Ford's legacy could heal; Government was divided then, as now. There are lessons in his civility.

How ironic that Gerald Ford, so often praised for having healed our land after a constitutional crisis three decades ago, passed from our midst just as Washington was readying itself for another period of divided government, much like the one over which Ford presided after becoming president in 1974. Then, as now, the president of the United States faced a Congress controlled by the opposite political party. In one of the most bitterly contested off-year elections ever (at least up to then), the Democrats, already in control of both Houses, increased their strength to veto-proof majorities. Yet Ford comported himself throughout this embattled period with deft political sense, respect for opponents, and fidelity to party and Constitution. There is a lesson in that for everyone on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue, if they care to heed it. We will hear many eulogies for Ford. He was a man who made his mark gently but irreversibly on both the White House and Congress. But if his eulogists heed the words they utter, his legacy may prove to be a healing force for his nation once again. Commentators and analysts regularly bemoan "the passing of both civility and bipartisanship from the public square in recent years." Many contemporary politicians don't have much of either one. They came of political age long after these two attributes among public officials ceased being the glue that made government at least appear to work. So they can be forgiven for looking on Ford, who championed both civility and bipartisanship, as a throwback. He, as the comedians of his time never tired of telling us, tripped across the political stage, long before the era of 24-hour cable news, 10-second sound bites, and live coverage of increasingly strident rhetoric. What were the marks of Ford's civility and bipartisanship? He respected opponents and worked with them constantly. Not that he wasn't political. Neither civility nor bipartisanship entails the surrender of one's beliefs or the interests of one's party. As Ford and others of his generation demonstrated, being civil or bipartisan means that, while upholding those beliefs and interests, you also show you understand your adversaries' point of view, appreciate the pressures on them, and believe that, while the parties might disagree over means, they share a love of country and a desire to see it prosper. Ford and his generation understood that because different coalitions arose around different issues, today's political allies could become tomorrow's adversaries and vice versa. That is why he could veto a bill in the morning and enjoy a friendly game of golf with its sponsor in the afternoon. Now to Ford's brand of conservatism. Moderate in temperament, he was anything but what the British call a "wet" (a term used to describe conservatives who act otherwise) or what those on the contemporary right call a "squish" (a conservative without backbone). Ford came to the presidency after spending a quarter of a century in the House of Representatives, much of that time as party leader in that chamber. He was an acolyte of Michigan Republican Sen. Arthur T. Vandenberg, a conservative in the grand American tradition, a man who might reject Harry Truman's national health-care bill but who worked to gather enough votes in the "do-nothing" 80th Congress to support Truman's efforts to contain Stalinist aggression. Ford fought his way into Congress by besting a longtime isolationist incumbent in a primary. Once there, he made his way by ousting out-of-touch elders. In Congress and as president, Ford pressed to keep his party faithful to what he considered rock-ribbed conservative Republican principles: balanced budgets, limited government, and civil rights. He also kept faith with the Constitution. Angered that Congress cut off aid to South Vietnam in 1974, thereby hastening its fall to enemy forces, Ford eschewed both secret bombings (a practice favored by Richard Nixon) and "alternative" (meaning extra-constitutional) means of keeping aid flowing (a time-honored expedient that later would reemerge under the rubric of "Iran-contra"). This man oversaw the final withdrawal of American forces, pressed for an account of all missing American personnel, and provided hope, solace, and assistance to thousands of Vietnamese refugees who went on to enrich their adopted country in immeasurable ways. In these efforts and so much else, Ford has earned a place in history as among the most compassionate of conservatives.

Dr. Alvin Felzenberg

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