A Generic Politician Who Answered the Call

The most interesting thing about Gerald Ford is that he was the only President that no one ever voted for with that office in mind. People may not have thought very hard about Lyndon Johnson, Harry Truman or the other Veeps destined for higher things when they cast their Presidential ballots. But after the first shock of a Vice Presidential ascension (John Tyler replacing William Henry Harrison in 1841), every moderately aware voter knew that such a thing was a possibility. Even Harrison’s campaign slogan had been “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” Americans had heard of Tyler, and of the seven other Toos promoted by death to the Oval Office after Tyler.

But Gerald Ford wasn’t even on a bumper sticker. The constituents of his Grand Rapids district had voted for him for Congress, and his Republican colleagues had voted for him for House Minority Leader, and that was it. He wasn’t a factor in the boisterous G.O.P. politicking of his time. Nelson Rockefeller, Ronald Reagan, George Romney, Charles Percy, Richard Nixon (the ultimate winner)—these were the contenders in 1968. Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s Veep, and convert John Connally looked like coming attractions.

Then the fun of the second Nixon term began. Vice President Agnew was plucked from office by the long tentacle of home-state corruption (Alan Hevesi and Joe Bruno tip their hats in tribute). A replacement had to be found. President and Congress consulted the 25th Amendment, Section 2—“Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress.” Representative Ford won 92 votes in the Senate and 387 in the House. That made 479 people who had voted for him with the Presidency in mind, but still not a one of them was an ordinary American in a voting booth. The candidate of the Socialist Workers Party does better than that. Then President Nixon was plucked from office by the long tentacle of his own self-destructive paranoia, so much more potent than any corruption. And now we had, after solemn deliberation and the blessing of the Constitution, an unelected President.

No one loved the Ford Presidency, but no one hated it either. When Jimmy Carter ran against Ford in 1976, he blasted Ford’s misery index (the inflation rate plus the unemployment rate—13.45 in 1976), but that was campaign hyperbole. (Carter’s own misery index four years later would be 20.76.) Ford did some things right, and he did some things wrong. He wasn’t brilliant, and he wasn’t crazy. He was the best President of the 1970’s, but consider the competition. No historian has ever put him in the fiery pit with James Buchanan.

This is a tribute to his class: homo politicus ordinarius. Gerald Ford became President by the closest thing to random selection that we have ever had. He was the generic officeholder, put in the hot seat. America reached into a dark closet full of politicians and grabbed Gerry Ford. We can take some comfort from that fact.

But surely there is discomfort to be had as well. The relative success of the Ford Presidency slyly undercuts the great ritual—once quadrennial, now perennial—of the American Presidential campaign. If we did all right with an unelected President, why go to the expense and trouble of electing them? If a group of insiders, or Vanna White, can spin a wheel and come up with Gerald Ford, why involve Chris Matthews, Tim Russert, Frank Luntz, Evan Wolfson, George Soros, James Dobson, Andrew Sullivan, Al Sharpton, the farmers of Iowa, the villagers of New Hampshire, and the thousands of pundits, mavens, wire-pullers and confetti-throwers who comprise the great Presidential parade? Why bother us, the 120 million–plus voters?

The best historian of the American Presidency, Forrest McDonald, has asked this question with his accustomed darkness and wit. “There is no point in asking why Americans get caught up in the presidential election ritual even when the campaigns are obviously manipulative and the candidates are far from the best the country has to offer—just as it is pointless to inquire why ancient Romans accepted unquestioningly the divinations of soothsayers, or why tribal peoples believe in their totems, or why pentecostals have confidence in their healers. All rituals rest upon faith, not logic; all involve suspension of disbelief; and all seem as reasonable to the faithful as they seem absurd to unbelievers.” In Papua, they wear penis wrappers and eat people. Here we vote. God bless America.

But, pulling back from the black abyss, there is a reason not to go the Ford route except in extraordinary circumstances, and Mr. McDonald himself touches on it. The great advantage of the election ritual, over other rituals, is that we do get caught up in it, in a way that jibes with our fundamental principles. We are in this together; we are created equal; and when we lose our money, we learn to lose. My vote means next to nothing in the final result; as a Republican in New York City, I mean less than nothing, except when a Democrat chooses to call himself a Republican and runs for mayor. But my vote means something to me. It means I have put my fingerprints on this process. This is why we grant the process legitimacy, and why we are rightly concerned with fraud, chads, computer glitches and other threats to that legitimacy. That is also why the men and women we elect, give or take the mania that is an occupational hazard of the job, continue to pay attention to us, even though they have “the football” and hobnob with Bono. Individually, any one of us is nothing. But in the aggregate, anyone of us might be the marginal elector.

Maybe the most important thing about Gerald Ford was that, when he parachuted into the Presidency, he behaved with sufficient decency, humility and gravitas to keep his extraordinary position tethered to our expectations. R.I.P.