely an act arising from personal friendship and loyalty. To me, this is cronyism. It would have been possible for President Ford to have pitied his friend, cared about him and yet still to have delivered him to the hands of justice -- for the national good. Instead, we've had decades of continuing confusion about the limits of executive power.

I had been planning on trying to make it to the Capitol this weekend to pay my regards, but now I am having second thoughts. I still think he was an admirable man in many respects, but I think he made a terrible mistake.

Richard Shenkman: We paid a steep price for the pardon of Nixon. Americans became more cynical. Today only about a third of us trust our leaders to do the right thing most of the time.

Vietnam and Watergate naturally inspired cynicism. The Pardon need not have. But it was mishandled and reinforced a terrible lesson.

Can a democracy survive for long if people lack faith in their leaders? We'll find out.


New York, N.Y.: Good afternoon Richard,

Two quick questions: (1) Why is there such controversy around Ford's comments surrounding the war and the Bush administration? One of the fundamental tenants of our democracy is that the president is not king. If the ordinary citizen (which Ford was at the time of his death) and current politicians have the right to voice their criticisms of the president, why shouldn't Ford be accorded the same privilege? After all, I think former presidents are in the best position to give such opinions as they have a fuller understanding of how such decisions are made.

(2) Will historians' evaluations of the Ford presidency change following his death? A number of "rankings" by historians have him listed in the high 20's as a below-average president. Will history be kinder to him, like Truman, in death than in life?

Richard Shenkman: Those are quick questions that require long answers. But here goes.

1. Why shouldn't presidents weigh in on hot political controversies? If we had a parliamentary system there wouldn't be any problem with their doing so. But under our system the president is head of state as well as head of government. When they speak as ex-presidents they invariably are regarded by citizens and foreigners alike as speaking in some sense as former heads of state. So it's confusing when suddenly they are speaking merely as politicians.

Furthermore, it would make it harder for presidents to govern if they had to contend with the comments of ex-presidents on news events.

Suppose we got into a war and an ex-president began making anti-war noises. The incumbent would find it difficult to rally public support. It may be that a misguided president who takes us into a bad war shouldn't get public support. (Any parallel to our current situation is strictly your own!) But the situation is perilous. As a rule I think ex-presidents shouldn't involve themselves in current politics. They should play the statesman.

In this case, Ford may have thought he was playing the statesman. It's an interesting question.

2. The reputations of presidents are always changing.

Of the 10 presidents who served from FDR to the first President Bush, 7 are regarded more highly now by historians than they were by contemporaries at the time they left office. Only the reputations of FDR, Nixon and Carter have remained carved in granite. FDR the Great, Nixon the Corrupt, and Carter the Incompetent. All the others have either gone up or down in the esteem in which they are held.

I suspect Ford will be remembered about as he is right now. An amiable decent man who tried to do right.


Vienna, Va.: No offense to your fine profession or even to your own scholarship, but in general aren't historians better and fairer judges of historical figures not from their own times? It seems to me that one's own political, ideological and partisan biases creep in when judging current or recent presidents.

Richard Shenkman: Of course!

Writing contemporary history is difficult, in part because we lack the documents our successors will have and in part because we remain emotionally wedded to the passions of the day.

But should historians then leave the field to the pundits? At least we have been trained to be objective. And only historians have enough knowledge to be able to compare presidents with their predecessors.


Richard Shenkman: My time is up unfortunately. Thank you for your comments.

Readers who are interested in finding out what historians make of Gerald Ford's presidency might consider clicking on the Web site I run, the History News Network:



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