Monday, January 08, 2007

Gerald Ford: An Admirable Man in a Very Different Era

By Stuart Rothenberg

I never met former President Gerald Ford, but everything I know about him confirms that he was an honorable and decent man who sought to heal the nation’s wounds after the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

But I was at least mildly surprised that all of the kind commentary about his centrist views and bipartisan style — and all of the calls for his approach to be adopted by current Members of Congress and the executive branch — failed to note the differences between the political environment during which he served in government and the current one.

Yes, Ford approached colleagues, whether his Republican allies or his Democratic adversaries, with the kind of civility and moderation that we haven’t seen for many years. And yes, we all wish for less bitterness, more civility and more cooperation in Washington, D.C. If more elected officials acted toward one another the way Ford did with his colleagues and acquaintances, I expect the nation — and the nation’s capital — would be a better place.

But Ford was a product of a very different political era than the one we have today, and what was appropriate and entirely expected in the 1950s and early1960s simply would not fly today.

This is not meant to be a criticism of Ford, but rather of some of the wistfulness expressed by commentators during his funeral.

Ford was elected to Congress in 1948, less than three years after the end of World War II. During the 1950s, defense and international issues united Americans, and while the two parties had different views on the economy and even race, the first 12 or 15 years of Ford’s service in Congress occurred during a period of relative consensus in the country.

Abortion wasn’t an issue until the Supreme Court issued its decision in Roe v. Wade early in 1973. Gay rights wasn’t an issue at all. Nor was stem-cell research. And nobody had ever heard of Terri Schiavo. For most of Ford’s House service, the Vietnam War wasn’t an issue, and by the time he succeeded to the White House, Americans were trying to put Vietnam behind them. America’s religious revival didn’t occur until the mid-1970s.

Just as important, most of Ford’s tenure in the House occurred during a period of one-party rule. From the time they won control of the House in 1954 until he was selected by Nixon to fill the vice presidential vacancy, Democrats had a lock on the House of Representatives and, after 1958, the Senate as well. Knowing that they had no chance of winning a majority or of passing their own legislative agenda, Republican legislators on Capitol Hill tended to avoid confrontation with Democrats. That meant emphasizing collegiality over competition and personal friendships over confrontation.

Bipartisanship wasn’t merely a goal. It was a reality. Members socialized with each other and forged friendships. But they did it in an era when graciousness was commonplace, when “Father Knows Best” was a TV hit and when things were slower and simpler, and when modesty was a virtue that many admired.

So for Ford, it was relatively easy to be affable, likable, modest and moderate.

We live in a much more politically competitive environment. The country is roughly evenly divided between the two major political parties, and government is much larger and more involved in daily life than during the 1950s and early 1960s. All of that increases the political stakes of winning elections, and that in turn has led to a greater ferocity in our politics and political dialogue.

Members of Congress raise funds nonstop, and their every move is analyzed on the Internet, critiqued by the media and attacked in opposition press releases. They are constantly campaigning. That’s not how it was in Ford’s day.

If the Republicans had continued to play by Ford’s rules, they might never have won Congress in 1994. And if Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had played by Ford’s rules over the past two years, Democrats might not have taken the House and Senate in 2006.

It’s important to emphasize that the differences between Ford’s America and President Bush’s (and Pelosi’s) go well beyond politics. Today, good manners are the exception, not the rule. Loudmouths on talk radio (and for that matter on cable TV) don’t hesitate to yell their opinions to you. The Internet is filled with all sorts of bile and paranoia. For many, rules are regarded as quaint or restrictive and unnecessary.

Ford reflected the values of his era, as we all do. And yes, many of us would like to recapture some of the qualities of that time, as well as the former president’s decency and modesty. But our politics reflects our times, and our times, regardless of whether we like it, are much coarser, more confrontational and more ideological.

We may well be lucky enough to get a new president in 2008 who will unite the country and help change the tone in Washington. And paying tribute to Ford for his personal qualities is both understandable and appropriate. But it’s misleading to view our political leaders apart from the times in which they lived and worked, and it will take a remarkable and very lucky man or woman to change the mood we now have.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on January 4, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.