Jeff Kallman's excellent The Easy Ace: A Journal of Classic Radio
is a wonderful place to spend hours on end, rediscovering the Golden Age of Radio
as it's meant to be discovered and celebrated. Article after article
is filled with a wonderful new vignette about Golden Age Radio History.
---The Digital Deli Online.

[I]n his matchless on-this-day approach to chronicling “yesteryear,”
he easily aces out a less organized mind like mine,
which promptly lapsed into a more idiosyncratic mode of relating the past.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Gerald Ford, RIP: A Certain Decency

The mourning is for a pretenseless man asked to perform the impossible, managing in the long run to satisfy us that we’d settled for the reasonable while he performed it, and bearing one or two discomfiting variations.

But we bear in mind that defining “reasonable” has been arduous business in his and our times alike. In office he was damned for failing to perform the impossible; in retirement he was revered for performing the reasonable, all things considered, and then walking quietly off into the thirty-year sunset of a life content in modesty.

We can do an awful lot worse than Gerald Ford has done for an epitaph, and there are those who try to make his an awful lot worse. The Pardon still seems the defining hour of his presidency-by-default if you reference the obituarists’ keyboards when the news broke upon his death the day after Christmas.

It was an hour about which Mr. Ford himself wrote in a tone that makes a fair reader picture him spiritually exhausted until the moment in which he actually made the decision. If definitions of courage include ardent soul struggle that instructs you to obstruct a lynch mob obedience to whom would send your approval ratings through the ionosphere, Gerald Ford’s image will appear next to the text.

Subsequent hours under Mr. Ford's aegis straddled between inspiration and infuriation with a gait as uneasy as his own seemed to be, at times, when you saw stroll the White House greenery. In one hour he could and did instruct one of history's most grotesque murder parties that a failure of will in Vietnam was not to be mistaken for a failure of strength when they seized an American freight ship under no military flag. Not even the randiest comedian performing the most deft of pratfalls at the expense of Mr. Ford's alleged, later-life physical dissemblage, could have denied that in that hour he was a man of impeccable coordination in the most imperative faculties.

But in another hour Mr. Ford could and did expose himself as a kind of rhetorical if not spiritual klutz. He could and did instruct the Communist homeland that nothing should stand between the United States and the Soviet Union in pursuit of the disingenuous arms pact, not even a Nobel laureate whom Mr. Ford turned from the White House door on the specious (and not exactly true) grounds that he was following his Soviet expulsion with an American tour whose primary purpose was commerce.

[Aleksandr I.] Solzhenitsyn became a nuisance to Gerald Ford when AFL-CIO president George Meany invited Solzhenitsyn to Washington to give a speech in which he reiterated his low opinion of detente, as the United States practises it. He believes this policy reduces the United States to craven, degrading reticence about slave labour, concentration camps, and other problems of human rights in the Soviet Union.

. . . [M]ere truthfulness does not redeem politically inconvenient speech, and Solzhenitsyn carries free speech to inconvenient conclusions.

. . . Press secretary Ron Nessen, keeper of the presidential image, explained that Ford could not see Solzhenitsyn because of a "crowded schedule." Nessen added: "For image reasons the President does like to have some substance in his meetings. It is not clear what he would gain by a meeting with Solzhenitsyn."

---George F. Will, "Snubbing Solzhenitsyn," The Washington Post, 11 July 1975; republished in The Pursuit of Happiness, and Other Sobering Thoughts (New York: Harper & Row, 1978).

Solzhenitsyn, if one has not read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, or The First Circle, or [The] Gulag [Archipelago], is like Shakespeare if one has not read King Lear or Hamlet: a mere evocation. I earnestly hope and pray that Gerald Ford has never read a work by Solzhenitsyn. If it were confided to me that he had done so, and even so refused to greet Solzhenitsyn in the White House and count that moment his most intimate contact with the divine circuitry of the human spirit, he should ever after be despised as a philistine . . .

If added strength were needed to communicate [Solzhenitsyn's] message, Ford has given it. The only good Russian is the lockstep Communist. On this Ford and Brezhnev are agreed. We call it detente.

---William F. Buckley, Jr., "On Refusing to Greet Solzhenitsyn," National Review, 12 July 1975; republished in A Hymnal: The Controversial Arts. (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1978.)

Some commentators review Mr. Ford's lack of adventurism, but the lack wasn't necessarily terrible until accosted circumstantially. It was not his fault a few unnerving economic indicators poked their noses out of their holes just days before he might have earned a term in office in his own right. But people rubbed their eyes and ears for weeks beyond Election Day after he suggested the satellite for whose capital the Warsaw Pact was named was not then dominated by Moscow. "[L]ost in the labyrinth of peculiar thinking and rhetoric that went with detente," is how Mr. Will described it retrospectively.

To what extent it was lost may be debatable, if you ponder the American Enterprise Institute's Steven F. Hayward at National Review Online. The suggestion, he writes, "arose from a clumsy attempt to preserve the latitude of the Helsinki Accords that were widely reviled on the right, but which in the fullness of time served their intended purpose of undermining the legitimacy of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe and emboldening anti-Communist dissidents. Amidst the enervating fog of detente at the time, this was impossible to foresee, even if Ford had phrased his argument more deftly. In hindsight we can now appreciate that Ford served us very well."

In one sense can Mr. Ford's clumsiness, be traced to a certain decency about which Robert Novak wrote quietly enough: "He was the only President in my experience who entered the Oval Office wanting to shrink rather than expand powers of the office. In a conversation with him as Vice President, Ford recommended to me The Twilight of the Presidency by George Reedy---an indictment of monarchial pretensions. Ford told me all recent presidents, including his hero Dwight D. Eisenhower, were guilty."

His concern for shrinking rather than expanding the powers of his office tied to no known concern for shrinking rather than expanding the powers of the State. "He did not understand the prairie fire signaled by the California tax revolt, and did not see it roaring east," writes former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan. "He did not fully understand how offended the American public was by endless government spending and expanding federal power. He did not see the growing estrangement between Republicans on the ground and a leadership they saw as tax collectors for the welfare state."

He had shown what he didn’t see in an arduous 1976 primary at the end of which Mr. Reagan had nearly overthrown him for the Republican presidential pennant. "He remains a long way," observed Murray Kempton, in a Harper's convention analysis and postmortem (November 1976 issue), "from ceasing to remind us of Kafka’s image of the candidate about whom it was no longer possible to tell whether he was outlining his program or crying for help."

But it is Mr. Kempton’s subsequent observation that we might review even more acutely. "We may have been brought, by the distortions worked by the urge to be great upon the characters of so many who came before him, to an exhaustion where we can hardly conceive of believing again in a President we dare think of ourselves as needing; if Mr. Ford survives, it will be because he is so patently a President who needs us."

As a sitting President Mr. Ford did not survive beyond the coming general election. His successor would epitomise effrontery as Mr. Ford epitomised discretion, long enough after their combine produced what even an ironist as gifted as Murray Kempton couldn't see on the threshold of the one handing off to the other, a President we dared to think of ourselves as needing.

What Mr. Ford could and did see was at least one explosive on the nation’s floor. Peggy Noonan wrote merely through an eye as sober as she called Mr. Ford’s mind when she remembered that "at that terrible time, after Watergate, he picked up the pieces and then threw himself on the grenade."

Time has been kind enough to name Mr. Ford a kind of hero, perhaps knowing the fraternity’s majority is men of sobriety enough to make him look transcendent of his pretenseless plainness. It’s a look Mr. Ford might dismiss through a shaft of smoke from his straight pipe, and a smile flashed only by a man whose soul search left him more at home in his own skin than was his country in its own the moment he ended the search with a bellyflop upon the Watergate grenade.


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