Sunday, December 31, 2006

A Grand Accident?

One of the common threads in all the eulogizing about President Ford has been how he was the right man to succeed Nixon and put the nation back together - in short how fortunate we supposedly were to have him hanging around in the wings when Agnew resigned. Here is a typical such paragraph:

It is always difficult to look back and say that a certain president was a failure in the strict sense of being a step backward. Ford was probably the right man for the right place in time. The contours of American history have a wonderful almost magical way of somehow weaving together, coming into focus and making sense only in retrospect. Gerald Ford's brief, unelected tenure has its own place in the mosaic.

I would just like to say that I don't think there's anything the least bit "magical" about the way the "contours of American history somehow weaved together" in this case. Quite the contrary - Ford's appearance on the scene at the right time is evidence of a functional system functioning. It would have happened at any point in recent American history.

Recall that Ford replaced Spiro Agnew as VP in 1973 after Agnew resigned over bribery allegations (which were true - he paid back all the money he was known to have accpeted in 1983 and was disbarred). Agnew believes that Nixon himself leaked a lot of the information about the bribery as a way of diverting attention from the budding Watergate scandal, and I have no reason to disbelieve him. We all know that Nixon was that kind of person, and anyway the tactic worked for a time.

Now further recall that Barry Goldwater's nomination as Republican for President in 1964 is widely seen as the first shot in the conservative revolution that would eventually bring Reagan to office in 1980. Nixon, who ran for president and lost in 1960 after having served two terms as Eisenhower's VP, was very much an establishment Republican. He was America's Teddy Heath - a "red tory" who was more about "good government" (read: patriotic government) than "small government." Spiro Agnew was a darling of the conservative insurgency and seen as a promising candidate for president in 1976 for that reason. But Nixon was coming under heavy fire from the Democrats as facts about Watergate emerged. He primarily needed someone who would appease them - someone to soften his image - and more importantly someone who would easily get congressional approval (and Congress was heavily Democrat). Ford it was. It couldn't really have been anyone else. Ford had made a career out of keeping his head low and smoothing over partisan disputes. He certainly had the experience - 13 times elected Representative from his home district and now Minority Leader in the House. And of course he got where he was in the first place by being acceptable to the Democrats (who had enjoyed recurring majorities in both houses in most of the postwar era) and simultaneously offending neither camp of Republicans - neither the new Conservatives nor the old Establishment.

Anyone else Nixon could have chosen would have offended someone. Ford got the job because he was "the right man for the right place in time." He was a screened candidate, and what qualified him were all the qualities that the pundits are now saying we were "lucky" to have in the president who succeeded Nixon: sincerity, willingness to compromise, humility, graciousness, ability to mollify the opposition, and generally not being one to rock the boat.

If Democracy has any virtues over and above being the least bad system of government, surely they are in precisely the kind of decentralization of power that made the Ford Administration possible. Any system that encourages open competition for power will tend to find "the right man for the right place in time" hovering about somewhere when it needs him - rather the way that companies that look beyond nepotism for employment strategies tend to do. 


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