Just Plain Jerry

Jerry Ford, Up Close: An Investigative Biography

by Bud Vestal
Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 214 pp., $7.95

He’s not a bit fraudulent, and we can’t find anything really nasty to say about him,” Jerry Ford’s college year-book notes. Bud Vestal comes to the same conclusion, which is an impediment in writing a book that describes itself as “an investigative biography.” Perhaps more than with most of us, what you see of Jerry Ford is all there is, which may make him a fine man but a poor president.

The prevailing opinion is just the contrary. After eleven years of Johnson and Nixon, we’ve become decidedly modest about what constitutes a good president. As long as the man is neither a sneak thief nor a vengeful, secretive megalomaniac, we run to embrace him.

By these standards, the Jerry Ford in Bud Vestal’s book is eminently embraceable, what with the little vignettes of his dating Betty, his wife-to-be, after her day’s work down at Herpolsheimer’s Department Store in Grand Rapids. This dovetails nicely into the American small-town legend that even the most sophisticated of us have a hard time shaking off.

It also feeds into our enthusiastic hopes for “the Ford Presidency,” which we expect to be so much better, gentler, and more open than “the Nixon Presidency” and “the Johnson Presidency.” In our relief at having a man in the White House who doesn’t display the personal traits of a tyrant, we may not notice that we’ve fallen into the habit of using the word presidency much as the word reign was once used with kings.

It serves no useful purpose to distinguish between a king’s private and his public morals. The word reign properly includes them both, much as does the word presidency, while the older expression, administration, assumes that, whatever the character differences among presidents, they will be small enough to allow us to direct most of our attention to their policies, appointments, and abilities to administer the executive branch of government.

Some of the recent writing in history and political science, with its emphasis on the character and psychology of our presidents, suggests that our government has changed so much that Jerry Ford will have a presidency and not an administration, whether he likes it or not. In that case, the President’s proposal of a semi-amnesty for Vietnam War resisters and Vestal’s delineation of him as a hard-working, benign family man give clues that are as important to us as it once was for the peasantry to know if the new king was going to be harsh or lenient, extravagant or parsimonious.

In and of itself, the chasing of Nixon from power doesn’t prove that we have saved ourselves from elective autocracy. Maybe we have, but the pattern of autocratic government is the expulsion of despotic rulers precisely because no way exists to limit their power while in office. If what we’ve actually done is replace a bad king with a good one without abridging the power of the throne, it …

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