Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

Political Virtue and Vice: Gerald Ford and Vladimir Putin

by Richard B Gunderman, IUPUI

It is difficult to think of two world leaders more widely divergent from one another.  Gerald Ford, the 38th President of the United States, is admired today for his lifelong commitment to decency, honesty, and integrity.  Vladimir Putin, the incumbent second President of Russia, is equally reviled for his vindictiveness, duplicity, and greed.  Both men wielded considerable power and steered their nations through difficult times, yet they also present a stark contrast in character.

Forthrightness and service were instilled in Ford from his earliest days.  His mother and father had three rules for their four boys: “Tell the truth, work hard, and come to dinner on time.”  The only president to earn the Boy Scout rank of Eagle Scout, Ford remained committed all his life to the scouting oath, to do his duty, help others, and be morally straight.  Testifying at his confirmation hearing for the vice presidency, Ford expressed his deep conviction that he had been honest with himself and others.

Putin, by contrast, came up through the Soviet KGB, the secret police, an agency whose modus operandi consisted of false identities, disinformation, and even kidnappings and assassinations.  Its successor, the Russian FSB, has operated along similar lines, and Putin’s rise through the ranks to become a national leader was marked by schemes to license illegal exports, the laundering of money through real estate, and the use of public funds for personal purposes.

Ford saw himself first and foremost as a public servant, devoted to institutions and principles beyond himself.  During remarks at a 1976 naturalization ceremony in Virginia, Ford reminded the participants that “None of us are more than caretakers of this great country.  Remember that the more freedom you give to others, the more you will have for yourself.  Remember that without law there can be no liberty.”

Putin has shown an increasing tendency to bend institutions, laws, and principles to serve his own purposes.  Under his rule, Russia’s system of representative government has been eroded to the point that the nation can no longer be regarded as democratic, and Putin rules as an autocrat.  For example, Putin has seen to it that his opponents were barred from running against him, and elections under his rule have been marred by widespread allegations of fraud.

Both Ford and Putin assumed office under conditions of great political ferment.  Ford ascended to both the vice presidency and presidency when his predecessors, Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon, resigned under allegations of corruption.  Similarly, Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, found himself in increasingly difficult circumstances in the years leading up to his resignation – the economy was reeling, his administration was plagued by rampant corruption, and he battled alcoholism.

Where the two leaders led their countries after assuming office differed dramatically.  Ford sought to strengthen the nation’s institutions and restore faith in government.  In the most momentous and controversial decision of his presidency, he pardoned Richard Nixon, believing that doing so would bring Nixon’s tragedy to an end and shift the nation’s focus to more urgent challenges.  This decision probably cost Ford the 1976 election, but he maintained that it was best for the country.

Putin also pardoned his predecessor, but within just a year several other criminal investigations in which he himself was implicated were mysteriously dropped.  In seeking first to ally with and then to dominate Russia’s oligarchy, Putin set about building a culture of endemic corruption.  Today government and industry collaborate in bribery and favoritism, rewarding collaborators and punishing those who refuse to participate.

Seeking to supplant the culture of secrecy and suspicion that grew up during the Nixon administration, Ford’s approach was marked by candor.  In his remarks on taking the oath as president, he called truth “the glue that holds government together, and not only our government, but civilization itself.”  He continued, “In all my public and private acts as your president, I expect to follow my instincts of openness and candor with full confidence that honesty is always the best policy.”

Putin, by contrast, has promoted a culture of mendacity.  Consider the run up to the war in Ukraine.  Putin and other officials repeatedly claimed that the buildup of Russian forces along the border posed no threat.  Then they declared that Ukraine was dominated by Nazi elements and was engaged in genocide against its own citizens, claiming that a “special military operation” would rescue ethnic Russians fighting a civil war against the government in Kyiv.  None of these claims is supported by evidence.

When Ford said something, people tended to believe him.  They might disagree, even vehemently, but they took largely for granted that he could be relied upon to live up to his commitments.  With Putin, the opposite expectation has developed.  He abides by agreements only so long as it suits his interests to do so.  And he gets as good as he gives, often suffering from lack of truthful counsel.  For example, he seems to have been badly misinformed about Russia’s military prospects in Ukraine.

Contrast the consequences of speaking the truth to Ford and to Putin.  Ford frequently reached out to those who opposed him, seeking to understand their position.  As a congressman, he frequently served as a negotiator and bridge builder.  Said Ford, “Some people equate civility with weakness and compromise with surrender.  I strongly disagree.  I came by my political pragmatism the hard way, [resisting] dictators.”

Those who speak truth to Putin, by contrast, often end up out of a job, silenced, imprisoned, and even murdered.  Among many Putin critics who died violently were Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist who accused him of turning Russian into a police state; Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who uncovered widespread corruption, was beaten in police custody, and died after being denied medical care; and Putin political opponent Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down outside the Kremlin.

One of the starkest contrasts between Ford and Putin concerns the rule of law.  When Ford was sworn in as vice president, he said, “I pledge to you, as I did the day I was first admitted to the bar, my dedication to the rule of law and equal justice for all Americans.”  When Ford lost his bid for election in 1976, there was never any question that he would attempt to tamper with the election or refuse to honor the will of the people.  It would have been inconceivable.

By contrast, Putin puts his own best interests before those of his nation, having amassed a vast personal fortune, eliminated political opposition, and sacrificed innumerable lives to satisfy his own ambitions.  Instead of stepping down as president, he has rewritten the Russian constitution to maintain his grip on power.  The war in Ukraine has become not a threat to his presidency but its principal justification, as he now paints himself as the only person who could win it.

In short, where Ford was a servant-leader, Putin is a tyrant.  Ford repeatedly sacrificed his own interests for his country, while Putin continues to inflict massive economic and political damage on Russia to maintain and tighten his grip on power.  Ford saw himself as part of the larger democratic whole, whose interests he was in office to promote and protect, while Putin sees everyone and everything as tools to be exploited to magnify his own image.  

Richard Gunderman is John A Campbell Professor of Radiology; Bicentennial Professor; and Chancellor’s Professor of Radiology, Pediatrics, Medical Education, Philosophy, Liberal Arts, Philanthropy, and Medical Humanities and Health Studies at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis, and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do Americans seem to have such lower levels of political corruption than other countries? What does this tell us about our political culture?
  2. Can a nation be better than its leaders?
  3. If your leadership class is corrupt, what options do you have? How essential is integrity to political life?

Image courtesy of Gerald R. Ford Library. Photo by Ricardo Thomas


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