Remember those newsreel clips of vast convoys of limousines and “flower cars” rolling into a cemetery for the burial of some assassinated Mafioso? The whole gangster “community” (is that an oxymoron?) would turn out to wish him a fond farewell, including the very enemies who ordered or even carried out his killing. Those extravaganzas, like the famous funeral for Dion O’Banion after his assassination in 1924, were beyond grotesque.
Gangland funerals have now been “mainstreamed,” however. We saw one this past December when President George H. W. Bush received a well-deserved sendoff after a long and productive life. Mr. Bush was an entirely honorable man, of course, although you wouldn’t have known it during his presidential term or when he ran for a second term against a randy opponent who never saw a skirt he didn’t want to chase. Then, liberal media (but I repeat myself) savaged Mr. Bush as an out-of-touch rich guy who had no right to be president and had no idea what he was doing. The “gangland” aspect of Mr. Bush’s funeral was the lavish praise heaped upon him by media and political figures who had viciously slandered him when he was in office. But now he was: a war-hero; the last true Republican gentleman; an example to us all; a paragon; “an angel, not a man!” The prevailing media sentiment – everywhere felt but never spoken – was that “the only truly good Republican is a dead Republican.”
George H. W. Bush, ca. 1944
We had a dress rehearsal for the gangland funeral-shtick in January 2007, when President Gerald Ford – another decent and honorable man – was laid to rest. Mr. Ford died in his bed at age 93, but he had been politically assassinated much earlier – with words and images, not bullets – by those who despised him for pardoning the hated Richard Nixon. After his death, when he could no longer respond, those assassins preened, strutted and won brownie points for extravagantly eulogizing Mr. Ford – calling him “a great statesman who healed the country,” etc. What a crock! During his lifetime they said nothing of the kind.
TV talking heads who had savaged Mr. Ford over his pardon of Richard Nixon magically turned into ardent admirers after his death. What a prince of a guy he had become, in retrospect. Those chameleons relied on the fact that most Americans were too young to recall what really went down in 1974. But some of us did remember. Reporters were beside themselves with outrage over the pardon. The dazzling prospect of the prosecution, conviction and actual imprisonment of Richard Nixon – the potential story of the century – had been snatched away by an “accidental president” who knew (far better than they) that the country needed relief. Liberals were literally hopping mad over the pardon. Mr. Ford was “dead” before he got out of the presidential car. He never had a chance.
Who was this man who became far more popular in death than in life? Once upon a time, Gerald Ford was an ordinary American, Nebraska-born into modest circumstances in the long-ago year of 1913 – before the world wars, the Great Depression, big government, air travel, radio, TV, computers, and most of the “stuff” of modern life. Americans still earned and spent gold dollars during his boyhood. The Model T Ford (no relation) was just becoming America’s automobile.
Mr. Ford worked and studied hard, and used his athletic ability to get an education at the University of Michigan where he was a star center on the football team that won two national championships. He turned down pro football offers to coach football part-time while he earned a law degree. After service in World War II he married the beautiful Elizabeth Bloomer and was elected to Congress in the same year (1948).
Gerald Ford was a fiscally conservative Republican in a post-war Democratic Congress stocked with liberals who thought they could tax and spend the country into prosperity. (Sound familiar?) Mr. Ford got along with majority members, earned a reputation for fairness and straight dealing, and served as House minority leader from 1965 to 1973. He was a good and decent public servant when such qualities were actually valued in life – not just after you were dead.
Ratification of the 25th Amendment (which empowered appointment of a vice president if the office became vacant), coupled with the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew in October 1973, occasioned the appointment of Mr. Ford to the vice-presidency during Richard Nixon’s second term. After President Nixon resigned during the Watergate scandal, Mr. Ford became the first president to take the office without having been elected directly by the voters. The media paid him little notice, as they were completely focused on hounding Mr. Nixon until he could be jailed like the criminal they thought he was.
Restoring order after the Watergate nightmare was the hand Mr. Ford was dealt. It was an impossible hand with no high cards, but Mr. Ford played it as well as he could. Correctly seeing that the country could go nowhere while the Nixon “vendetta” continued – and that even judicial proceedings might be inconclusive – Mr. Ford issued the former president “…a full, free, and absolute pardon … for all offenses against the United States which he… has committed or may have committed or taken part in…” during his presidency.
It was, quite possibly, the wisest, most far-reaching single decision ever made by a president. Neither focus groups nor political sages recommended it, but Gerald Ford didn’t need them to tell him what to do. His pardon-address, broadcast to the nation on September 8, 1974, should be re-read by every American as a reminder of what real statesmanship once looked like.1 The pardon – which was absolutely essential – salvaged the country’s future, but it destroyed Mr. Ford’s political future. It made him anathema among liberal media elites who never forgave him for depriving them of the satisfaction of utterly destroying Richard Nixon.
In practical terms, the pardon and its aftermath further weakened an already weak president. Mr. Ford lacked the electoral mandate that lets a president tackle tough issues, so Congress ran amok during his tenure. Senator Frank Church’s committee on intelligence surveillance did great harm to America’s ability to counter subversive elements, but a powerless Mr. Ford couldn’t stop the damage. Likewise, the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975 was the product of congressional overreach and Mr. Ford’s weakened position. Congress had withdrawn Vietnam funding, but a stronger president could have dispatched troops to repel the communists, leaving the funding issue to be sorted out later. Being as crippled as Mr. Nixon ever was, Mr. Ford could do nothing as North Vietnamese regulars romped into Saigon and overran South Vietnam.
The media’s coup de grace was its cruel depiction of Gerald Ford as a complete stumblebum. This was a truly despicable aspect of his political assassination – the equivalent of disfiguring a victim’s face in a gangland murder. Although an excellent golfer, Mr. Ford hit an errant shot that struck a spectator at a crowded celebrity tournament. Later, media cameramen caught him tripping on the staircase from Air Force One. Network television ceaselessly ran the footage. Saturday Night Live spun the “clumsy” idea into legend with a long-running sketch featuring actor Chevy Chase as a hopelessly accident-prone Ford. Even the Pink Panther joined the fun. In “The Pink Panther Strikes Again” a clumsy, dim-witted Gerald Ford falls over furniture as he tries to find the Michigan football game on TV during a crisis in which the world might be destroyed.
Today, young people who never saw or heard Gerald Ford think he was the clumsiest president in history – the final calumny on possibly the finest athlete ever to sit in the Oval Office. Mr. Ford was still skiing in his 70s, but nothing was beneath those determined to ensure his political ruin. Chevy Chase’s post-funeral claim of what a “great relationship” he had with the Ford family was beneath contempt, but he certainly picked the right target. How long would he have lasted depicting Bill Clinton as a slavering lothario chasing teen-aged interns while the USA stood in mortal danger? No doubt he would have “slept with the fishes.”
Luckily, gangland funerals don’t occur often. I’ll be glad if future ones bury real Mafiosi who suffered “unfortunate accidents.” Gerald Ford – RIP. You never deserved what they did to you.
(1) Mr. Ford’s pardon speech: http://www.cnn.com/ALLPOLITICS/1997/gen/resources/watergate/ford.speech.html
Gerald Ford, ca. 1933