Learning character lessons from the Accidental President
December 29, 2006
It seems no one can talk about Gerald Ford without mentioning his pardon of Richard Nixon.
It’s not fair to judge a person by a single decision. But in this case, that decision tells us something very important about the man, and about the kind of leadership we need.
I don’t agree that Ford did the right thing in pardoning Nixon. This is a country founded on the belief that no one is above the law, yet that was contrary to the message conveyed by the pardon. It showed the rich and powerful don’t have to follow the same rules as the rest of us. If Nixon had been made to stand trial for his misdeeds, do you think Bill Clinton would have been so flippant about lying under oath? Presidents still consider obeying the law to be a political matter, not something to worry about being locked up for.
I can’t fault the former president for his decision. By all accounts, Ford was an exceptionally decent man, thrust into a world that often punishes decency. He did not seek to become leader of the free world, yet that’s what he became. It’s cliché to call him the Accidental President, but there is no other term that fits as well, describing both his political rise to power and his habit of stumbling in front of television cameras.
Ford lacked the burning ambition that is the signature of most presidents, and which destroyed a few, including his predecessor. He could no more throw Nixon under a bus as he could drown puppies in a bathtub. It just was not in his character.
Ambition hides flaws, which might explain why many see Ford as a flawed leader. No president is perfect, even though so many of us want him to be. They wrestle with the same shortcomings and contradictions as the rest of us, and are forced to do it under a microscope. Some are successful in covering up their flaws, while others are not, and a few – like Ford – didn’t even try.
Recommended Stories For You
That one decision cost Ford the job he didn’t want in the first place. He thought it good for the country to move on, the same position he expressed concerning Clinton’s impeachment. You don’t have to agree with it, but you have to admire the fact that he would commit political suicide for what he thought was right for the nation. In that decision, he displayed a leadership quality absent in all those who have come after him.
Reminiscing about the past is not a useful endeavor unless it tells us something about the present, or offers clues for the future. As candidates position themselves for the 2008 presidential race, the lessons of Gerald Ford give us a test for these would-be leaders.
If they had been in Ford’s shoes, facing a decision between what is right for the country and what is right for themselves, would they have sacrificed their political future for the national interest?
I don’t believe Hillary Clinton passes that test. I used to think John McCain would, until he started backtracking on all fronts to make himself more palatable to forces within his party. Now he’s just another politician who would do or say anything to get elected.
Of the other candidates, I see very few who would pass. John Edwards, John Kerry, Mitt Romney, Tom Vilsack, Bill Richardson, Sam Brownback – I don’t think any of them pass. I’d put Barrack Obama and Rudi Giuliani on the maybe list, maybe more out of pure optimism than anything else.
Or maybe it’s because both men are flawed, and don’t seem to want to hide it. Instead of looking for leaders without flaws, perhaps we should embrace the ones who admit to being imperfect.
Rather that handing over the White House to the person who wants it the most, maybe we should be looking for another humble, decent leader who can heal this troubled land.
So many would-be presidents aspire to be the next Lincoln. Perhaps we should be shopping for a Ford instead.