Wednesday, December 14, 2011

#96: 31 Days: Gerald Ford, the Nixon Pardon and a Government in Crisis by Barry Werth

Anchor Press, 2007. 416 pages

Most people my age and younger don't know anything about Gerald Ford. We know that he was clumsy, had a stuffed dog named Liberty and invited Homer over for salsa and football. I never really considered his presidency that important; this is quite foolish, coming as it did directly after The Great Evil of Politics (Nixon) and during the Great Evil (Disco). Throw in the tail end of Vietnam, inflation and Henry Kissinger, and this caretaker between Nixon and Nixon's Reaction (Carter) becomes downright important.

Ford steps from these pages as what seems like a genuinely decent and kind-hearted fellow. He and Betty were a little scared of the White House at first. None of the staff would talk to them. When Betty asked the head steward about this, he told her that the Nixons viewed the staff as better seen and not heard. Ford was in an impossible situation. He was painfully aware that he had not been elected either VP or President, many looked at him as illegitimate, Nixon thought he was an oaf and Ronald Reagan told him "I'm going to remain an independent" when he was approached as a possibility as Ford's VP.

The book is in many ways a discussion of the rightward move of the Republicans. Looking at Ford (and Nixon's) policies in comparison to the current batch of Potato Heads, they look When Ford chose Nelson Rockefeller as his VP, it pissed off the right wing of the party, who focused on Ronald Reagan as a candidate to beat Ford in 1976. One of the people also looked at for the VP position was George H.W. Bush, who was "devastated" when he did not get the call. Notable among Ford's staff are Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, but they are sideshows for most of the text.

While the title focuses on the pardon of Nixon and the decision making that went into it, the real meat of the book is the transition between two very different styles of management and governance. In the middle of this is Al "I'm in Charge Here" Haig, who was basically the de facto president during Nixon's last weeks and months in office. He made Ford nervous, and rightfully so. Nixon was an autocrat while Ford was more of a consensus builder. Werth does an excellent job of fleshing out what the difference in Ford and Nixon meant for the cabinet members, White House staff and the press corps. It was literally a whole new system for everyone involved. It also shows the benefits and perils of having a lifelong Representative in the Oval Office. While the book kind of drags, it is a good up-close look at how the government worked in a very strange time.

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