O, now, let Richmond and Elizabeth, The true succeeders of each royal house, By God's fair ordinance conjoin together! And let their heirs (God, if thy will be so) Enrich the time to come with smooth fac'd peace, With smiling plenty and fair prosperous days!
So ends Shakespeare's The tragedy of King Richard the Third. The speaker, and the victor on Bosworth Field, is Henry, Earl of Richmond, soon to be King Henry VII. Richard, the furious villain, lies dead. Henry is about to re-establish the authority and integrity of the English crown, end the bloody conflict between the Houses of York and Lancaster, and lead a united England in the face of foreign peril.
"I feel it is my first duty to make an unprecedented compact with my countrymen. Not an inaugural address, not a fire-side chat, not a campaign speech, just a little straight talk among friends . . .
"I believe that truth is the glue that holds goverment together, not only our government but civilization itself . . .
"In all my public and private acts as your President, I expect to follow my instincts of openness and candor with full confidence the honesty is always the best policy in the end.
"My fellow Americans, out long national nightmare is over. Our constitution works. Our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule . . ."
So said Gerald Ford in the East Room of the White House on August 9, 1974.He had just taken the presidential oath. His predecessor, the disgraced Richard Nixon, was airborne for California. Ford's task was to restore the people's confidence in the presidency - more precisely, to confirm their belief that the president is subject to law. He had further to bridge the chasm between the Executive and Congress. He had to show restraint, but not timidity, in the use of presidential powers, to conduct an "open" administration, and to tell the truth.
The fall of a president, especially when it derives from his own corruption and thirst for power, is an event of Shakespearean dimensions. Nixon's evasive and maudlin response to his own collapse nearly trivialized it. He was, in demeanor and language, unworthy of the role in which he cast himself.
Neither was Jerry Ford a Henry VII. At moments that cried out for eloquent fire, he spoke the cautious bromides of the long-time politician. In the what was to be the cabinet's last meeting with Nixion, the president dodged the crucail issue on everyone's mind: whether under the circumstances he could hope to govern. Ford stunned him by announcing that he would no longer comment on the issue, meaning that he had abandoned him. He finished thus: "You have given us the finest foreign policy this country has ever had. A super job, and the people appreciate it. Let me assure you that I expect to continue to support the Administration's foreign policy and the fight against inflation." The dramatic moment was lost in a bog of cliches.
And yet he accomplished what he had to do. Gerald Ford was a successful president not because he was clever, or articulate, or a "man of vision" - a term he mocks in these memoirs because men of vision always cost the country money and more government - but because he was honest, straightforward, forgiving and possessed of sound judgment. He was all that his predecessor was not, and so he was exactly what we needed.
Like other vice presidents who were suddenly thrust into the presidency, he enjoyed an immediate burst of punlic support. His was short-lived because he pardoned Nixon. Many of us who thought that was inevitable were left frustrated by it; we wished he had at least waited until a grand jury indictment had been returned, so that Nixon might not later claim or seem to have been martyred by a political vendetta. Ford is at his most persuasive in arguing the wisdom of an early pardon. Nixion, he says, could not have been tried for many months, given the prejudiced climate of the times. Following a long trial, he would have fought for his freedom in the public arena as well as in the courts. Ford rightly believed that "It would be virtually impossibile for me to direct public attention to anything else. Passions on both sides would be aroused. A period of such prolonged vituperation and recrimination would be disastrous for the nation. .. . Public policy demanded that I put Nixon and Watergate behind us as quickly as possible."
Having taken this politically costly but necessary step, he set about to revive a working relationship with Congress, even making the extraordinary gesture of testifying about the pardon before a House committee. His friendships on the Hill were many and useful. He was trusted, one of them. His greatest ambition had been to become speaker. Gone was the arrogance of the White House staff under Nixon ("we existed, they seemed to believe, only to follow their instructions and we had no right to behave as if we were a coequal branch of government.") He had been a tireless campaigner for his Republican colleagues, but he and Tip O'Neill were buddies as well.
In time he became, as most presidents do, a presidential partisan. He denounced Congressional opposition as "partisan politics," though he had vigorously engaged in it himself for over a quarter of a century. The Ford who while a Republican leader had voted against Medicare and the antipoverty program became, not surprisingly, an active wielder of the veto.
His economic conservatism, his openness and stability, his evident enjoyment of the presidential office, indeed his commonplace pleasures - while negotiating SALT I with Brezhnev, he sent to learn the score of the Michigan-Ohio State game - gave him substantial advantages in the 1976 campaign. He was proud of being a regular fellow, and of being thought to be so. But he recognized that many people regarded him as an "amiable bumbler." In the end, doubts about his acuity - reinforced by his boner in the television debate with Jimmy Carter, when he claimed that Poland was independent, autonomous, free of Soviet domination - defeated him.
His book is much like him. It is extremely candid. Here are all the head-bumpings and stumblings, the gun-chewing jokes, the often pedestrian thoughts, the ready acknowledgement of his own limitations. But here, too, is the steady personality who helped bring our ship around in a constitutional storm. His prose is unadorned, and he is no Shakespearean hero. Yet the service he did us was very great, and his memoir describes it fairly. Jimmy Carter was right to say, in his inaugural address, "For myself and for our nation I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done ot heal our land." CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, Illustration by Richard Willson for The Washington Post