In defense of Gerald Ford | Don Brunell

Musings on a president's political courage and legacy.

At a time when too many politicians are obsessed with their poll numbers and their legacy, Pew Research says Gerald Ford will go down in history as just an “average” president.

An “average” rating would devastate most elected officials, yet that wouldn’t haunt the 38th president. Far from your “average” leader, Ford was willing to suffer defeat to do what he believed was best for our nation.

Much of Ford’s public image was reshaped when he pardoned Richard Nixon one month after Nixon resigned. One of the nation’s most vilified presidents, Nixon was about to be impeached for his role in the Watergate break-in.

Pardoning Nixon touched off a national firestorm. Ford, the well-liked and respected House minority leader, immediately became one of the nation’s most despised politicians.

Ford reasoned that America needed to get Nixon’s impeachment behind us. It was all-consuming. So, risking public backlash, he granted Nixon a full, free and absolute pardon, declaring, “Our long national nightmare is over.”

Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy immediately condemned Ford for the Nixon pardon but later became convinced that it was the right decision. Kennedy presented him with a Profile in Courage award, a family honor given to elected officials for decisions of conscience and principle.

Ford’s presidential fortunes faded for other reasons.

The biggest domestic crisis he faced as president was the financial default of New York City in 1975. For eight months, our most populous city stood on the brink of bankruptcy because city leaders had habitually spent more than they took in.

When Ford refused a federal bailout, the New York Daily News headline read, “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” He was willing to give the city federal loan guarantees, but only after its leaders had tidied up their financial house. Many believe the bailout battle cost Ford his election because he needed New York’s 41 electoral votes to win.

Today, in Ford’s home state of Michigan, a similar drama is playing out. Detroit has declared bankruptcy. With a debt approaching $20 billion, it is the largest U.S. city in history to file for Chapter 9.

Like New York, Detroit’s elected officials spent more than they took in. Generous public pensions were never fully funded. Officials hiked taxes to bring in more revenue, then hiked them again when businesses and workers moved out.

A bustling city of 1.8 million in 1950, much of Detroit now looks like a bombed- out ruin. The New York Times called Detroit, “home to 700,000 people, as well as to tens of thousands of abandoned buildings, vacant lots and unlit streets.”

In March, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder appointed Kevyn Orr as emergency manager of the city. After a four-month review of the city’s finances, including painstaking negotiations with bondholders, creditors and union employees, Orr and Snyder concluded that bankruptcy was the only option to rescue the failing municipality.

They filed bankruptcy papers on July 18, just minutes before lawyers from the unions filed papers to stop the bankruptcy. The issue is whether a federal bankruptcy court can reduce future pension benefits for city workers, something that is currently prohibited by the state constitution.

According to a Quinnipiac University poll, a majority of Democrats believe the federal government should bail out Detroit, but an even larger majority of Americans oppose a bailout.

How Detroit, the state of Michigan, Congress and President Obama handle the city’s financial crisis will set a precedent for how other cities and states deal with their failing finances and underfunded pensions.

They would be wise to take a page from Gerald Ford and make the tough decisions, regardless of the impact on their poll ratings or their legacy.


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