Scandal with pardon; WIN with a losing economy; “peace with honor”
Gerald Ford, in many ways, was like a new Harry Truman: he was another war veteran from the Midwest, and had a “classic American” style of speaking and a quaint upbringing, including a career as a football player—an injury from his football days caused him occasionally to trip. In another political era, Ford would have made an ideal president to counter the image of the presidency tarnished by the preceding occupant of the White House. However, by the mid-‘70s, many in pop culture had set their teeth on politics and bureaucracy altogether, showing a distrust of authority that constantly surveils its citizens and seeks to cover-up its misdeeds—demonstrated in such films as The Conversation and The Parallax View (both released in 1974, the same year that Watergate broke). Though such entertainment seems trite these days, it represented the new but deep-seated disillusionment with leadership from which the United States might never recover.
As it was, instead of looking upon Gerald Ford as an outsider to the Nixon network—which, by and large, he was—Americans were more inclined to remember his participation in the Warren Commission and be distrustful of his role in the “Kennedy cover-up” rather than as the minority-party leader of the House who filled the vacancy of the vice presidency. Instead of viewing Ford’s old football injury as a sign of pure Americana, it quickly became the butt of jokes on a new television show called Saturday Night Live and in caustic parodies in magazines like National Lampoon.
Ford’s first major decision as president probably guaranteed that his term would be only two years long: he pardoned Richard Nixon of obstruction of justice and any other criminal wrongdoing he had committed while president. Ford’s decision to keep Henry Kissinger as Secretary of State and to continue the SALT agreements with Brezhnev of the Soviet Union also earned him enemies—among Nixon’s enemies among Democrats, who distrusted Kissinger by association, and also among Republicans, who felt that any compromise or agreement with the Soviet Union would weaken America’s stance as a Cold War nuclear “empire”/superpower.
In 1973, still under Nixon’s leadership, OPEC (the Organization of the Petroleum-Exporting Countries) sought revenge for the United States standing by Israel in three wars that were dedicated to the new country’s destruction: the War of Israeli Independence in 1948, the Six-Day War of 1967, and—most recently—the “Yom Kippur War” of 1973, during which Israel’s Arab neighbors attacked it on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. OPEC cut off the supply of oil to the U.S. drastically, helping keep the U.S. in “stagflation” that would continue throughout the 1970s.
Ford’s response, like Nixon’s, was to tackle inflation first, so he urged citizens to Whip Inflation Now (or “WIN”). This initiative, mainly reliant on voluntary limits, did little to ease the energy crisis’s inflationary effects, especially after OPEC quadrupled the price of oil in just one year. Smaller, more efficient cars might have helped, but at this point in history those were mainly available from Europe or Japan. (Anyone driving a Ford during the Ford era would receive a major hit to the wallet.) It also didn’t help that Ford and a post-Watergate Democratic Congress could not compromise.
For instance, Congress did not approve of any substantial financial aid to Vietnam, which concluded its civil war with a devastating win for the North. The final withdrawal of Americans from the southern capital of Saigon of 1975 was a major embarrassment—“peace with honor” had been achieved, but with the U.S. offering no further help to a country that had cost it billions of dollars and thousands of soldiers’ lives. Vietnam remained among the poorest of nations for years, and neighboring Cambodia soon fell to a ruthless dictatorship under Pol Pot, who sought to eliminate millions of educated intellectuals from his “agrarian utopia” by killing them off, one by one.
The uncharacteristic Democrat: a double-edged sword of an outsider in D.C.
While Ford barely managed to hold on to the Republican nomination in ’76 against the no-nonsense, “tough-on-Communism” stance of others like California’s governor Ronald Reagan, the Democrats sought someone outside of the “machine” of Washington, hoping to counter the serious mistrust of D.C. insiders after Nixon. The gamble paid off, as the former peanut farmer and governor of Georgia Jimmy Carter grabbed the nomination and then the presidency. His “down-to-earth,” pious leadership was seen as something of a relief against those with “too much past” in the scandal-laden Nixon years and before. More and more Americans grew disenchanted with Washington to the extent that, starting in the bicentennial year 1976 and continuing every four years since, “Nobody for President” campaigns have protested the often-binary nature of elections, refusing to vote for “the lesser of two evils.”
To be fair, Carter inherited his predecessors’ problems, as we have seen with just about every “emperor” thus far. To be unfair, Carter might have been a better preacher than president. Carter preached to the American people about reducing their own energy needs rather than taking the reins of government with systematic solutions, as one might expect a Democrat to do. Even though he stands out as the only Democrat in the presidency for a whole 25 years (from 1969 until 1993), Carter’s response to the “stagflation” problem was very uncharacteristic for a Democrat: he deregulated transportation industries, reduced federal government spending, and approved a massive rise in interest rates.
Carter continued peacemaking initiatives around the world: 1) he gave the Panama Canal territory (“borrowed” by “Emperor Roosevelt I” to build the canal) back to Panama, 2) he signed the SALT II agreement with the Soviet Union and—his biggest achievement—3) he brought Egypt and Israel to peace talks in 1978 at Camp David, the presidential retreat. Yet, Carter’s “advice” for his own citizens came across, at times, as holier-than-thou and seemingly shifted the responsibility off of his shoulders and onto that of the American people: to make better choices for themselves so that he wouldn’t have to do it for them. To repeat, this was a noble goal and worth stating during any era—even our own time today—but it is not what is usually expected of the person serving as the chief executive.
Most characteristic of this type of speechmaking was the so-called “crisis of confidence” speech, delivered in July 1979—though Carter probably would have wanted it to be labeled “the solar bank” speech, as that was his proposal, to wean off of dependency on foreign oil. Carter addressed the nation on television to state: “It’s clear that the true problems of our nation are much deeper—deeper—than gasoline lines or energy shortages, deeper even than inflation or recession. And I realize more than ever that, as president, I need your help… Two-thirds of our people do not even vote. The productivity of American workers is actually dropping, and the willingness of Americans to save for the future has fallen below that of all other people in the Western world and, as you know, there is a growing disrespect for government, and for churches, and for schools, the news media, and other institutions. This is not a message of happiness or reassurance, but it is the truth and it is a warning…”
No president has since addressed the nation so frankly and pointedly—in part because of the negative reception of that speech. Carter seemingly chided and blamed the American people for their own disenchanted attitudes, but this—perhaps like any “parental” lecture of its kind—did not magically cure the attitude. If anything, it only caused Americans to look for a stronger, more decisive “parental” figure in 1980. Ronald Reagan was just the “dad” for the job.
Reagan and his hardline stance against the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union were preferred over Carter’s more diplomatic approaches. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 (in a war that could be called “the Soviet Vietnam”), Carter responded by boycotting the 1980 Moscow Olympics and calling for economic sanctions. Also in 1979, when the Iranian government that was installed by the U.S. in 1953 collapsed, overthrown by the theocracy (religious-based government) of the Ayatollah Khomeini, the ayatollah took a strong anti-American stance, holding hostages in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, the Iranian capital, for 444 days. Although Carter did manage to negotiate a release, that release did not occur until the very same day that Reagan was inaugurated. What Carter could not stop was yet another energy crisis, as the revolution in Iran created instability across the Middle East.
In response to the “crisis of confidence,” the majority of U.S. voters (that is to write, in these days, a quarter of the American voting population) had chosen the most confident, charismatic “emperor” since John Kennedy.