Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

The U.S. Constitution and Gerald R. Ford’s Virtues

Dr. John C. Pinheiro, Director of Research, Acton Institute

One of the best presidential ranking polls is conducted from time to time by the Wall Street Journal, which strategically interviews a relatively small but ideologically balanced group of scholars.  Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Franklin Roosevelt always appear in the top five.  The bottom five almost always contains James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, and Warren G. Harding.  Gerald R. Ford, the 38th president of the United States, who spent 895 days in office, usually makes the list at around twenty-four or twenty-five—only a bit higher than Jimmy Carter, whose presidency most historians see as a failure.  Sometimes Ford is evenly ranked with William Henry Harrison, who only served for 40 days!

This poll tells us one important truth about Ford: few Americans would place him in the “Great” category and few would place him in the “Worst” category.  As he himself quipped, “I am a Ford, not a Lincoln.”

What makes a president great is complex and contingent on many factors.  The question of whether the man makes the times or the times makes the man is an important one.  Another one is the degree to which private virtue and vice matter in the public arena.  There are three factors that I propose we should use to measure any president, including Ford:  devotion to limited constitutional government, the virtue of prudence, and the virtue of humility. 

First, limited constitutional government.  Ford, upon taking the oath of office in 1974, proclaimed that, “our Constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men.”

Ford believed the Constitution had worked and that he was following the Constitution in agreeing to serve as president.  And he was right.  In the first year of Richard Nixon’s second term, Vice President Spiro Agnew had resigned under the shadow of a 40-count indictment.  The 25th Amendment, which had been ratified in 1967, went into effect.  Ford thus became the first vice president nominated by the Senate and House of Representatives, in a nearly unanimous bi-partisan vote.  All of this was done according to the 25th Amendment.

Similarly, take the pardon of Richard Nixon.  The pardon power is found in Article II, Section 2 and is deeply embedded in the English constitutional tradition, with evidence of its use stretching back as far as the 600s!  Ford’s critics said he was ignoring the rule of law and promoting presidential abuse of power by pardoning Nixon.  But here again, the Constitution worked.  Ford not only did not violate the Constitution, he stuck to its letter.  We should not think of Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon as a mistaken moment, or as the result of a secret, corrupt bargain, or as a misreading of the public mood.  Rather, the use of the pardon power was, like his appointment as vice president, a constitutional moment. Though unpopular at the time, most agree now that pardoning Nixon was a prudential act.

Prudence.  Prudence is the use of reason to grasp the truth in order to act for the good. The blessings of prudence are knowable by reason alone. Prudence involves considering both short-term and long-term effects of our actions, in light of what we know about human nature and behavior.

Humility, on the other hand, is one of the so-called “theological virtues.” Being humble, apparently, is too difficult to achieve without grace.  Humility involves a docility to truth, both about the world and about oneself. Humility has in common with prudence a recognition that there are limits to what we can know as well as what we can do.

When it comes to these limits, Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek referred to what is called the “the knowledge problem.”  Hayek criticized the overconfidence of central planners in managerial economies who thought they could replace the millions of people making uncountable daily decisions with a room of experts who would direct human exchange for everyone. Nobody, said Hayek, possesses such knowledge “in concentrated or integrated form.” Indeed, the necessary knowledge is dispersed across society.

If what Hayek says is true, then one ought to be humble, and not just when it comes to economics.  Humility and prudence together counsel us to promote and sustain limited government as one of the chief safeguards against utopian delusions, inefficiency, and corruption. 

By most accounts Gerald R. Ford does not rank among America’s top presidents.  He remains, however, well-known for his mid-western humility, prudence, and constitutionalism.  We particularly see these virtues at play in Ford’s accession to the presidency as well as his pardon of Nixon.  Ford recognized these virtues as aspirational habits, not merely for presidents but for all of us.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is it possible to be a great President without facing great crises? What crises did Ford have to face?
  2. Do presidential rankings tell us more about the president or about ourselves? What assumptions do we bring to the task?
  3. How would focusing on character traits change your ranking of the presidents?
  4. Who would be your top five presidents, and who your bottom five, and why?

Image courtesy of the National Archives Catalog.


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