Saturday, December 30, 2006

Gerald G. Ford

I remember that John Denver song, the full text of which is:

"This is the ballad of Gerald R. Ford,
And all the things he's done."

Now take a look at Paul Constant's article from The Stranger:

"What Gerald Ford saved us from was a nation where Richard Nixon went to jail or committed suicide, a nation where politicians would have to face real legal consequences for their actions, a nation where politicians are responsible for the people under them, and to the people who voted for them. What Gerald Goddamned Ford gave to America is the wave of cynicism that has dominated politics and ensured wave after wave of ever-worsening Republican presidents, preying on our basest fears."

11 comments:

mrjumbo said...

It's an interesting question: Would pursuing a further case against a President who had resigned in disgrace have been better for the national psyche or not?

I think by the time Nixon resigned, the facts of the break-in and coverup were not being argued and had been made public in the press and in Senate hearings. That's one possible goal of a trial.

Had Nixon been impeached by the Senate, probably the worst they would have done to him would be what he had already done to himself: remove him from office. Had he been tried by a court system, he might have been required to do some time.

But the trial process would have been full of accusations and denials, courtroom swagger, technical legal issues--all the tools any responsible lawyer uses for his client. In retrospect it appears to me that putting Nixon through a criminal trial could have muddied the waters further.

And it would have riveted national attention at a time when (one can always argue this point) we probably would have done better to focus on the next big issue. This one had been largely resolved.

We were denied the spectacle of seeing the President punished; instead he punished himself. And we did get to see that--the resignation statement, the chopper ride away from the White House.

I know a lot of people would have loved to see Richard Nixon ridden out of town on a rail. But I wonder whether pursuing the case further would have been the best thing for the country at the time.

It was sure an interesting time in U.S. history.

Andrew Shields said...

Constant seems to me to be saying that the stuff about the "national psyche" is bullshit. That in fact the pardon implied that president would not be held accountable for their actions. And which of them since then has? Reagan got out of Iran-Contra with "I didn't know." Whatever you think of Clinton's acts, he was not made responsible for them. And the current President will surely never be challenged about his repeated violations of the law. All that has nothing to do with "long national nightmares"; it has to do with legal accountability for potentially criminal behavior on the part of politicians.

All this from someone who lived in England from September 1973 to June 1974, thus missing most of the Watergate stuff! :-)

mrjumbo said...

In a criminal trial, generally the main goal is to determine what happened and punish the offender. In a political trial, you add the goal of letting the public know what happened.

Various "truth commissions" in countries outside the U.S. have emphasized setting the public record straight at the expense of punishment. Amnesty is granted to those who make a full confession of what they did. I think particularly of South Africa, and I think some Latin American countries have done something similar after long periods of dictatorship.

I don't mean to raise the crimes of American Presidents to the level of some other national catastrophes. I think we can distinguish the gravity of a political burglary from that of apartheid, or widespread executions of political opponents, or "ethnic cleansing."

I agree that Reagan got off the hook, but I don't agree that Nixon or Clinton got off the hook. Clinton's crime, you will remember, was perjury. What he did with an intern in the Oval Office was not a crime. I'm not saying it was good or bright, but it wasn't illegal. And for his transgression he was paraded before the eyes of the world in shame. He was tried before the Senate for his perjury. What more do we need from him?

And likewise, I'd say Nixon's punishment was losing his job. I honestly doubt the Senate would have handed down worse to him if the impeachment had gone through. The facts had already been established (well enough for me, anyhow) in the public record. All that remained was a trial. But the punishment and the shame and the disgrace were all clear for all the world to see. I'd hardly say he was not held accountable.

What Ford spared us was a grueling trial. Did O.J. Simpson's trial make the world a better place? Did Bill Clinton's impeachment improve America's moral fiber?

Constant doesn't sound to me as if he's particularly trying to make sense; his tone is that of someone who's outraged and doesn't want to be bothered with the facts. In fact, he sounds more like someone who's trying to find anything provocative to say about an American President better known for hitting bystanders with golf balls than for any particular presidential act. Constant's job is to fill column inches and try to make them sound interesting. He knows his audience, and he's got to find something to write.

I don't think you can say that Richard Nixon was not held accountable. He surrendered the highest office in the land--possibly the world. I'm not here to defend him or to argue that he didn't commit a crime. He ordered political harassment and he ordered the cover-up of a rather pointless burglary. He was caught. The facts came out. He agreed to a punishment. Prosecutors make these deals all the time.

And who knows? Maybe there should have been a trial. Maybe it would have improved us all. Maybe if there had been a trial, Ronald Reagan never would have tried his Iran-Contra stuff. I'm a cynic; I doubt it would have made a difference. Hubris attaches itself to authority. I'm certainly not going to froth at the mouth as Constant does in support of my point. I can see there's another side to it.

What bothers me more, frankly, is the "I was too stupid to know better" defense from White House administrations. Ollie North was a prime example: Here's a guy who as a Marine swore to defend the U.S. Constitution, and he's blithely walking past all kinds of constitutional and legal restrictions to raise money and kill people--and smiling his big gap-tooth grin as he does it. That kind of Marine should be put in the brig for life. If I believed in capital punishment, surely here's a case for it. If he knew better, he should be on trial for high treason. If he didn't know better, he should be drummed out of his commission.

And now we've elected ourselves a gap-tooth President who's not much brighter. The best way to defend the Constitution, he figures, is to trim it back so it's harder to attack. All that business about not messing with religions and about protecting citizens accused by the government and about executing the laws the legislature has enacted--that just slows down democracy, right?

The maddening thing is not just that half the voters in the U.S. were stupid enough to be fooled by a fool the first time; it's that even after he'd shown for four years what a clown he was--and what a threat to our national security and institutions--the U.S. electorate put him in office again.

That says a lot about where we are as a people at this point in history. The majority of the voting population is blithely unbothered by the fracture and erosion of our bedrock values. As long as they get home at night and the TV still works, some fast talkers from Washington can bamboozle them out of their birthright and they won't mind.

That bothers me more than the fine point of whether a President who resigned in disgrace should have been given a fair trial.

But I've worked in the media, and I know Constant had to come up with something to say before deadline, so I understand where he's coming from too. Why bother trying to inject a little reason into the exchange of ideas, when it's easier to blur the details and get excited like those guys in Washington do? Go ahead--hang cynicism around Gerald Ford's neck--blame him--it never existed before him, right? Sprinkle in a little profanity to underline your points and make you sound more passionate, more committed to whatever the argument is. In fact, use a couple cuss words any time you need to patch some gaps in your reasoning. How bright are the readers in the first place? Why care whether you educate these people? The more rabid the accusation, the truer it will ring. The job of the journalist is not to educate the voting public. It's to excite them.

And to keep the ad for "Deja Vu Showgirls" across the page from the ad for "Club Lagoon."

Damn. There I go being cynical again. Well, at least now I know whom to blame.

Andrew Shields said...

So should GWB face trial or not? :-)

Alternative question: Since Ken Lay resigned from Enron, wasn't he already punished? So what was the trial for?

mrjumbo said...

I don't know why everybody feels like they have to pick on GWB. He's just an aging leader, in frail health, and a trial for him would amount to a death sentence, because his constitution isn't strong enough to . . . oh, wait, that was Pinochet. Sorry.

Re the Ken Lay thing, a good question: Several of Nixon's henchmen did time in various federal pokeys. Why not RMN too? It's possible that, had federal prosecutors been given free rein, he would have been convicted and given a prison sentence. It's equally possible he would have dodged the bullet. Remember he was a nimble politician and attorney. In the Senate Nixon no doubt would have been convicted. In a court of law, who knows? All kind of procedural rules come up, and a slippery enough fish can wriggle out of a lot of damning evidence.

He'd already been convicted in the court of public opinion, and I don't think even he argued with the facts of what he'd been involved in, as demonstrated by ample evidence.

Is resigning the highest office in the land a worse punishment than resigning leadership of a publicly held company? How does stealing thousands of people's retirement savings compare with abusing presidential powers? Who deserves what punishment? I won't pretend to have answers.

A separate question, and one that could be applied to more Presidents than just Nixon or Bush or Clinton: What if they were prosecuted for all the other times they broke the law but were never caught? As Presidents, they're specifically exempted from misdemeanors, but surely we could find other felonies if we could look under every rock.

Human law, fortunately for most of us, still requires the culprit to be caught before he is tried.

Donald Brown said...

Good discussion. I'm with Mr. J on the quotation from Constant: it's self-righteous hyperbole that the so-called Left likes to fling about. Making Ford "the start" of presidential non-accountability is silly, gives him way too much historical importance.

At home for the holidays I saw a little editorial about Ford that claimed he led "with grace"! How's that for rewriting history? The op-ed made it sound like Chevy Chase's jibes (mentioned) came out of nowhere and that pardoning Nixon was "what the country needed." Then there was a one-line sentence declaring that the pardon possibly cost him an election. I imagined an editor saying, "you can't whitewash everything" and demanding some such line, which baldly stuck out from the rest of the piece.

I think the Denver song sums up Ford well enough. I don't think a trial of Nixon was needed, though for some it was devoutly to be wished. But it did irk mightily that his appointed and never elected stooge Gerry could decide he wouldn't be tried.

Andrew Shields said...

Ford? Grace? That's not rewriting history; that's somebody on counterfactuals. :-)

Andrew Shields said...

On Mr. J's last entry, this bit from Hendrik Hertzberg in the Nov. 20 New Yorker: "Bush said some of the right things at his press conference, but ... he looked like a man who at that moment would much prefer to be commissioner of baseball, the job he longed for in 1993, before falling back on running for governor of Texas."

Andrew Shields said...

Just found this:

Henry’s Elegy For The King Of “You Scratch My Back
And I’ll Scratch Your Back”

President Ford has died,
President Chevy has died,
President Buick has died,

President Saab has died,
President BMW has died,
President Toyota has died,

President Yugo has died,
President Ford has died---
Fix or repair daily no more.

http://chicanopoet.blogspot.com/2007/01/henrys-elegy-for-king-of-you-scratch.html

renew said...

Trial or pardon? You guys should really check out Mr. Fish's latest cartoon on Harpers.org. I love it.

P.S. colors are great now

Donald Brown said...

Boy, does that poem suck.