Saturday, December 30, 2006

James M. Naughton and Adam Clymer, “Gerald Ford, 38th President, Dies at 93,” New York Times, December 27, 2006

“I believed what I was told.” So said Ford, after not knowing Nixon’s perfidy became impossible. The big question about Ford is, What was he told? Not just about Nixon, but about suffering, politics, life, God, etc. A quietly religious man, he forgave Nixon one Sunday morning –- between church and golf –- so that what he termed “healing” could begin. Now we’re told (should we believe it?) in the gently approving psycho-biography that follows the death of any big man -- even Saddam, today, is given credit for his "courage" -- that Ford, ironically, could never fully forgive his father, who beat his mother and abandoned her when young Ford, nee Leslie Lynch King, Jr., was two.

Such is the paradox of Ford. If his pardon of Nixon suggests that Ford was able, in public life, to see the greater good -- to understand how systems of culture work and to “heal” them –- everything else about his career reveals an opposite tendency. “The problem with him,” commented his first press secretary, Jerald terHorst, “— he doesn’t like to be kidded about it — but the fact is, this guy would, if he saw a school kid in front of the White House who needed clothing, if he was the right size, he’d give him the shirt off his back, literally. Then he’d go right in the White House and veto the school lunch bill.”

Another proof for the myth of the Decent Man. The Decent Man, as an American species, believes in hard work but lives by a code of personal generosity, a small scale social gospel, that makes him a friend to the poor he can see. Systems elude him; he does not so much object to them as deny that they exist. He is a tragic hero, a good man incapable of self-realization as a great man because his vision is too narrow. But this is a ruse, as Ford’s forgiveness of Nixon and lack thereof for his father reveal.

Ford saw systems, saw culture, saw big pictures. He saw that to sustain the U.S. as he wanted it to be, a center-right nation, he had to erase Nixon as much as he could. He understood that Nixon was not a bad apple, but evidence that the system was created by and for the strong and the cunning. So he forgave Nixon, to restore the illusion of Babbitry he considered the American way.

In his personal life, though, he saw that forgiveness had its limitations. He did not go in for the banality of "healing." He recognized that some wounds are permanent -- that the anger toward his father that he clutched within his heart all his life was part of his essential make-up. If only he had been generous enough to extend this wisdom to his presidential duties! He would have allowed Nixon -- and by proxy, the system in which he rose -- to take a judicial beating the country would never forget, and rightly so.

But Ford knew what he was doing when he pardoned Nixon. He was gaming the system. And the eulogies to his decency, now that he is dead, are proof that this Decent Man, at least, was counting cards.