…that’s how Gerald Ford described himself once, and there’s a lot to like in that phrase. It reflects a disarming personal modesty and a modest approach to the most powerful office in the world: two things we could use more of in our presidents.
Far too often, Americans look for heroism in their chief executives, a tendency that’s undemocratic and dangerous. It would be wiser to judge presidents through the prism of the med-school precept: “First do no harm.” And by that standard, Gerald Ford did pretty well.
Aside from Chevy Chase’s pratfalls, one of the first things that comes to most Americans’ minds when they think of Gerald Ford is the Whip Inflation Now campaign, with its chirpy little “WIN” buttons. Granted, the campaign was ridiculous: an exercise in futility roughly equivalent to Yippies trying to levitate the Pentagon. But better a silly campaign than a destructive one: compare WIN to Nixon’s wage and price controls. In the Whip Inflation Now speech Ford refused to seek comprehensive price controls, and he later made some progress towards getting rid of some price controls on oil.
Coming to power after three imperial and lawless presidents, Ford was sensitive to the temptations of power and the dangers of the White House “bubble.” He ordered his staff to read Twilight of the Presidency, written by LBJ’s former press secretary and special assistant, George Reedy. The book is a scathing critique of the modern presidency, particularly the president’s utter isolation from normal life, perpetually surrounded by supplicants and sycophants jockeying for his attention, which, as Reedy saw it, was “the cause of the many aspects of presidential behavior that are so strikingly similar to the conduct of kings and czars during the great days of monarchy.” (Unfortunately, the book seems not to have made much of an impression on Ford staffers Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.) Despite two attempts on his life in the space of three weeks, Ford refused to retreat behind a palace guard, bravely resisting Secret Service attempts to isolate him from the public.
Ford wielded the veto pen vigorously, as it should be wielded:
Ford vetoed more bills relative to time in office, an average of 26.4 a year, than all but three Presidents: Grover Cleveland, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Harry S. Truman. Most of the vetoes by Cleveland, Roosevelt, and Truman, however, had been of private bills, passed at requests by members of Congress to deal with particular problems of individual constituents. All but five of Ford’s sixty-six vetoes were of bills dealing with substantive policy issues. Many of Ford’s vetoes were delivered against major appropriations bills, passed by the Democratic Congress to counter the deep recession of 1974-1976. Such budget-breaking expenditures, the President argued, would set off a new round of inflation.
(Alas, he had limited success, as can be seen from this study [.pdf] by Cato’s Steve Slivinski). Not all of his vetoes were wise, but many were, including the veto threat that went down in history as “Ford to City: Drop Dead!”
As president, Gerald Ford did less harm than most of those who came before him, and most of those who followed. As the New York Times puts it in today’s obituary, “he placed no intolerable burdens on a weary land, and he lived out a modest philosophy.” In a healthier political culture, that wouldn’t sound like faint praise.