A Tale of Two Ex-Presidents

Gerald Ford's death has brought back into the news for a few days a lot of  political history that roughly half of all living Americans were born too late to experience. Watergate, Richard Nixon's resignation, the collapse of the South Vietnamese government and the evacuation of the American soldiers and officials, Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon, the Reagan challenge to Ford in the 1976 primaries, are but a few of the stories being replayed on the cable news programs. 

For the most part, since 1980 we have heard little of Gerald Ford. He lived his life quietly and graciously, out of the headlines. He joined a few corporate boards, gave some well paid speeches (though at
minimum wage rates compared to what later ex-presidents are now commanding), skied and played golf, and enjoyed the company of family and friends. 

What virtually 
everyone recalls about Ford, is that he was a modest man, a quintessential Midwesterner. Ford made a point of largely staying  clear of political controversy, and in particular, avoided becoming a harsh critic of any serving President, whatever he might have thought  in private.

And then there is Ford's successor, Jimmy Carter. To be upfront about this, I was never a fan of Jimmy Carter. My candidate in the 1976 Democratic presidential sweepstakes was Washington Senator Henry (Scoop) Jackson.  Jackson was one of the last of the cold warriors in the Democratic Party - strong on national defense, a supporter of a strong US Israel relationship, untrusting of the Soviets. As far as domestic policy, Jackson was a traditional liberal in the mode of Hubert Humphrey.

I never forgave Carter, the peanut farmer from Georgia, with his pious and phony yearning to be "a President as honest, and decent and good as the American people", for taking the nomination away from Jackson. Carter was really running against Nixon and Watergate with this pitch, and it worked. When Carter became the Democratic nominee, I cast my first ever Republican ballot, for Gerald Ford, in the 1976 presidential race. Carter won the 1976 presidential race, Ford's only electoral defeat in his long career.

But it was very close. Had just over 9,000 voters switched from Carter to Ford in Ohio, and Hawaii, Ford would have won an Electoral College majority (Democrat partisans will argue that this was the pre-Diebold age, so Democrats did not lose what they rightfully won).  Had Ford slipped through in the Electoral College, there would have been some of the same controversy that was created after the 2000 election when George Bush won a narrow Electoral College  victory, but suffered a narrow popular vote loss. In 1976, Carter defeated Ford by almost 1.7 million votes, a 2% margin of victory in the popular vote. Ford probably would have won had he not misspoken about how "Poland was "free" of Soviet domination in one of the debates.

Carter served one term, and was beaten badly in his re-election fight in 1980 by Ronald Reagan. Carter won but six states, and 49 Electoral College votes, and received only 41% of the popular vote, a rejection that ranks among the most severe in history for an incumbent, right up there with William Howard Taft in 1912, and Herbert Hoover in 1932.  Carter's was a failed Presidency, by almost every measure.  High inflation, high unemployment, the more than year long Iran hostage situation with its failed rescue mission, and a meek response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (an Olympic boycott) were some of the low points.

Carter always points to his successful navigation of the Egyptian Israeli
peace agreement at Camp David. This was an achievement but the deal was more than 95% of the way there, before Carter became involved.  The real heroes of that peace deal were Anwar Sadat, who lost his life for attempting to make peace and gain back the Sinai, and Menachem Begin, who gave up a large swath of territory and strategic depth in an attempt to permanently remove Egypt as a combat enemy.

But it is Carter's behavior after his defeat that stands in sharp contrast to Gerald Ford's post-presidential years. Certainly, charitable works are a useful endeavor for public figures after they leave office.  Both Ford and Carter have done this - Carter for many years building homes with Habitat for Humanity.

But in other ways Carter has acted as if the last 26 years were an extended second term in office. He has freelanced in foreign policy - lending his ex-presidential imprimatur to the likes of Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro, Kim Jong Il, and Yassar Arafat. He has been outspoken when he has disagreed with the policies of a sitting President (pretty much every Republican).

In the period leading up to the war with Iraq and in the immediate aftermath, he  was so vocal in his attacks on American policy and President Bush, that he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize by the Scandinavian solons, who were only so eager to stick a finger in the eye of President Bush  by "knighting" Jimmy Carter. It was Carter who invited filmmaker Michael Moore to sit with him in the Presidential box at the 2004 Democratic convention, presumably for his achievement with Fahrenheit 911. Of course, Carter had campaigned for the Nobel prize for two decades, and this could be seen as a lifetime achievement award for his globetrotting effort to rehabilitate his reputation among the elites by so often standing up for those standing in opposition to his own country.

The invitation to Moore was Carter's thank you salute to the Nobel committee. Today, of course, there is much controversy about a new book by Jimmy Carter, Palestine: Peace not Apartheid. This screed, which Carter is defending on a national  book tour, and endlessly on C-SPAN and cable news and interview programs, is exactly the kind of one sided, error filled propaganda piece that any true  statesman  for peace would reject out of hand. But it does reflect Carter's long and intense dislike for Israel, and a nasty streak that probably relates to his wounded self image from suffering such a shattering election defeat to Ronald Reagan, a candidate considered unelectable until he came up against Carter and his record of four years of failure.

Gerald Ford was an accidental president. He was the only president not elected either to that office or as vice president. He was the first appointed vice president (after Spiro Agnew's resignation), and when he succeeded to the presidency , it was not the culmination of a lifetime of seeking that office.  Ford had been content to be a member the House of Representatives. He never tried to "upgrade" to the US Senate. Jimmy Carter, on the other hand, much like another recent Democratic Southern governor who made it to the presidency, had mapped out a strategy for that oval office run for years before he ran. The contrast between Ford and Carter is between modesty and vanity, service and ambition.

Finally, some public figures do not understand what it means to leave the stage gracefully. Gerald Ford did, and it is no wonder his reputation has grown since he left office, despite troubles on many fronts during his short two and a half year tenure. Ford was a transition president who had to deal with very difficult circumstances that he inherited from Richard Nixon: a deteriorating economy , a collapse in trust in government, and  the final phase of the long unhappy Vietnam war experience. By pardoning Richard Nixon soon after taking the oath, Ford eliminated what would have been a distracting national sideshow, enabling him and the government to get on with managing its real business. It was, of course, also an act of mercy for a fallen president, already disgraced. It is impossible to think of Jimmy Carter demonstrating such judgment or compassion.

Richard Baehr is chief political correspondent of American Thinker.