When any scholarly or popular historical book is deemed a “revisionist piece” the connotation is oftentimes negative. This is understandable, as many revisionist writings falter under the weight of their own claims. The attempt at reconfiguring a shared and accepted understanding of a person, place, event, nation, etc., in lieu of a new framework is a tall order even for the most talented and assiduous historians. Yet the famed presidential scholar and historian Richard Norton Smith has accomplished just that.
In An Ordinary Man: The Surprising and Historic Presidency of Gerald R. Ford, Smith argues that many long-held misconceptions about our 38th president require reconsideration. Coming in at more than 700 pages, this tome guides the reader through Leslie King Jr.’s (Ford’s birth name) little-known but tumultuous childhood, his time at Yale studying law, a stint in the Navy during World War II, his tenure in Congress as a mediator and moderate Republican, and his post-presidency. But the majority (just under 400 pages) centers around his time in the White House as both vice president and president. If a biography is, as Mark Twain put it, only the “clothes and buttons of a man,” this work undoubtedly is also the shoes and hat for its voluminous nature.
Although it can be at times tedious, the book forces the reader to come to grips with some outdated fallacies. From tackling the bumbling and accident-prone perception made popular by Chevy Chase on “Saturday Night Live” to dismantling the idea that he was Richard Nixon-lite, Smith details how Ford, whom he dubbed “the Un-Nixon,” not only brought a sense of decency back to the tainted office of the president but had unmitigated successes in both the domestic and foreign policy realms.
Some of the unheralded bright spots Smith highlights in foreign policy are the Helsinki Accords, which he describes as a “trumpet blast for human rights and a critical milestone on the road to Western victory in the Cold War,” his support for the end of white-minority rule in Rhodesia (precursor to South Africa), the Sinai II agreement paving the way for Jimmy Carter’s peace initiative in 1978, and his preservation of the defense budget, saving crucial items like cruise missiles and the airborne warning and control system.
If his foreign policy achievements went largely unnoticed, his domestic policy accomplishments were willfully ignored. Rather than using government programs and Keynesian economics entrenched in Washington since the New Deal to fight double-digit inflation, Ford relied on free-market principles and competition to bring inflation down below 5 percent. As a firm believer in deregulation, he drastically cut federal regulations, and with the help of Alan Greenspan, then-chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, he focused on capital formation in the private sector to spur job creation and deflation.
Smith puts it adroitly: Ford “ushered in the entrepreneurial society with its Individual Retirement Accounts and cross state banking; its competitive fares and heightened productivity; its lowered barriers to market entry and increased choice for consumers. [He] replaced government planners as the ultimate arbiters in an economy where there was less red tape and more R&D.” Ford’s conservative bona-fides sparkle in hindsight but still are nearly always outshined by the great communicator, Ronald Reagan, who four years later would be able to articulate these ideas in a plain and simple fashion like Ford never could.
Still, there is something altogether different that comes to the forefront while reading about Ford’s life and presidency. Policy achievements notwithstanding, it was his character that stands out the most. In light of our current political environment, he appears to be a relic from a bygone era when honor, humility, duty to country, and civility were valued. While not a Cincinnatus or Marcus Aurelius nor a Lincoln or Washington, Ford’s life and time in office are case studies in perseverance, congeniality, diligence, and doing what was right over what was politically expedient.
Heading into yet another presidential primary season, it seems apt to end with a parting piece of advice Ford gave Time magazine reporter Neil MacNeil more than 40 years ago. When asked to list any qualities that were “especially disabling” for future presidential candidates, Ford thought a moment and said the word that came to mind was “arrogance.” He continued, “That’s a terrible characteristic for a president. Fortunately, an arrogant person will most unlikely ever be elected, but if you had an arrogant president — and I mean in a vicious way — God help the country.” Well said, Mr. President, well said.