Rubin: Gerald Ford would be aghast at today’s GOP

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

I asked Elaine Didier if she could imagine Michigan’s only president trading petulant insults with the contenders in the Republican debates.

“No,” she said.

I asked whether Gerald R. Ford, 38th in a line of succession that dates back to George Washington, would be despairing of the dysfunction that has the Senate majority refusing to even consider contemplating a prospective Supreme Court justice.

“Yes,” she said.

Then the director of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum added a few words of her own.

“Dismayed, dispirited, disappointed,” she said from her office at the library in Ann Arbor. “This is not what he would believe in.”

Like Didier, journalist and author Thomas DeFrank is a keeper of Ford’s flame and informed interpreter of his legacy. His “Write It When I’m Gone” (Berkley, $15), a bestseller in 2007, was based on years of their off-the-record conversations.

“Jerry Ford would be heartsick about what’s happened to his party,” DeFrank said in an email from a vacation stop in Cartagena, Colombia. “But he’d be even more heartsick about the animosity and virulence that’s destroyed any semblance of bipartisanship in Washington.”

On this Super Tuesday, two days after Marco Rubio lowered the bar of dignity below sea level with a reference to Donald Trump’s penis, Ford will have no comment. He died at 93 in 2006 and is buried at his presidential museum in Grand Rapids.

As the parties lurch toward the election, it’s hard to imagine him resting easy.

Stuck without a middle

Chances are, Ford would be dismissed by modern hardliners as a RINO, or Republican in name only. So would a reincarnated Ronald Reagan.

In fact, DeFrank said, Ford was “a rock-ribbed Republican who could be staunchly partisan at times.” But he could share a drink and a laugh with Democrat friends, and he “understood the country is governed most effectively from the middle.”

Ford was the U.S. House Minority Leader when he was selected as vice-president by Richard Nixon after the resignation of Spiro Agnew. Nine months later, in August 1974, Ford replaced Nixon.

Running to keep the job in 1976, he lost narrowly to Jimmy Carter.

That made him a historical curiosity; he’s the only president to never win a national election. But he had built a respected 25-year House career on compromise, conciliation and expertise, all of which sound almost quaint in an era when candidates compete to prove who dislikes government the most.

Didier recalled a story Ford told about a first-term Democratic congressman who had submitted something, perhaps an amendment, but had done it incorrectly.

Details have blurred whether Ford sent a staffer or went himself, but in any event, instruction was delivered and the mistake was rectified.

“He used to say, ‘I can disagree without being disagreeable,’ ” Didier said — and he could reach across the aisle for the good of the institution or the country.

Accepting responsibility

The Ford Museum closed for renovation in October and will have a rededication June 7.

Displayed prominently, as it has been for decades, will be the metal staircase from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, a freeze-frame from one of the more ignominious pictures in American history.

Ford insisted that it be there. “It happened on our watch,” he said — an admirable acknowledgment of where the buck stops, and one that stands out today when avoiding blame often seems to be Job 1.

As someone with a “sense of constitutional propriety,” DeFrank said, Ford would insist that President Obama has a right to make a Supreme Court nomination, even if he would likely oppose the nominee.

As an astute politician, “He’d also say it was dumb for Republicans to give Democrats an issue by refusing to give that nominee a hearing.”

On what would have been Ford’s 100th birthday in July 2013 — in a political climate exponentially less venomous than today’s — DeFrank wrote an analysis for the National Journal, where he is a contributing editor.

It ended with a birthday greeting and something to be happy about:

“Be glad you’re not here.”