“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 would help to explain the near adulation which Just Plain Jerry’s ascension has been accorded by the media.
Granted the populace is in no mood to see another president dumped on, but many of the people who are writing about Ford with almost preposterous optimism would have died laughing at the thought of a President Jerry Ford a couple of years ago. It is a measure of how bad Nixon was that Ford looks good, but that’s scarcely any reason to make him look better than his record.
Nevertheless, the formal biographies in both The New York Times and The Washington Post omit discussion of Ford’s attempt to impeach Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas for frisking about with a twenty-three-year-old girl. The formal charges Ford laid against Douglas were hardly more serious than that, involving as they did publication of an excerpt of a book in a magazine containing dirty pitchers and an innocent connection with a foundation that may or may not have had dirty money in its treasury.
Vestal, who says in the book that Ford once helped him get a government job, is more forthcoming. He does discuss the Douglas incident, which is important in trying to understand Ford because it is one of the very few things the man has done on his own throughout twenty-five consecutive years of public office. We are dealing with a politician who voted on 4,000 pieces of legislation and authored none.
To Vestal’s credit, though a reporter for the very pro-Ford Booth newspaper chain in Michigan he does not gloss over the Douglas affair: “It was, in the handling and execution, in the articulation, unworthy of Ford. At times he sounded like a farmboy at the carnival, demanding that sheriff’s deputies raid the kootch dancers’ tent. He actually carried with him, to show reporters, a magazine containing an article by Douglas juxtaposed to a photograph of a naked woman, which he termed pornographic.”
We also learn from Vestal that Ford was given information on Douglas from the Justice Department and also from Barry Goldwater; in the words of Bob Hartmann, his principal staff man, “it never added up to sufficient grounds for impeachment.” But these are no more grounds for thinking Ford will set up his own plumbers unit than believing, because the President has a Grand Rapids evangelist named Billy Zeoli who provides him with “prayer memos,” we’re going to get the Billy Graham treatment yet one more time. It is the same with L. William Seidman, a close Ford collaborator, whose auditing firm’s connection with Equity Funding Corp. of America could stand a lot more questioning. Still this is no basis for predicting Ford is going to invite Vesco to the White House.
You dilate on these inconclusive snippets of information because there’s nothing more substantial to feed on. You can sum up Ford’s dutiful, Nixon party-lining Republicanism in a sentence and then even his approving biographer must fill space by explaining why Ford got G. Gordon Liddy a job in Washington and why, at the behest of Robert N. Winter-Berger, a small-time influence jobber of poor repute, he tried to get a rich, campaign-contributing big-game hunter an African ambassadorship in some country where the main diplomatic duty is crouching behind a duck blind.
Vestal would have us believe these were lapses into honest chumpishness, but the truth is there in his book: Jerry Ford has spent most of his career doing the routine chores of patronage dispensation and money raising that somebody has to do if a political party is to stay in business. His has been the busy, eventful career of a party mechanic, and as such it’s not surprising that the most important event in it that Vestal can find to celebrate is the quick spat among House Republicans by which Ford beat out Charlie Halleck for the Minority Leader’s job.
Vestal would like to give us the idea that kicking out Halleck represented some unspecified reform movement against the old man whose chief sins seem to have been that he had a position Ford coveted and, more idiotically, that he was too close to the Southern Democrats in the House. A few pages further on Vestal takes that back when he writes that Ford also worked with the Southerners, “but not on Halleck’s crony-style, drinking buddy basis.” Finally, our author, who has written a flattering but honest biography, concedes that the only fruit of this miniscule party upheaval was that Ford got to take Halleck’s place on the Ev and Charlie Show, as the joint press conferences with the late Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen were called. “Ford,” we are informed, “played it square, an ideal straight man for the old maestro of the Senate GOP.”
It would be a minor disservice to the truth not to mention that Vestal, like everybody else, has pulled out reams of quotes by Ford talking about what we call the issues. Ford the super hawk, Ford the lawnorder man, Ford the budget cutter, Ford the tax spender—nobody took him seriously then when he said those things and it’s a mistake to do it now. It was Just Plain Jerry partying.
Not even when Ford sat on the Warren Commission did his views on the murder draw controversy toward him. The only fight he got into, if you care to call it that, was whether or not Portrait of the Assassin, a book bearing his by-line, was indeed written by him. And, in fact, the only real controversy that has ever raged around Ford’s head is whether he has anything in it. More breath has been wasted over whether Jerry has a double or triple digit IQ than over any thought he is known to have thunk.
The most quoted statement on his political beliefs is his remark that “I would say I am a moderate on domestic issues, a conservative in fiscal affairs, and a dyed-in-the-wool internationalist in foreign affairs,” which adds up to Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller. Ford has capped Rocky’s long career of failing upward with the second highest job in the country, but the choice of this man who has gone from being a false liberal to a false conservative does tell us something about where President Ford is headed.
It’s right down the path after the last five guys who had his job. It’s a road he knows, having been led down it by a succession of presidents. No man who had other ideas could have possibly chosen Rockefeller, the personification of corporate statism. The real conservatives in his party know this by instinct and disappointment. Lacking any other party they will support him, while recognizing that the last thing Jerry Ford will be is the second Herbert Hoover some liberals take him to be.
Would that Ford had the elevated principles and the knowledge of Hoover, but he is Just Plain Jerry who doubtless does believe Nelson Rockefeller will put him in touch with the best brains in the country. What will they tell him? That he’ll do all right if he stays out of a land war in Asia? That the way to run the country is the way Ike did? If you stay humble, you’ll stay lucky?
But whatever the style of the reign, be it ever so Jefferson simple and Lincoln plain, it is hard to imagine that he can get by for six years on all the orthodox cleverness that Rockefeller can buy out of Harvard or draft out of the foundations. Poor Jerry, with what is coming it will do him little good to go to the door and greet his future in slippers and blue pajamas. Tender husband, loving father of four, loyal friend: his next biographer will find many nasty things to say.
September 19, 1974