Remember those newsreel clips of vast convoys of limousines and "flower cars" rolling into a cemetery for the burial of some assassinated Mafioso? The whole gangster "community" (is that an oxymoron?) would turn out to wish him a fond farewell, including the very enemies who ordered or even carried out his killing. Those extravaganzas, like the famous funeral for Dion O'Banion after his assassination in 1924, seemed beyond grotesque.
Gangland funerals have now been "mainstreamed", however. We saw one on January 2 when former President Gerald Ford - a decent and honorable man - was laid to rest. Mr. Ford died in his bed at age 93, but he was politically assassinated by those who despised his pardon of the hated Richard Nixon. His assassins used words and images, not real bullets. At his funeral, when he could no longer protest, those assassins strutted and won brownie points for "fairness" by eulogizing Mr. Ford and calling him "a great statesman who healed the country", etc.
TV news people and pundits who had savaged Mr. Ford for pardoning Richard Nixon magically turned into ardent admirers after his death. What a prince of a guy he had become, in retrospect. Those chameleons all relied on the fact that most Americans are too young to recall what really went down in 1974. But some of us can remember. Reporters were beside themselves with outrage over the pardon. The dazzling prospect of the prosecution, conviction and imprisonment of Richard Nixon - the potential story of the century - had been snatched away by an "accidental president" who knew (better than they) that the country needed relief. Liberals in our Maryland neighborhood were literally hopping mad. Mr. Ford was "dead" before he got out of the presidential car. He never had a chance.
Who was this man who seemed far more popular in death than in life? Once upon a time, Gerald Ford was an ordinary American, Nebraska-born into modest circumstances in the long-ago year of 1913 - before world wars, the Great Depression, big government, air travel, computers, and most of the "stuff" of modern life. Americans still earned and spent gold dollars during his boyhood. The Model T Ford (no relation) was just becoming America's automobile. Mr. Ford worked and studied hard, and used his athletic ability to get an education at the University of Michigan where he was a star center on the football team. He turned down pro football offers to coach football part-time while he earned a law degree. After service in World War II he married the beautiful Elizabeth Bloomer and was elected to Congress in the same year (1948).
Gerald Ford was a fiscally conservative Republican in a post-war Democratic Congress stocked with liberals who thought they could tax the country into prosperity. (Sound familiar?) Mr. Ford got along with majority members while earning a reputation for fairness and straight dealing. He served as House minority leader from 1965-'73. Gerald Ford was a good and decent public servant when such qualities were actually valued in life - not just after you were dead.
Ratification of the 25th Amendment (which empowered appointment of a vice president if the office became vacant), coupled with the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew in October 1973, occasioned the appointment of Mr. Ford to the vice-presidency during Richard Nixon's second term. After President Nixon resigned during the Watergate scandal, Mr. Ford became the first president to take the office without having been elected directly by the voters on an electoral ticket. The media paid him little notice, as they were completely focused on hounding Mr. Nixon until he could be jailed like the criminal they thought he was.
Restoring order after the Watergate nightmare was the hand Mr. Ford was dealt. It was an impossible hand with no high cards, but Mr. Ford played it as well as he could. Correctly seeing that the country could go nowhere while the Nixon "vendetta" continued - and that even judicial proceedings might be inconclusive - Mr. Ford issued the former president "...a full, free, and absolute pardon ... for all offenses against the United States which he... has committed or may have committed or taken part in..." during his presidency. It was, quite possibly, the wisest, most far-reaching single decision ever made by a president. Neither focus groups nor political currents flowing at the time recommended it, but Gerald Ford didn't need them to tell him what to do. His pardon-address, broadcast to the nation on September 8, 1974, should be re-read by every American as a reminder of what real statesmanship once looked like. (1)
The pardon - which simply had to be issued - salvaged the country's future, but it destroyed Gerald Ford's political future. It made him anathema among liberal media elites who never forgave him for depriving them of the satisfaction of utterly destroying Richard Nixon.
In practical terms, the pardon and its aftermath further weakened an already weak president. Mr. Ford lacked the electoral mandate that lets a president tackle tough issues, so Congress ran amok during his tenure. Senator Frank Church's committee on intelligence surveillance did great damage to America's ability to counter subversive elements, but a powerless Mr. Ford couldn't stop it. The collapse of South Vietnam in 1975 was likewise the product of congressional overreach and Mr. Ford's weakened position. Congress had withdrawn Vietnam funding, but a stronger president could have dispatched troops to repel the communists, leaving the funding issue to be sorted out later. Being as crippled as Mr. Nixon ever was, Mr. Ford could do nothing as North Vietnamese regulars romped into Saigon.
The media's coup de grace was depicting Gerald Ford as a complete stumblebum. This was a truly despicable aspect of his political assassination - the equivalent of disfiguring the victim's face in a gangland murder. Although an excellent golfer, Mr. Ford hit a shot that struck a spectator at a crowded celebrity tournament. Later, media cameramen caught him tripping on the staircase from Air Force One. Network television ceaselessly ran the footage. Saturday Night Live spun the "clumsy" idea into legend with a long-running sketch featuring actor Chevy Chase as a hopelessly accident-prone Ford. Even the Pink Panther joined the fun. In "The Pink Panther Strikes Again" a clumsy, dim-witted Gerald Ford falls over furniture as he tries to find the Michigan game during a crisis in which the world might be destroyed. Today, young people who never saw or heard Gerald Ford think he was the clumsiest president who ever lived - the final calumny on possibly the finest athlete ever to sit in the Oval Office. Mr. Ford was still skiing in his 70s, but nothing was beneath those who had to ensure his political erasure. Chevy Chase's post-funeral claim of what a "great relationship" he had with the Ford family was beneath contempt, but he certainly picked the right target. How long would he have lasted depicting Bill Clinton as a slavering lothario chasing teen-aged interns while the USA stood in mortal danger?
Luckily, gangland funerals don't occur often. I'll be glad if future ones bury real Mafiosi who suffered "unfortunate accidents". Gerald Ford - RIP. You never deserved what they did to you.
(1) Mr. Ford's pardon speech: http://www.cnn.com/ALLPOLITICS/1997/gen/resources/watergate/ford.speech.html