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an ordinary man

18 february 2024

Gerald Ford has shot up this year in terms of "Presidents most interesting to read about," thanks to Richard Norton Smith's deceptively-titled An Ordinary Man.

On the whole, I liked Smith's narrative of Ford's early days best. Some political biographies languish until the subject reaches office. But Smith makes the minutiae of Grand Rapids fascinating reading, with plenty of local color, both geographical and chronological. It doesn't hurt that Ford's family background offers a lurid look at abuse and divorce in the 1910s.

Often, Gerald Ford was on the right side of history, though he tried to delay and deflect progressivism. Ford avoided cultivating the reactionary wing of his party. Smith sees Ford as cultivating a "southern strategy" based on the idea that the South was ripe for socially moderate, good-government conservatism, after a century of apartheid (241-43). But Smith notes ruefully that Ford was naïve. Old-line white Democrats simply melted into Republicans. The partisan racial balance in the South tipped – to the advantage of the GOP, but not the way Ford hoped.

I remember when Ford accepted Richard Nixon's nomination to become his Vice President. It made no sense to me: Ford had a power base in Congress, and Vice Presidents have no power base at all. Ostensibly Ford took the VP position as a prelude to retirement. By January 1977, he would be 63 and a veteran of nearly three decades in the Capitol; the Vice Presidency was his transition to full-time golf. As it turned out, Ford would leave office permanently in January 1977, but with a greater claim to historical impact: even though we associate him with the fall of Saigon, FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD, and the Nixon pardon.

Ford was a beloved President for a few weeks and a reviled one as soon as he pardoned Nixon. The pardon comes about halfway through Smith's narrative, and merits a long section devoted to Ford's reasoning, rhetoric, and maneuvering. Smith makes the transition from a White House full of Nixon loyalists to a Ford Administration into interesting reading. A description of Donald Rumsfeld firing Patrick Buchanan (434) almost makes one admire Donald Rumsfeld.

Ford's most famous policy initiative remains Whip Inflation Now, which began very early in his presidency, before the 1974 midterm elections. I was a senior in high school then, and I remember the WIN buttons and the cheerleading for this exciting slogan. I didn't realize till I read An Ordinary Man that "WIN" was supposed to involve actions, like boycotting businesses that raised prices. I had always thought that "WIN" was about confronting a complicated economic abstraction with vague, chipper can-do-it-ness; certainly most people remember it that way.

Ford was a reactive President, and he wasn't in office very long. Smith does credit him with being on the leading edge of a deregulatory trend that would gain momentum inder Carter and flourish under Reagan. Ford's main post-presidential achievement was to institutionalize the profitability of the ex-office. Ford became very rich on the lecture circuit, by populating boardrooms, by writing memoirs. I contributed by hearing him speak in Dallas in the late 1980s; Ford was a cogent lecturer with a sense of humor. As during his Presidency, Betty Ford was a more beloved figure. She became a byword for the stay-at-home wife driven to pills and liquor, and then an icon of getting treatment: a very creditable legacy.

Smith, Richard Norton. An Ordinary Man: The surprising life and historic presidency of Gerald R. Ford. New York: Harper, 2023.