Monday, January 01, 2007
Healing or Hiding? The Real Legacy of Gerald Ford
By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor, Random Lengths News

As the nation remembers President Gerald Ford, the media is telling them what to remember: “Principle, not politics” says a typical headline in the St Petersburg Times. The Chicago Tribune called his pardoning of Nixon, “a transcendent act of forgiveness.” He helped us move on, and heal. It wasn’t popular—the American people (Tut! Tut!) wanted vengeance, but he did the wise and noble thing.

At the time, however, the media was a bit more sober-minded and egalitarian. The Los Angeles Times wrote that "the pardon was a mistake, inconsistent with the fundamental principle that everyone, including the president, is equal before the law."

Indeed, rather than helping us move on, the pardoning of Nixon set the stage for increased lawlessness by subsequent Republican Administrations—and increased quiescence by Democrats. Under Reagan/Bush, there was the Iran-Contra affair, selling arms to Iran—considered a hostile nation—to illegally finance a terrorist army in Nicaragua. When it came to light, congressional Democrats declared impeachment “off the table” even before their investigation began—just as they have now done with Bush’s lying the nation into war with Iraq.

The Times was right—we have paid a terrible price by placing our presidents above the law. And Gerald Ford is man who did it. Single-handedly.

There was also the question of whether Ford’s pardon was part of a deal to become President. In his memoir, Ford himself admitted the deal was offered, and he talked it over with several aides, before writing a statement saying that he hadn’t promised anything. The Nation magazine scooped this story before Ford’s memoir appeared. On Wednesday, December 27, then-publisher Victor Navasky said, “The way I read it was it was a an attempt to put a gloss of innocence on a deal they had made. And this is a possible obstruction of justice, and that it’s something that he shouldn’t have done and against the law, and possibly, after he got nominated and confirmed, an impeachable offense, even.”

Two days later, legendary Watergrate reporter Bob Woodward revealed another explanation: the two men shared “an intensely personal friendship dating to the late 1940s but so hidden that few others were even aware of it”—that’s right a hidden relationship that “seriously influenced Ford's eventual decision to pardon Nixon.”

Before he died, Ford told Woodward, "I looked upon him [Nixon] as my personal friend. And I always treasured our relationship. And I had no hesitancy about granting the pardon, because I felt that we had this relationship and that I didn't want to see my real friend have the stigma."

Was “protecting his friend” obstructing justice? Nixon already answered that one: “When the President does it, that means it is not illegal.” That’s precisely the rationale that had Nixon headed for impeachment.

Betraying the country and the rule of law. What else are friends for?

By suppressing a full airing of Nixon’s Watergate crimes, the nation failed to fully learn the scope of criminal activity involved, making it easier for conservatives like New York Times columnist William Safire to trivialize what Nixon had done, applying the suffix “-gate” to a whole string of minor offenses. This, in turn, emboldened Republicans to impeach Clinton for whatever they could come up with. Ford planted the seeds for this, as well. In 1970, he lead an effort to impeach Supreme Court Justice William Douglas. In a famous floor speech, Ford said, “an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.” When pressed, the same words were used to justify impeaching Clinton.

Brute force on the one hand, “principle” and “forgiveness” on the other. Ford was a master of the double standard.

But there was a principle he believed in—and that was covering things up. Within months of taking office, he vetoed a set of amendments substantially strengthening the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). First passed in 1966, FOIA had proven too weak to force release of important government documents—particularly in light of Watergate stonewalling. Although Ford promised the American people an open government upon taking office on August 9, he vetoed the FOIA amendments on October 17. Congress over-rode his veto the next month—371-31 in the House, and 65-27 in the Senate.

Among his advisors urging this course were Antonin Scalia, the head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, along with Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld, and Deputy Chief of Staff Richard Cheney. Yes, that’s right. Ford also helped launch Rumsfeld and Cheney into the upper levels of GOP power . Cheney replaced Rumsfeld as Chief of Staff when Ford appointed Rumsfeld Secretary of Defense.

Ford also appointed George H.W. Bush as head of the CIA. In turn, Bush approved an orchestrated politicization of intelligence on the Soviet Union, known as “Team B,” a group of outside analysts that attacked the CIA’s internal analysis, claiming the Soviets would soon be militarily dominant over us.

Like the previous “bomber gap” and “missile gap” analyses—also produced in special circumstances, showing the US far behind the Soviets—Team B’s analysis was wildly off the mark. However, unlike them, it became the basis for policy—Reagan’s defense build-up, which may actually have prolonged the Cold War by delaying Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascent to power in the Soviet Union, and strengthening the hand of hardliners opposing him.

Ford also permitted Indonesia’s genocidal invasion and annexation of East Timor in 1975. Along with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, he met with Indonesian dictator Suharto, in December of 1975, on the eve of the invasion. Plans had been in the works for over a year, and were known in advance to American intelligence agencies. Indonesia was totally dependent on American military supplies, and held off its plans until it was sure they would not be cut off in case of invasion.

A memo of the meeting was not declassified until 2002. In it, Suharto disavows any territorial interests and couches the invasion in terms of "establish[ing] peace and order... in the interest of the security of the area and Indonesia."

Ford responded, "We will understand and will not press you on the issue."

Ford and Kissinger went on to discuss managing public opinion in response to the invasion. "It is important that whatever you do succeeds quickly," Kissinger said.

On his return to Washington, just a few days after the invasion, Ford sent Suharto a set of golf balls by diplomatic pouch.

A UN report issued one year ago found that the Indonesian military used starvation as a weapon of extermination, killing as many as 180,000 civilians.

Gerald Ford. He really knew how to heal.

Ford was known to joke he was “a Ford, not a Lincoln.” But it was no joking matter. Lincoln steered us through the bloodiest strife our nation has endured. Ford thought a court case was more than we could bear. Or so he said.

If Lincoln could not heal the wounds of the Civil War, it was first and foremost because he did not live to have the chance. Ford turned the wounds of Watergate into a forest of festering sores in which we still wander, lost, to this day. He, at least, is free of what he has sown. We should not mourn for him, but for ourselves.