The Decline of the American Presidency

01/03/2007 02:39 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It is a sorry state of affairs, but a sure sign of the times, when
posthumous praise is heaped upon a bland, uninspiring, inexperienced
leader -- a man who only accidentally became president and who only
marginally will appear in the history books.

We are constantly hearing that Gerald Ford was a good man, a
gentleman, serious and kind and forgiving. Too forgiving, indeed, as he
pardoned his friend and former boss for the egregious deeds he committed
while allegedly serving his nation. In letting Richard Nixon off the
hook, Gerald Ford deprived all Americans -- politicians and the general
populace alike -- of a necessary object lesson, and prevented true closure
on an appalling chapter in our history.

But I digress. What is striking now is how this simple man has
suddenly become an icon of honest government. His brief term in office,
far from being Camelot, was a kind of Boy Scout camp in the Adirondacks:
good fresh air, camaraderie, and no parental oversight. Until the next
election, America coasted along.

Our presidents since Ford have been less fortunate, and much more
controversial. They have also had a more difficult world to deal with,
and did not always deal with it wisely. Each had his special nemesis:
Carter had his hostages in Iran, Reagan had his Evil Empire, Bush Sr. had
his Gulf War, and Clinton had.....well, you know. George W. is his own
nemesis. He has surpassed them all -- in ignorance, arrogance, and

So it really should come as no surprise if Americans are looking back
wistfully, and appreciating the decency and dignity of Gerald Ford. Those
are two qualities that have been lacking in our leaders for a very long
time. But it's also true that our burgeoning communications technology
has been cruel, bringing every twitch and wrinkle into full view on our
computer screens; and television pundits spare no one in their fierce
humor. Today, our leaders are shamelessly dissed and ridiculed, for our
amusement. Can you imagine Jay Leno, 65 years ago, making jokes about FDR
in his wheelchair?

For me, the dignity of the presidency disappeared when Lyndon Johnson
had abdominal surgery, and from his hospital bed lifted his pajama top to
display the scar. That picture made the front page of newspapers across
America. Can you imagine Eisenhower ever showing off a battle wound?

I don't know if decency and dignity will ever be restored to our
highest office, or if we will ever again respect those who govern us. The
moral erosion has taken place on both sides, the elected and the electors.
Perhaps we want glittering entertainers, or just the guy next door, in
the White House. Perhaps that's exactly what we'll get.