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Nice Guys Finish Last--the presidencies of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter

The consensus opinion of Gerald R. Ford—the man, the politician, the president—is that he was a nice guy. What did Leo Durocher say about nice guys?

They finish last.

By implication nice guys are weak, indecisive, easily stepped on. Who but a nice guy would pardon Richard Nixon? Or fail to intervene militarily when South Vietnam was under assault by the North Vietnamese Communists? Or “sell out” to Russia by signing the Helsinki Accords? Or offer amnesty to draft dodgers and army deserters? Or wear a WIN button as a means of halting runaway inflation? President Ford did all of these things, and it cost him the 1976 presidential election. When he left office everyone agreed: Ford was a nice guy and out of his depth as president.

That was then. Today, Gerald R. Ford is praised for the same accomplishments that once were condemned.

GERALD R. FORD (1974 - 1977) - Gerald Ford never wanted to be president, or Senator. In 1948, the year he was elected to the House of Representatives, becoming a Senator was the ambition of his friends and fellow congressmen (John Kennedy and Richard Nixon). Ford’s dream was to be Speaker of the House. He may have been a nice guy, but he had goals and did what needed doing to achieve them—without making enemies. He made it as House minority leader, but never as House Speaker because the Republicans—with the exception of the 1952 election—failed to win a majority of seats during Ford’s 25 years in the House. In 1968, running for president, Nixon discussed having Ford as his vice presidential running mate. Instead, Nixon chose Maryland governor Spiro Agnew, which was just as well—Ford didn’t want the job. Five years later, with the Nixon White House embroiled in the Watergate scandal, and Agnew having been forced from office for bribery, conspiracy and tax evasion while governor, Ford was offered the vice presidency. Due to his unshakeable honesty and rock-ribbed integrity, he was everybody’s first choice. Ford accepted.

At the time—October 1973—Ford was among the few people in Washington who still believed Nixon was innocent. Why? Because early on in the investigation Attorney General John Mitchell had assured him that no one in the White House was connected with the Watergate burglary. As the evidence mounted, Ford kept the faith, even after Mitchell was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of obstruction of justice and conspiracy. Ford kept faith right to the end, when Nixon’s part in the cover up was made perfectly clear. Rather than face impeachment, Nixon resigned. At noon on August 9, 1974, Gerald R. Ford was sworn in as the nation’s 38th President of the United States.

Within a month of taking office, Ford pardoned Nixon. The presidential honeymoon was over. Ford was condemned by Democrats and Republicans alike. Ford didn’t take it personally. Writes the author: “Ford’s bedrock certainty of his own ethics enabled him to weather even the denunciations of most of his own countrymen.” Unemployment was high, inflation was rampant, and a recession appeared eminent. Ford’s response—he wore a WIN button (Whip Inflation Now) and urged Americans to tighten their belts: spend less, drive fewer miles, and stop wasting food. Everyone, including some of his own economic advisors, laughed off WIN as naive and unrealistic. Alongside the announcement of WIN, Ford put forth a ten-point plan to tighten the U.S. economy. Among Ford’s economic advisors who shaped the plan was future Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan. The plan worked—the economy picked up and inflation waned.

There followed several decisions that made Ford more unpopular with Republicans than with Democrats—making liberal Nelson Rockefeller his vice president, proposing amnesty to draft dodgers and army deserters, and allowing South Vietnam to fall to the communist North Vietnamese. Ford could have sent troops and Congress probably would have supported his decision. What was the point? The war was not winnable and the corrupt South Vietnamese government was hardly worth saving. On top of that, the war—and Watergate—had divided the nation badly. It was time for the nation to heal. Ford did everything in his power to get the few remaining Americans out before Saigon fell, and succeeded.

Ford’s participation in the Helsinki Accords, was yet another unpopular decision on Capitol Hill, which even Henry Kissinger opposed. As a result of the Accords, a number of Helsinki Commissions on Human Rights sprang up across the Soviet Union, as well as in satellite communist countries, and in other European nations, and proved very effective at shepherding individual cases to justice. Writes the author: “The Helsinki Accords were Ford’s greatest presidential achievements on the world stage, and an argument can be made that it proved to be the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire.”

The nation was in a far better state when the 1976 presidential election arrived. The nation felt better about itself, the economy was better, and inflation, while high, was under control. The problem for Ford was that he faced not one but two opponents—Jimmy Carter, the Democratic Party nominee, and Ronald Reagan, whom Ford barely eked past at the Republican National Convention. Reagan represented the growing right-wing of the Republican party, which opposed Ford almost as much as the Democrats. After the Republican Convention, Reagan did next-to-nothing in support of Ford's reelection. In the closing weeks of his compaign, Ford overcame a 29-point deficit in the polls. On election day, Ford lost in the closest presidential contest since 1916.

After his defeat, Ford and his wife Betty retired to Palm Springs. With each passing year, his stature as president has grown. Those who found his pardon of Nixon as morally corrupt realized it had been done in the best interest of the country. One of Ford’s severest critics, journalist Bob Woodward, changed his opinion as well: “Ford was wise to act. . . . Ford wanted to protect the presidency, a proper goal because the president is an extension of the nation. The only way out of the Watergate atmosphere was to move fast, to short-circuit the process. Preoccupation with Nixon’s fate could have continued for years.”

JIMMY CARTER (1977 - 1981) - It wasn’t exactly President Carter’s finest hour. He was lost, searching for answers, and had called a number of political advisors to the White House to offer suggestions. Washington insider Clark Clifford, watching as President Carter sat on the floor and scribbled down notes as people spoke to him, couldn't help thinking that it would have been inconceivable to imagine Lyndon Johnson sitting on the floor and saying, "Tell me what I am doing wrong.” The image many of us have of Jimmy Carter—39th President of the United States—is of a nice-guy micromanager who couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

There is another side of Carter often overlooked: the political leader whose enduring legacy is the establishment of human rights as the central objective of American diplomacy.

Jimmy Carter was among the fresh faces to emerge from the New South, a bright young politician remarkably free of racial prejudice. He was elected to State office by a combination of moderate whites and newly-enfranchised African Americans. Carter served with distinction in the Georgia legislature, and as governor, before running for president. In the wake of the Vietnam War and Watergate, Carter presented a renewed sense of idealism to the American electorate. With an engaging manner and infectious grin, he surprised the pundits with his victory in the Iowa Caucus, after which there was no stopping his run for his party’s nomination. Against incumbent president Gerald R. Ford in the fall election, it was a case of two Nice Guys competing for the same job, with Carter perceived as the wiser and sharper of the two, giving him a slight edge that carried him to the White House.

While he was an excellent campaigner, Carter was not a mixer, which became evident once he became president. He had ideals aplenty but none of the Washington know-how to carry them out. On top of that, he entered office acting as if he didn’t need help from Capitol Hill. His first mistake was not appointing a chief of staff, which complicated and prolonged the White House decision-making process. His second mistake was offending his very own party in Congress—the Democrats. According to one aid, as far as Carter was concerned, “anyone who disagreed with him was simply wrong.” There followed a number of embarrassing blunders. Adding insult to injury, the Senate overturned most of Carter’s legislation that the House had passed.

What Carter did get right was his decision to make human rights the centerpiece of his foreign policy. He made a comprehensive Middle East peace agreement a prime object, and achieved it with the Camp David Accords between Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel, and Anwar Sadat of Egypt. Of equal historical significance was his negotiation of an agreement to return the Panama Canal to the Panamanians.

On the other hand, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the taking of American hostages by radical Islamic students in Iran were a decided setback that proved beyond his ability to manage. What hurt him politically was the state of the national economy. While Carter pursued his ambitions for energy and human rights policies, the Democratic Congress was far more interested in alleviating the impact of stagnation on their constituents. High rates of unemployment and inflation were hitting voters from both ends, and Representatives in Congress were feeling their anger. A gasoline shortage, a scandal involving one of his aids, the nuclear meltdown at the Three-Mile Island energy plant, and Ted Kennedy’s decision to seek the Democratic nomination in 1980, further hurt him.

Carter not only began to question himself, but to question the nation, which he did in a televised address. He told Americans that they faced a crisis of confidence and urged them to recognize—and to accept—that their families lived in an age of limits. The speech drew mixed responses. Many felt that Carter blamed the nation for the problems they were struggling with rather than offering solutions and leadership.

In 1980, when Reagan emerged as the Republican Party’s candidate for president, a testy Carter implied that his opponent was an outright racist and willing to launch a nuclear war if elected. Carter later apologized for his remarks. A bigger blow to Carter occurred during the presidential debate, when Reagan asked Americans to consider whether they were better off in 1980 than four years earlier. Despite the economy, despite Reagan’s unexpected savvy as a debater, the election remained close until the final weekend. On Sunday night, two days before the election, Carter went before the nation and announced that a deal to release the hostages being held in Iran would not be reached before the election. Two days later, Reagan won in a landslide.

After losing to Reagan, Carter did a great deal to resurrect his reputation. He traveled widely, met with a number of world leaders, and back at home lent his name, his time and his energy, in support of Habitat for Humanity.

“For all of Carter’s equivocations and inconsistencies,” writes one historian, “the mere fact that an American president had used his bully pulpit to raise a cry about human rights had profoundly affected the rest of the world and the American public.”


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