I was out in Desert Hot Springs when the news came that Gerald Ford was finally eaten by wolves, and the Choachella valley locals took it hard. Such a nice man, they all said. Which, of course, is what everyone said. Everyone except Ford's many critics. Here are the mounting attacks of his brief tenure:
1. Ford's pardon of Nixon was not a martyr's act in the service of the national psyche but a reprieve for a criminal; one that --
2. Nourished the seeds of the imperial presidency planted by Nixon disregard for the law.
3. He really couldn't fart and chew gum at the same time, as evidenced by his confusion over the Helsinki Treaty and the basic geopolitics of the Cold War.
4. Ford let the barbarians in the gate by elevating Rumsfeld and Cheney from obscurity to successive Secretaries of Defense.
5. Even Pat Buchanan chimed in, implicating Ford the Softie in the loss of Saigon, Laos and Cambodia.
Come on people! If you can't say something nice...
Let's all take a deep breath, and find some kind words for the president who helped create Saturday Night Live. OK, you start. No, you start. Wait, can we pile on one more criticism first? OK.
The least mentioned point among the dueling Ford eulogies is the most important. Ford's biggest foreign policy folly was not saying that Poland was a free country on national television; it was giving the nod to Indonesian dictator Suharto to invade East Timor. I once saw Kissinger debating Kenneth Roth, and when confronted with East Timor -- both Kissinger and Ford gave Suharto the green light together, in person -- Kissinger said, "We didn't know. We thought it would be like Goa or Macao." Complete bullshit, of course, and the subsequent campaign and illegal occupation of East Timor resulted in a genocide of up to 200,000 people. Notably, there were no complaints at the time from those supposed idealists Rumsfeld or Cheney; interesting how only people in strategic, resource-rich areas deserve freedom and purple fingers. Maybe neoconservatism was so neo in 1975 that it hadn't yet consolidated its unflinching commitment to democracy. Either way, for those who criticize Ford for letting the Rumsfeld/Cheney wing get the best of the establishment Republicans by the end of Ford's stunted administration, it's hard to sort out the lesser of two evils at that critical juncture. George W. Bush's presidency may be febrile, but before that was the cold bath of Kissinger.
On to the nice stuff. There's so many pundits facing into the wind of the supposed Gerald Ford hagiography, it already seems like the way to buck the trend is to say he really was just what the country needed after Nixon, and really such a nice man to boot. I won't go that far, but it may be a measure of the times that even with a genocide under his watch, Ford's moderate Republican ideology, particularly on domestic issues, feels so nostalgically refreshing you sometimes wish you could huff it in a bag.
Buchanan thinks Ford was a softie precisely because the accidental president was not an ideologue. Ford may not have identified himself as a Rockefeller Republican, but he had Nelson Rockefeller as his Vice President, and would have been a conservative Democrat by today's standards. He criticized Johnson's Great Society programs, not for their objectives but their efficiency. He certainly didn't believe in eviscerating the government while running a deficit.
He was most moderate on social issues. In 1999, before Bush the Uniter split the country into polarized political camps and made Republican moderation a quaint memory, Ford told Larry King that "the Republican Party ought to be the party of the middle, not the party of the extreme right wing." Two years later, once Bush's tenure elevated gay-baiting as a signature Republican wedge issue, Ford joined the advisory board of the Republican Unity Coalition, saying "I think [gays] ought to be treated equally. Period." And of course we've heard a great deal about Ford's early but quiet criticisms of the Iraq War. This kind of republicanism is what Reagan ran -- and won -- against in 1980. Today's Republican party takes that rebellion to wild extremes, unmooring itself from its own history (and reality), and Ford's death means one more loose tether is blowing in the wind.