Character, Courage – Part II

Published: September 26, 2011

By Jim Lichtman
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“Gerald R. Ford became President not because he was popular with the American public, not because he campaigned for the job, but because of his character,” writes James Cannon inCharacter Above All, a collection of essays about presidential character and courage.

“More than any other president of this century,” Cannon says, “Ford was chosen for his integrity and trustworthiness; his peers in Congress put him in the White House because he told the truth and kept his word. He was nominated for Vice President after Spiro Agnew was forced to resign to avoid indictment for accepting bribes. Ford was confirmed by a House and Senate that expected him to replace a President who was also facing indictment for crimes……

“Ford personified what Nixon was not. Ford was honest. He could be trusted. Throughout twenty-five years in the House of Representatives, Ford had proved himself to be a man of integrity. It was for that integrity that the highest powers of Congress, Democratic and Republican, chose Ford to be Vice President, knowing that Nixon’s presidency was doomed……

“On the afternoon of Agnew’s resignation, Nixon invited the two Democratic leaders, Speaker Carl Albert and Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, to the White House to get their advice about the best nominee to replace Agnew. Albert suggested Jerry Ford. He would be easily and quickly confirmed, Albert said. Nixon turned to Mansfield. He agreed that Ford would be a good choice….. Speaker Albert said later: ‘We gave Nixon no choice but Ford. Congress made Jerry Ford President.’

“In choosing Ford, both Albert and Mansfield believed they were selecting the next president and that Ford had the experience, the qualities of leadership, and the character to serve as President…….

“On July 24, 1974, the Supreme Court ruled 8-0 that Nixon must give up the White House tapes. Nixon knew he was trapped. His lawyers told him that refusing the Court order would bring impeachment. Only Nixon knew, at that point, that disclosing the tapes of his crime would also be cause for impeachment, and probably prosecution.
In desperation, Nixon telephoned John Mitchell, his senior lawyer and trusted friend, for advice, in the hope of avoiding prison.

“Mitchell’s reply was characteristically brief and blunt: Dick, he said, make the best deal you can and resign.

“Nixon made his decision: he would send General Haig, his chief of staff, to see Vice President Ford and suggest that he would resign as President if Ford would agree in advance to pardon him.

“Nixon’s attempt at a deal turned out to be an extraordinary test of Ford’s character……

“For twenty-four hours Ford pondered Haig’s proposal. He listened to his wife and three other advisers. All pleaded with him to reject the deal. Still he debated: What was best for the country?

“On the afternoon after Haig had proposed the deal, Ford brought in Bryce Harlow, a close friend who had counseled every president since Eisenhower. Harlow listened to Ford’s account of what Haig proposed, and with quiet eloquence brought Ford to see that any deal was tainted, and that the national interest would not be served by replacing one flawed presidency with another. So Ford called Haig and told him no deal…

“On Sunday, September 8–just one month after he became President–President Ford granted a pardon to Richard Nixon for all the crimes he committed while he was President. The reaction across America was outrage. Instead of ending the Watergate tragedy, the pardon seemed to reopen the wound.

“Ford was shocked. He expected the pardon of Nixon to be unpopular, but he was stunned by the vehemence of the public reaction. Forgiveness was so great a part of Ford’s nature that he thought the American people would be forgiving, that they would accept Nixon’s resignation as punishment enough……

“The pardon, coming only one month after Nixon’s resignation and Ford’s inaugural, also provoked a new suspicion to imperil Ford’s fledgling presidency: Was there a deal between Nixon and Ford?

“Responsible voices in Congress raised the question… To make a truthful response, Ford knew that he would have to disclose that Al Haig, Nixon’s chief of staff, had proposed a pardon as a condition for Nixon to resign. With his usual directness, Ford decided the best way to handle the problem was for him to go up to the House, testify, and spell it out…

“Ford did testify before Congress, as no president had ever done before. Before the House Judiciary Committee, Ford gave his account of what happened in his meeting with Haig. Was there a deal? one representative asked.

“Ford’s reply was blunt: ‘There was no deal. Period. Under no circumstances.’ …..

“By pardoning Nixon, Ford hoped to close Watergate. In that he failed. But it was his judgment then, and it remained his judgment, that a two-year public trial of former President Nixon in the courts and by the press would be far more damaging to the progress and well-being of the country than a pardon. Ford blamed himself for not doing a better job of justifying his decision, but he never doubted that he acted in the national interest.”

On assignment for a local television station near Rancho Mirage, California, I had the opportunity to meet and speak with President Ford on two occasions. Although the first encounter was brief, I was struck by his genuineness and complete lack of guile. On the second occasion, he presented himself as nothing less than what he appeared – straight-forward, albeit less charismatic as some, but someone who expressed a quiet integrity – the kind that did not need to draw attention.

Although I have since forgotten the specifics of our conversation, I remember him listening to my questions with a serious sense of duty. He seemed legitimately engaged without any political pretense. The end of that second conversation convinced me that this was someone I could trust to carefully listen before making a decision. And it was that unmistakable trust and integrity that led me to vote for him.

One wonders how Ford would react to the lack of trust and integrity in the current Congress.


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