Gerald Ford is one of my flesh-and-blood presidents, the ones I actually have memories of that don't come from a textbook. I've got a half-century...
Gerald Ford is one of my flesh-and-blood presidents, the ones I actually have memories of that don’t come from a textbook.
I’ve got a half-century of presidents in my head, each tagged by a couple of images that stuck for some reason.
Say Jerry Ford, and I think of him stumbling on the wet steps of Air Force One and pardoning Richard Nixon.
Most presidents make similarly dissonant marks on the national consciousness. Reality TV, White House Edition, swings from drama to comedy with hardly a commercial in between.
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Actually, I don’t remember anything funny about Nixon. I see him standing in front of a helicopter, arms raised, and I hear, “I am not a crook,” which he said on a different occasion.
Lyndon Johnson, who preceded Nixon, I know mostly from reading about him, but I picture him in two scenes. In one, he’s holding up his shirt to show off his appendectomy scar, and in the other he’s signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Fate put him in office the first time. He’d been John F. Kennedy’s vice president.
Dwight Eisenhower was the first president of my lifetime, but I have only a fuzzy image of him speaking on TV. He doesn’t live in my head as a real person.
Kennedy left one strong image. The picture, a moving picture of his car in Dallas and of him being shot. It was my first experience of an event that derailed daily routine for a time.
But Ford is still clear as a person.
Everyone said he was just a regular guy. He wasn’t exactly, or he wouldn’t have been in the position he was in, but he certainly seemed like a decent enough person, especially after Nixon.
Nixon left a big mark that won’t go away. He sits heavily in the history books, but he is also part of the consciousness of a big swath of the boomer generation.
They say whatever is going on in the world when you come of age shapes your views throughout adulthood.
A lot of us came of age in the midst of Watergate and the last years of the Vietnam War, a moment with the potential to breed cynicism about public affairs, but maybe faith, too.
Some parts of the system worked, eventually. The war was ended. Nixon had to resign.
One of the institutions that worked was the Fourth Estate, journalism, or a few individuals in the business, anyway. Most famously, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought light to the Watergate coverup. Seymour Hersh, a couple of years before, broke the story of the My Lai massacre.
I was in college, studying journalism. “All the President’s Men” came out the year I graduated and made my profession cool, for a while anyway.
Ford was a nice break from all the drama of the late ’60s and early ’70s, but he wasn’t a keeper.
Jimmy Carter beat him. Carter also beat a rabbit with a boat paddle, which is one of the images of him that comes quickly to mind, along with him at Camp David, where he made what seemed at the time a big first step toward peace in the Middle East.
Some things change; some don’t.
Our current president was in Hanoi last month shaking hands with the Vietnamese president, but there still is no piece in the Middle East, and we are trying to find a way out of a long, unpopular war.
Every moment has its particular challenges and every president a particular set of skills and weaknesses.
Ford told Congress he was a Ford and not a Lincoln. Whether you’re talking cars or presidents, you hope you get the right model at the right time. A Ford carried us just fine for a while.