The Political Theater of President Ford

Sorry, but I dreaded my visit to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich. It had to be done, if only to see what thoughts it would inspire. As it turns out, I’m happy this institution exists. It is a real tribute to a great American who would have been much greater if he had never gone into politics.

What a fascinating pre-political life he had. His stepfather opened a paint and varnish store just before the 1929 crash, and the business somehow managed to survive and thrive through the Great Depression. Commerce and the struggle for material advancement defined his son’s character. It was that classic Midwestern combination: hard work, honesty and perseverance.

Ford was a top student and a football star all through high school. He was recruited by the pro teams after he finished undergrad with a degree in economics from the University of Michigan. Instead of going pro, he chose Yale Law School, where he also excelled. This was the late 1930s and early 1940s, and he, like many others of his generation, joined the effort to stop FDR’s drive for war.

This was old-school Republicanism. They knew that big government at home or abroad was dangerous to freedom. But once the war began, Ford enlisted, and it changed him forever. He came back a dedicated interventionist, and it seems that this was the driving force of his political life.

Eventually, he found himself in a very difficult spot. As an appointed vice president in Nixon’s second term, he assumed the presidency after Nixon’s resignation.

The conventional wisdom was that he governed under a cloud because he had never been elected. I can understand that. At the same time, this country is actually ruled by a vast and completely unelected federal bureaucracy that directly employs some 1.8 million people. Each exercises power over our lives and property.

No one elected them, either. Where’s their cloud?

Ford’s popularity immediately plummeted after he granted a full pardon to Richard Nixon. It was the right thing to do. Looking back, the supposed crimes of Watergate seem quaint, and even charming, by today’s standards. Nixon lied about a political break-in and this was said to have disgraced the office. Obama admits the truth about his drones and kill lists and he is up for a second term.

The Ford museum is set up as a kind of 1970s time capsule. It really works. If you really want to go back, this place makes it possible. The popular culture is all here, from the early ’70s to the election of Jimmy Carter, including the famously painful fashion trends. The blasts from the past are almost unbearable: troops marching on war protesters, the inflation menace, the price controls, the economic malaise.

In retrospect, this was the period when the whole postwar prosperity unraveled. The economic security that had been known for two generations vanished. This was best symbolized by the gas lines. American cities looked like what was then called the Third World, with lines many blocks long of people waiting to get fuel for their cars. Their cars would run out of gas in line and they would have to push them to the pump.

The underlying reason was obvious to anyone who studied the right kind of economics. Inflation pushed up prices and the government imposed price controls. It was a policy guaranteed to lead to shortages. But if you listen to the propaganda at the time, you would swear that not one person with power seemed to understand this basic point.

Ford had studied economics, but apparently the wrong kind. He had summit after summit on the subject of inflation. He declared that crushing it was his No. 1 priority. So we were told to roll back our standard of living, stop spending money on things that were going up in price, start making our own clothes, wear our “Whip Inflation Now” buttons.

Amazing. Incredible. The means to end the inflation and the shortages were right there at hand. The Ford administration could have ended the money printing and the price controls. He could have reversed Nixon’s disastrous monetary policy. Instead, the merchants were demonized as the real cause of the problem.

What is true now was also true then. Every bit of the suffering that Americans endured — the suffering that dealt a crushing blow to American culture and family and enterprise — was imposed by government. From the Vietnam War to the gas lines, it was all given to us by government. Politics and bureaucratic management were the poison wrecking American life.

Everyone knew something terrible was happening, but the entire establishment was determined to cast blame elsewhere: the oil-producing nations, the domestic merchant class and the speculators or the Soviets. Every once in a while, the truth would leak out: Henry Hazlitt would have an essay in the Reader’s Digest. Milton Friedman would attack the Fed in Newsweek. National Review ran some decent material in those days. Or you might, by chance, have ended up on the mailing list for The Freeman.

But there was no Internet. Mostly, people in the know were muzzled. There were three networks, three sources of news, plus our local papers that ran reports from the wire service. The country was unraveling, and most people remained hopelessly ignorant about why. That helps explains the rising nihilism of the time.

You would never know any of this from the Ford museum, of course. It is a monument to a president, not that different in spirit from the pyramids built for the Pharaohs. Every former president ascends to the clouds, just as in the ancient world.

And truly, I came away with a greater degree of admiration for Ford than I had previously. He was something of a tragic figure, a smart and good man who chose a terrible profession.

The museum also reminds me that 80% of politics are illusion. Politics is theater. It has little to do with life itself. To the extent that politics matters, the influence is wholly negative. It is about causing wreckage and then lying about the real source. It’s a great tribute to this country and its people that we have managed to survive the onslaught, year after year.

Gerald Ford’s stepfather managed to support his family in the midst of the New Deal calamity. He was an archetype for what every generation has dealt with ever since. We are victims of a voracious system, yet we are determined to survive and thrive despite all the barriers that the political world throws in our pathway. No one builds temples to honor this heroic feat.

What I did not learn from the Ford museum is an interesting fact that came out only after his death in 2006. He was against the Iraq War. Had he been president, he says, he never would have started that disaster. There we have it: Every president is better out of power than when exercising it. There’s a lesson in this observation.

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