by Patrick M. Garry, University of South Dakota
As Charles Dickens wrote about Victorian England in A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” However, it is difficult to imagine anyone describing America in the mid-1970s as the best of times. To the contrary, most observers have depicted that period as the worst of times. And yet, that was the era assigned to Gerald Ford to lead America.
The challenges and traumas facing America in the 1970s were too numerous and complex to itemize adequately. The economic recession was the worst since the Great Depression, with double-digit inflation and unemployment over eight percent. Cultural divisions intensified from the 1960s, reflected by the bitter conflict over the Equal Rights Amendment. Foreign affairs posed grave dangers. Hangovers from the Vietnam War continued to tear at America, as reflected by the wrenching debate over the treatment of draft evaders. Crises in the Middle East, and particularly the Suez Canal, jeopardized international stability. The Cold War intensified, and efforts to lessen tensions through the SALT II Treaty and Helsinki Accords provoked domestic backlash. And exacerbating all these crises was a loss of public trust in the presidency and other institutions of government, wrought by Vietnam and the Watergate scandal.
National self-confidence had eroded, along with faith in American power and integrity. Doubts escalated about the future of America in general and democracy in particular. Standing as one of the few bulwarks against this retreat into self-doubt and surrender was Gerald Ford.
America would experience a revival a decade later. There would be morning again in America, but perhaps only because the country had made it through an agonizing night. Gerald Ford had seen America through its dark night—and in doing so, he exemplified to the nation the virtue of political humility.
Gerald Ford’s public life reflected his humility. As vice-president, he traveled in a small prop plane, in contrast to the more luxurious jet used by former Vice-President Spiro Agnew. As a leading member of Congress in 1968, he took his family to visit Resurrection City—the shantytown erected on the National Mall to protest the federal government’s poverty policies. Instead of dismissing or ridiculing the protest, Ford called it a “proper way to call attention to grievances.” It takes humility to recognize those who disagree with you. Indeed, throughout his subsequent public life, in which there would be much protest and conflict, Ford refused to equate dissent with disloyalty.
No one ever called Gerald Ford flashy or dramatic or even charismatic. He did not absorb the spotlight. For him, politics was not personal; politics was not about him or his popularity. Politics was always about the nation and the nation’s institutions. Perhaps some observers saw this as a fault in a man who was president. But at a time when America needed a leader to consider the interests of the country and not his own personal gain or popularity, Gerald Ford filled that need.
In sacrificing his own interests for the needs of the nation, Ford demonstrated political humility. But then, perhaps only a person of humility would have even found himself in the national leadership positions that Ford occupied in the mid-1970s.
When he was tapped to fill the vice-presidential vacancy left by Spiro Agnew, Ford did not accept a position he had sought or desired. Indeed, given the circumstances in the White House due to Watergate, and given all the problems facing the country, few people would have wanted the job. He had to step into a scandal-plagued White House to fill a position left by a scandal-plagued vice president. Ford had no time to shape the office to his own agenda; he had no opportunity to fill it with staff of his own choosing. Instead, in an act of humility, he had to simply assume the duties left to him. Traveling 80,000 miles and visiting thirty states in his first six months as vice president, Gerald Ford later called it the worst job of his life.
But assuming the vice presidency was nothing compared with then having to step into the office of President. The presidency handed down from Nixon to Ford has been called a “poisoned chalice.” As with his role as vice president, Gerald Ford did not have the luxury of shaping the office according to his own outlook; rather, his role was to pick up the broken pieces of a discredited presidency.
The issue for which Gerald Ford’s presidency is most known is probably the pardon of former president Richard Nixon. It was a matter that tormented Ford. But even more so, it was a matter tormenting the country. It was like a cancer, dragging down the country with each passing day. Dividing the country, debilitating the country. Only a leader with political humility would consider a pardon—cutting out the cancer and letting the country heal.
When Gerald Ford assumed the presidency, he possessed a seventy-one percent approval rating. Polls pitting him against Edward Kennedy in a hypothetical presidential campaign gave Ford a 57-33 advantage. This was Ford’s standing prior to the pardon; there was nothing personal to gain from a pardon. But the country needed it. Morning could never come to America with the darkness of Watergate hanging over it. In granting the pardon, Ford even relieved Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski the torment of deciding the former president’s legal fate.
Gerald Ford became president out of an act of political humility, and he spared the country an agonizing end to Watergate through an act of political humility. Even his final bequeath to America was an act of political humility. After losing the presidential election of 1976, Gerald Ford resolved to “give him [Jimmy Carter] the White House in better shape than I got it.”
Political humility is not a trait often celebrated by campaign consultants or highlighted in election ads. It is not a trait, by its very nature, that receives much boasting. Both the media and historians often demand vision from a president, rarely considering that sometimes vision is a luxury that must give way to sacrifice. As Gerald Ford demonstrated, political humility constitutes a leadership trait desperately needed but rarely recognized.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Miss Maudie gives this description of Atticus Finch: “There are some men in this world who were born to do our unpleasant jobs for us.” Gerald Ford was such a man: stepping onto the Warren Commission to investigate the Kennedy assassination; filling the suddenly-vacated office of vice-president; assuming a scandal-plagued presidency; and issuing the self-sacrificial pardon. The mid-1970s may have been the worst of times, but Gerald Ford was the best of leaders for such a time. His political humility saved the country from sinking further into the abyss.
Patrick M. Garry is a Professor of Law at The University of South Dakota
Richard Norton Smith, An Ordinary Man: The Surprising Life and Historic Presidency of Gerald R. Ford.
James Cannon, Gerald R. Ford: An Honorable Life.
Donald Rumsfeld, When the Center Held: Gerald Ford and the Rescue of the American Presidency
- Humility was not a virtue in the ancient world, but it became one as a result of the influence of Christianity. Why did Christians see the need for humility as a virtue, and what can it tell us about our contemporary politics?
- Are there circumstances under which humility might be a bad or dangerous characteristic?
- What is the difference between humility, self-effacement, and self-confidence?
Photograph of President Gerald Ford announcing his decision to grant a Pardon to former President Richard Nixon. Image from Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum