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I suppose it is kind of preposterous that one imagines himself important enough to write down his opinions for others to read. Chattering superciliousness is one of the most infuriating things about academics and so-called intellectuals, generally, who feel compelled to share their thoughts. But here it goes, anyway.

In Praise of Error: Gerald Ford's Legacy

In Praise of Error: Gerald Ford’s Legacy
By Michael E. Berumen 2-16-07

Gerald Ford has been dead and buried for over a month now. A cavalcade of politicians paid tribute to one of their own with wall-to-wall praise for his sagacity during a brief and seminal presidency. Most of all, they praised him for the curative pardoning of his predecessor, Richard Nixon, an act that the politicians now tell us restored the people’s faith in government and allowed them, the politicians, to get on with the important work of running the country without the unnecessary distraction of Nixon on trial and, perhaps, even the imprisonment of a former President. The nation, we have been told repeatedly, could not have withstood any more traumas from Watergate, and the unseemliness of a President behind bars would have been unbearable, doing incalculable damage to the office. President Ford, we are told, spared us from these misfortunes, and for that, we should be grateful. What a bunch of stomach-turning drivel.

Okay, let’s get a couple of obsequies out of the way. Ford was a decent man, and he did some praiseworthy things, particularly in relation to his administration’s dealings with the Soviet Union. I’m going to overlook the shameful way we left Vietnam under his watch. He was ordinary in the best sense of the word, and, given the unparalleled hubris of his predecessor, he provided us with a much-needed tonic of openness and down-to-earth humanity. But the hyperbolic panegyrics upon his death have left me unmoved and, frankly, they have reinforced my general distaste for political people.

Of course, politicians love to put on a good show for nearly any reason, and funerals are an especially auspicious occasion for being seen, posturing, and eulogizing about one’s partner in virtue, the dear departed. When a political opponent passes from the scene, one can appear magnanimous, even statesmanlike, in making favorable reference to him. The occasion is opportune for self-flattery through associating oneself with the person and his exemplary acts. Furthermore, it provides one with excellent camouflage for criticizing one’s contemporaries through the time-honored rhetorical device of praising the departed’s qualities that stand in bold relief against the inadequacies of, take your pick: i) members of the other party or ii) the deceased’s lesser political progeny, as was on ample display throughout the funeral rites of President Ford. "I have come to bury Caesar," sayeth the orator, and on it goes.

Let’s make something very clear: the vast majority of politicians seek political office because they want to tell others how they ought to live their lives. There is something intrinsically dangerous about that which impels them, even when their power is put to good use. These worthies go to great lengths to disguise paternalistic, meddling natures with incessant talk about personal sacrifice and public service. It is too unseemly, even for a politician, to speak directly about his own toil, so he leaps at the opportunity to speak fulsomely of another’s, thereby, enabling him to bask in reflected nobility. And what occasion could be better than the death of a popular former President to facilitate such a performance? Listening to their various orations, interviews, and commentaries concerning President Ford, I could not help but feel there was a lot of insincere, supercilious BS shot through it all.

So, let's get back to the pardon, for which President Ford has been so recently lauded by politicians of all political stripes. Nixon was a crook. Among other things, he conspired to commit burglary, illegal wiretaps, fraud, tax evasion, perjury, obstruction of justice, suppression of free speech, and embezzlement, and not for any purpose other than to further his own political ambitions. Many have been incarcerated for years for far lesser crimes. If ever a case deserved prosecution, Richard Nixon’s subversion of the Constitution that he swore to uphold did. It was an egregious mistake to pardon him, and the added perspective provided by the passing of time has not mitigated either his utter venality or lessened the requirement of impartial justice, which should apply as much to a dishwasher as it does to the President of the United States.

It is simply false, no, silly to suggest that Ford and the rest of the government could not have done their jobs with the potential distraction of Nixon on trial, as many have said, or that a jailbird Nixon would have done irreparable harm to the presidency. Our government has faced far greater distractions, including a civil war and two world wars, and it still managed to do its business. Trying Nixon would have been clear evidence that no man is beyond the reach of justice. And Nixon in jail, had it come to that, might have resulted in future Presidents employing greater conscientiousness in exercising the awesome powers of the office, and I think it would have been far more effective in restoring faith in the rule of law and our civic institutions than putting it aside. The very idea that the presidency is in some way a protected, sacrosanct position, or that its occupant ought to be exempt from punishments meted out to the common man, is an abomination, an anathema to our founding principles.

No, the fact of the matter is that many now see Ford’s actions through a lens colored by fondness for an affable man, and also by the light of Nixon’s dogged and remarkably successful efforts to rehabilitate his historical standing. Pardon my distrust, but I also believe that some have made an oblique attempt to inoculate themselves from public scrutiny and future ignominy with displays of high-mindedness and bipartisanship. Senator Edward Kennedy, a latter-day admirer of President Ford, comes to mind. Nixon ought to have been prosecuted for his criminality and for his chronic perfidy (we’re well beyond lying about oral sex, here) at the expense of the American people. Had he been found guilty, as seems likely, then he should have suffered the consequences prescribed by law. Some have argued that his shame and reduced standing in history was punishment enough. I rather doubt they would make the very same argument on behalf of an infamous felon from a lower station in life, allowing his public shame to substitute for a term in the big house; this simply demonstrates their lack of impartiality.

Many see Ford as heroic for having sacrificed his political career by doing the “right thing”. The pardon is not the only reason he was not elected to serve again, though it was surely unpopular at the time. Ford pardoned Nixon within mere weeks of taking office, when he still might have recovered politically. He was damaged at least as much by the internecine battle with Ronald Reagan toward the end of his tenure, which Ford well understood, and for which he never forgave Reagan. The fact is that the world would have been better off if Nixon were not pardoned and if Ford had been elected to serve another term. Then we most likely would have never had Jimmy Carter as President, a proximate cause for the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and even Bill Clinton, which, in turn, has led to the apotheosis of mediocrity, George W. Bush, if not the worst, certainly one of the most inept Commanders-in-Chief in our history.

Ford’s defeat was the final nail in the coffin for a Republican Party that once had room for liberal and moderate voices. It presaged the consolidation of power of an unholy alliance under Reagan that began with Nixon, namely, the erstwhile Southern Democrats and the law-and- order (code for anti-civil rights) contingent; the corporate-welfare set; and the intolerant, religious right, a coalition that has controlled the party since then. The good news is that George W. Bush may well have unwittingly put an end to their stranglehold on the party and, thereby, returned the GOP to people with whom President Ford himself would have felt more at home, people who like to balance their check books, stand on their own two feet, and who are tolerant of others. Despite the latter’s profound blunder of years ago, that would be a very good thing, indeed.


Michael E. Berumen is a philosopher and businessman living in Laguna Niguel, California. Among other things, he is the author of Do No Evil: Ethics with Applications to Economic Theory and Business (2003).