By Gleaves Whitney, Executive Director of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation
Wise people know that every generation stands on the shoulders of giants. They understand that even to ask, “What does one generation owe another,” distinguishes human beings from every other animal. We educate across the generations. As a result, our steps are guided not just by instincts but by the lessons of those who’ve gone before us.
When it comes to what one generation owes another, the baby boomers (1946-1964) have a mixed record. On the one hand, the America the baby boomers inherited remains a military colossus and job-generating dynamo. By world historical standards, there is peace and prosperity. Our nation has met the terrorism threat with steely determination. Our technological advances are shaping humankind’s future like nobody’s business. Our graduate schools are the envy of the world. And the skillful stewardship of our natural wonders makes us a perennial destination for visitors from around the globe.
On the other hand, under the stewardship of the baby boomers, the national government has racked up inexcusable debt that will burden future generations. Educational achievement is declining, which will diminish the rising generation’s opportunity to thrive. Violent crime, mental illness, and drug-fueled homelessness are on the rise in our greatest cities. Deaths of despair are spiking among young men. Our immigration system is utterly broken as the chaos on our southern border attests. The federal government has created a surveillance state that violates both our right to privacy and free speech. Income inequality is on the rise with the result that the middle class is shrinking. Most ominous of all, people across the political spectrum are fearful that the United States is drifting toward civil war because of hyperpolarization, incivility, and the criminalization of political disagreements.
What about the parents of the baby boomers? Did the Greatest Generation (1901-1927) do better? On the one hand, they came through the Great Depression with a strong, can-do character. They were neither morally flabby nor defeatist. They fought the worst war in human history—an existential war on two-fronts—and won it in three years, nine months. After the war, they took advantage of the GI Bill, got good jobs, and paid their own way. They began in earnest to repair race relations and other historic injustices. The Greatest Generation did their duty and in so doing made the United States the greatest nation that ever existed anywhere on the globe. They were a credit to their country and we rightly honor them.
And yet, the Greatest Generation—while deservedly celebrated—hardly inaugurated a Golden Age. They drank too much and spoiled their children. They got us bogged down in Southeast Asia and saddled our leaders with the Vietnam Syndrome. In their quest for wealth, they tolerated too much environmental destruction and corporate corruption. Watergate and the erosion of trust in government happened on their watch.
Mention of the Watergate scandal brings us to the man who was given the historic task to clean it up, Gerald Ford (1913-2006). A Midwesterner, Ford was born at the midpoint of his generation. Did our 38th President live with sufficient awareness of what he and his generation owed future generations? To answer, let’s ask a few basic questions about his record in the White House.
- Did Ford commit his administration to environmental protection for future generations? No question. He expanded parklands while strengthening clean air and clean water laws, stating in 1976, “It is a measure of our progress as a nation that today, in the 200th year of American Independence, we are in the midst of a dynamic movement to restore, protect, and preserve our environment and, at the same time, the objective of providing a better life for ourselves and for our children and grandchildren.”
- Did Ford commit our nation to a far-sighted energy policy? Yes. “Taking a longer look at America’s future, there can be neither sustained growth nor more jobs unless we continue to have an assured supply of energy to run our economy.”
- Was Ford careful with taxpayer dollars and determined not to saddle future generations with debt? Sure enough. “We all know from recent experience what runaway inflation does to ruin every other worthy purpose. We are slowing it; we must stop it cold…. The way to a healthy, non-inflationary economy has become increasingly apparent. The government must stop spending so much and borrowing so much of our money. More money must remain in private hands where it will do the most good. To hold down the cost of living, we must hold down the cost of government.”
- Did Ford advance human rights at home and abroad? You bet. At home he supported civil rights and opportunities for all. He signed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act into law. Abroad, despite fierce criticism, he championed the Helsinki Accords to hold the Soviet Union accountable for violations against human rights behind the Iron Curtain.
- Was Ford mindful of giving young people who were not yet Americans a better life? Certainly. There is no greater measure of President Ford’s compassion than Operation Baby Lift, which gave Vietnamese children the chance to escape their war-torn homeland and start a new life in America.
- Did Ford care about the education of the rising generation? No doubt. The way Ford led the Bicentennial celebrations of our nation showed his commitment to ensuring that the soaring words and extraordinary achievements of America’s founders would be spotlighted in every school in the nation.
- Did Ford leave us with a worthy example of an American to emulate? Absolutely. Gerald Ford’s good character was perhaps his greatest gift to posterity. His commitment to the greater good continues to inspire the better angels of our nature. Only as a better people can we form a more perfect union and promote the happiness of mankind.
Earlier I asked if Gerald Ford demonstrated sufficient awareness of what he and his generation owed future generations. There is no question that he did. Now I ask: Does your generation and mine live with sufficient awareness of (1) what we owe to the generations that got us here, and (2) what we owe to the generations that will follow? To the former we owe gratitude. To the latter, we would do well to follow President Ford in his determination to leave the world better than he found it. The rising generation seeks what every generation has always sought: the opportunity to realize their full potential to do well and to do good.
1. What are three things for which you are grateful to the previous generation?
2. What are you doing today to leave your family, neighborhood, community, and nation better than you found them?
3. What would happen to our nation if most people quit trying to realize their full potential to do well and to do good?
4. How are you coaching your peers to be better stewards of their time and place?
Portrait of President Ford by Everett Raymond Kinstler, courtesy of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation