Wednesday, January 10, 2007


article by John Prados: see below
January 02, 2007

John Prados is a senior analyst with the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C. His current book is Safe for Democracy: The Secret Wars of the CIA (Ivan R. Dee Publisher). *********************************************************************
All Americans are united in sadness at the passing of former President Gerald R. Ford. But this American, at least, is watching with equal sadness as President Ford’s accomplishments are wildly exaggerated and the negative effects of some of his actions are either boldly minimized or completely unmentioned.

Too many Americans are taking as writ and received history the image the media have quickly seized upon of Ford as the Great Healer. This follows the former president’s own preference: Ford expended considerable energy trying to burnish that picture, even titling his memoir A Time to Heal. The nation is not well served by false images. Gerald Ford as president did not heal much, if anything at all.

One of President Richard Nixon’s more vivid expressions was to refer to a core issue as a “big enchilada,” and the enchilada for Ford, obviously, was his pardon of Nixon after he resigned to avoid impeachment, before he could be brought to trial for his crimes. Today’s conventional wisdom is that the pardon spared the nation the trauma America might have undergone during impeachment proceedings. But what, in fact, was saved here? Only the short-term good feelings of citizens who did not have to witness Nixon’s dirty deeds during Watergate aired before a court of the Congress. That certainly had some benefit, but must be balanced against the precedents that were not set for future presidential behavior. These would have helped protect the nation in later years. President Ford or any of his successors could still have pardoned Nixon during or after any criminal proceeding that followed.

There were five articles of impeachment brought against Nixon. The first was conspiracy to obstruct justice in the investigation of the June 1972 Watergate break-in. A judgment here would have obliged subsequent White Houses to create procedures that could have prevented the obstruction of justice that took place in the Reagan White House during the Iran-Contra affair.

The second article concerned misuse of executive power in violating the constitutional rights of citizens, specifically including electronic surveillance. A ruling against Nixon here would have deterred the Reagan administration’s spying on citizens protesting its policies in Central America and, indeed, could have kept the current president, George W. Bush, from instituting the controversial National Security Agency (NSA) wiretapping of Americans.

Nixon’s refusal to supply Congress with materials and information duly requested by the legislature was the basis for the third article of impeachment. Failure to establish a precedent there left the door open for a wide variety of maneuvers to keep Congress and the American people ignorant of things the White House does not want them to know. President George W. Bush’s cavalier attitude toward secrecy would not be possible otherwise. Now we have Bush routinely flouting requirements to inform Congress—the NSA affair again springs to mind—even invoking a state secrets doctrine to prevent actions being examined before courts.

Two of the Nixon impeachment articles were not actually voted by the House Judiciary Committee, so failure to adjudicate these cannot properly be laid at Ford’s door, but rulings would have been useful to our democracy. One concerned improper use of public funds for the president’s personal benefit. The last article accused Nixon of ordering the concealment from Congress by false and misleading statements of U.S. bombing of Cambodia that began in 1969 and was ruled illegal by U.S. courts four years later. Again, a precedent would have precluded a wide array of misbehavior by subsequent presidents.

By prematurely pardoning Nixon, Ford vitiated a hugely valuable opportunity to put presidents on notice about what constitutes an impeachable offense. Ford undoubtedly believed that he was doing the decent thing, but saving Nixon’s skin is not the same as healing the nation. In fact, Ford’s pardon drew widespread public protests, and some observers viewed it as a major reason why he lost the 1976 presidential election to Jimmy Carter. In a study of the Nixon and Ford administrations, historian John Robert Greene concluded the pardon gave Ford a “30-day first term.” The contrast between Ford’s preclusive pardon of Nixon and the highly conditional clemency program he offered Vietnam War military deserters and draft evaders—who were responding to one of Nixon’s worst travesties—also did nothing to heal the nation.

Ford asserted he would be the president for “all” Americans, but one has to search hard to find a corresponding achievement. Ford had no environmental policy to speak of, proposed a bill to cut spending for education of Native Americans and the Right to Read program, vetoed the Emergency Housing Act of 1975 (approving a virtually identical “compromise” once it became apparent he could not sustain the rejection), and left wife Betty out on a limb in her advocacy of the Equal Rights Amendment. Civil rights and immigration policies similarly languished. Ford famously denied federal aid to the city of New York, which then stood at the brink of bankruptcy (again reversing himself in a move with clear political overtones). This president inaugurated a campaign against inflation with virtually no content, leaving Americans at the mercy of rising energy costs and the task of implementing alternatives to his successor.

During his 1976 presidential campaign Ford declared that “trust must be earned.” Yet, at the outset of that year, faced with a scandal over the revelation of CIA domestic spying—which soon mushroomed into every imaginable area from assassinations to (more) NSA domestic wiretapping, President Ford actively worked to head off congressional investigations by setting up a commission under his vice president, Nelson A. Rockefeller. When that didn’t work, Ford acted to limit and undermine the probes by restricting their access to information and attempting to suppress their reports. Richard Cheney, then Ford’s White House chief of staff, became one of Ford’s most active collaborators in this effort. Indeed Cheney’s determination to resuscitate the imperial presidency germinated at precisely this time. The Intelligence Oversight Board established as the major consequence of Ford’s answering “reforms” never conducted a single inquiry.

The elaborate bicentennial celebration President Ford presided over in July 1976 had its healing properties, but the bicentennial was neither a program nor an achievement with lasting impact. Moreover, anyone who had occupied the Oval Office at that moment would have walked away with plaudits. That does not qualify Gerald R. Ford for the accolade of the Great Healer.

(The author has a few books out.
One of them is 'Safe For Democracy')



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