Monday, January 15, 2007


While many of us were vacationing, the entire nation mourned the passing of a former President. He was a President of a democracy in the truest sense of the term. Elected? No, not even. He was, in fact, the only President never elected either in that capacity or as a Veep. And yet the America he led was a democracy, he was the head of its government, and, unlike others who held that job in recent decades, he brought to the world’s most difficult job an ample supply of humility. He recognized that he was not a supreme visionary, not the most knowledgeable policy wonk, and far from being either a “natural aristocrat” of the Jeffersonian variety or a traditional/hereditary aristocrat of the Bush variety. The fact that he was never even elected to do the job was merely the cherry on top of the cake. Accordingly, he didn’t seem to let the power get to his head.

It is precisely because of that fact that so many of us mourned his death.

Let me first of all announce my biases. I am biased in favor of Gerald Ford because I am a Jew. In my culture, like most others, we have elevated one man as being above all others. In our case, the man is Moses, and we elevate him not because he was the wisest (like the Greeks elevated Socrates), not because he was the most loving (like the Christians elevated Jesus), and certainly not because he was the most knowledgeable or the most wealthy. We elevate him because he was the most humble – or at least that’s what the legend teaches.

On the other hand, I am biased against Ford because, he was a Republican and I am a Democrat. When he was President, I was a teenager and was taught by my parents that he was too conservative on the issues, too cuddly with the dishonest schmuck who elevated him to the office, and too damned stupid to warrant being in such a high position. We Democrats all had our share of laughs at Lyndon Johnson’s line that Ford “spent too much time playing football without a helmet.” And if that wasn’t funny enough, we had Chevy Chase, the comedian, who routinely started Saturday Night Live by imitating Ford acting like a schlemiel.

Who knows? Perhaps it was all the ridicule that we heaped on Ford’s supposed stupidity that drove him from the White House. I’d like to think it wasn’t the fact that he pardoned Nixon, because in hindsight, is there any doubt that this was the right thing to do?

Since Ford left the White House, we have perfected the job of political ridicule. We have learned not only how to make people laugh at our politicians, we’ve now learned to make people despise them. I can understand why people despise Bush. I can understand why people despise Clinton – Hillary or Bill. But I can’t fathom why there is so much loathing for the unassuming ones – the Gores, the Kerrys … who knows, perhaps soon, the McCains? Loathing is something we should reserve for a select few objects in our lifetime. Now, however, all you have to do is turn on talk radio and you will hear vitriol heaped on any politician that doesn’t side with the host. It’s the new mantra: “if we disagree, you must be evil and dishonest.” Pretty sick, I’d say.

Next time you’re driving home and listening to some bully on the radio shout down a caller and then dump all over a politician, remember Gerald Ford. Especially if you’re a Democrat like me, remember that man. You could disagree with him, you could laugh at him, but could you really dislike him? Could you fundamentally disrespect him? Could you desire to take away his dignity? It was pretty darned difficult to do any of those things. He was simply too decent a man. Too unassuming. Too humble.

I could praise certain things about the substance of his ideas, such as his interest in slowing the consumption of energy, but that’s really beside the point. Gerald Ford wasn’t our nation’s greatest intellect. He wasn’t our most charismatic leader. Nor, I would argue, was he our most courageous. But he was perhaps our nation’s foremost compass. He pointed to what characteristic is most important in a person who leads our country.

When you’re in charge of a great power, as we still are, it’s always hubris that gets you in the most trouble. That’s what people envision when they say that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I don’t know about you, but when I detect hubris in my nation’s leaders, I get pissed off. But today, I ask you not to dwell on any of that ugliness. I ask you to remember that loveable, alleged lunkhead, Gerald Ford. I ask you to recall his decency, his modesty, his humility, and his earnestness. And when you see other potential Presidents on the horizon, I’d ask you to figure out whether they share all those same characteristics. Trust me – you’ll sleep better if they do.

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