Gerald Ford's Mixed Legacy
The disclosure that Gerald Ford opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq but embargoed his objections until after his death fits with his contradictory legacy as a national leader who opposed the imperial presidency while laying the groundwork for its restoration.
After assuming the presidency on Aug. 9, 1974, Ford earned praise by demonstrating greater respect for Congress than the prickly and paranoid Richard Nixon. Ford also scored points with the public for toasting his own English muffins and acting like a regular guy.
By contrast, Nixon had dressed White House guards up in uniforms more befitting the Hapsburg monarchy than the American Republic. More significantly, Nixon had asserted broad powers to wage war overseas and acted secretly to sabotage his political enemies at home. Nixon embodied the notion that if a President did it, it couldn’t be illegal.
Symbolically at least, Ford represented a repudiation of Nixon’s imperial excesses. Since Ford’s death on Dec. 26, that contrast between Nixon and Ford has been the theme of many eulogies, effusive praise for a common man of the Midwest who helped heal the nation’s bitter divisions from Watergate and Vietnam.
But in hindsight, Ford’s actions in the White House may have done more to salvage the idea of an imperial presidency than to shatter it. From the perspective of three decades later, the two-plus years of the Ford administration could be viewed more like a period of strategic retreat for the imperial presidency than a return to the traditional checks and balances envisioned by the Founders.
Indeed, given Ford’s appointment of Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and George H.W. Bush to key jobs, one could argue that the Ford administration served as an incubator for the imperial presidency’s rebirth – even if he personally opposed it.
Having spent most of his political career in Congress, Ford understood the constitutional roles of the three co-equal branches of government. As the President who oversaw the final collapse in Vietnam, he also recognized the danger of putting too much power in the hands of the Executive.
But Ford’s pardon of Nixon – though understandable for someone wanting to end “our long national nightmare” of Watergate – prevented the investigation from running its course and sparing Nixon from facing justice for his crimes.
The inconclusive ending to Watergate, with Nixon never forced to admit specific wrongdoing, permitted his die-hard supporters to nurse resentments about the supposed unfairness of it all. Indeed, that anger drove the American Right to build an infrastructure of media, think tanks and pressure groups to protect some future Republican President from “another Watergate.”
Ford also seems to have lacked the vision, confidence or political courage to overcome resistance within his administration to surrendering presidential authority in a way needed to restore the traditional constitutional balance.
A quarter century later by withholding his objections to George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, Ford again served the interests of the imperial presidency.
Ford stayed silent in the run-up to the war in 2002-03 and then withheld his critical interview in 2004 until after his death. In other words, the war has raged for nearly four years now – with nearly 3,000 U.S. soldiers dead – without the American people knowing that Ford held grave doubts about the invasion.
“I don’t think I would have ordered the Iraq war,” Ford said in the interview, which was released by the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward two days after Ford’s death. “I think I would have maximized our effort through sanctions, through restrictions, whatever, to find another answer.”
Ford’s position was similar to recommendations that were made by France and Germany in early 2003, prompting Bush’s supporters to ridicule these longtime U.S. allies as “surrender monkeys” and the “axis of weasels.” Bush looked on approvingly as “French fries” and “French toast” were renamed “freedom fries” and “freedom toast.”
Only now do the American people know that Ford, a well-respected ex-President, favored an Iraq containment policy, too.
Ford also criticized Rumsfeld, who served as his Defense Secretary, and Cheney, who was his White House chief of staff.
In the 2004 interview, Ford said, “Rumsfeld and Cheney and the President made a big mistake in justifying going into the war in Iraq. They put the emphasis on weapons of mass destruction. … And now, I’ve never publicly said I thought they made a mistake, but I felt very strongly it was an error in how they should justify what they were going to do.” [Washington Post, Dec. 28, 2006]
While it’s not entirely clear why Ford embargoed his comments until after his death, the decision suggests that he retained his abhorrence for rocking the boat, a characteristic that had marked his quarter century as a mainstream Republican congressman from Michigan.
That experience served Ford well as he soothed the anger that had seethed around the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation. But Ford’s caution also deterred him from challenging the status quo as he found it among the staff he inherited from Nixon or as it existed in 2002-03 when few in Official Washington dared cross George W. Bush.
As President, Ford found himself surrounded by Nixon holdovers, like Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who had relished the powers of the imperial presidency – and by relative newcomers, like Rumsfeld and Cheney, who hated any new congressional constraints on the White House.
Historians can trace the start of the long comeback for the imperial presidency to when Ford’s team started to push back against congressional and citizen initiatives for reform.
Another key figure in that resistance was George H.W. Bush, who Ford picked to be CIA director. Bush paid lip service to cooperation with Congress, but beneath the surface, he torpedoed many of its efforts. For instance, Bush led a successful lobbying campaign in 1976 to block the release of a report on past CIA abuses by Rep. Otis Pike, D-N.Y.
While fighting to conceal historic misdeeds, Bush built new walls of secrecy around ongoing intelligence abuses, such as Operation Condor, an international assassination ring run by South American military dictatorships that worked closely with Bush’s CIA.
With Ford’s approval, Bush also granted a team of hard-line Cold Warriors, including neoconservative academic Paul Wolfowitz, access to the CIA’s raw intelligence on the Soviet Union capabilities, enabling this so-called “Team B” to challenge the CIA’s nuanced assessment of Soviet strength.
Though the intelligence pointed to serious – and worsening – Soviet deficiencies, “Team B” emerged with an alarmist vision of Soviet power and intentions. In late 1976, Bush largely adopted this dire assessment, which restricted the maneuvering room of Ford’s successor, Democrat Jimmy Carter. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
It would take only four years for the Republicans to reclaim the White House and begin reasserting broad presidential powers. Despite continued efforts by Congress in the early 1980s to rein in the Executive, President Ronald Reagan simply ignored legal restrictions on his conduct of war and foreign policy.
Reagan cut Congress out of some controversial operations, such as continued support for the Nicaraguan contra rebels despite a congressional ban and the sale of military hardware to Iran in violation of the Arms Export Control Act. When asked about these issues, Reagan, Vice President George H.W. Bush and their subordinates just lied.
The scandal finally broke into the open in fall 1986, but the Republicans were far better organized to fight back. Over the dozen years since Watergate, right-wing financiers, such as Korean cult leader Sun Myung Moon, had poured hundreds of millions of dollars into building a pro-Republican media infrastructure.
Still simmering over Nixon’s forced resignation, Republicans took the offensive against Iran-Contra investigators who dug too deep. One of the most combative Republicans on the congressional Iran-Contra committee was Rep. Dick Cheney of Wyoming.
Cheney insisted that no wrongdoing had occurred and refused to sign the final majority report. He then worked with the Republican staff, including David Addington, to author a minority report that argued in favor of a broad constitutional interpretation of the President’s powers.
Rather than provoke a possible impeachment fight, the Democrats – led by Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana – chose to soft-pedal their findings and sought no formal congressional censure of Reagan, Bush or other members of the administration. In effect, Hamilton and the other Democrats acquiesced to their own humiliation.
The Reagan-Bush team only had to weather a criminal investigation by Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, who broke through a determined White House cover-up in 1991 and began zeroing in on the administration’s top ranks.
On Christmas Eve 1992, however, then-President George H.W. Bush pardoned former State Department official Elliott Abrams and five other Iran-Contra defendants, effectively killing the criminal prosecutions that had resulted from the scandal. The congressional Democrats again shrank from a confrontation.
The Bush Restoration
So, eight years later, when Bush’s eldest son became President with Cheney as his Vice President, they brought with them a commitment to revive the imperial presidency. They also recognized that the Democrats in Congress could be easily rolled.
Understanding the importance of controlling the flow of information, George W. Bush made one of his first acts as President the signing of an executive order to block the release of historic records from the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush presidencies.
Cheney also wrapped his deliberations with energy executives about a new national energy policy in tight secrecy.
In picking key White House advisers, Bush and Cheney turned to veterans of the long march back from the Nixon debacle. Abrams, Addington and Wolfowitz were among the senior aides helping to shape foreign policy and legal strategies.
The 9/11 attacks added more momentum to the restoration of the imperial presidency Without public announcement, Bush asserted “plenary” – or unlimited – powers as Commander in Chief and claimed that authority for the duration of the “war on terror.”
Over the next few years, Bush overrode constitutional rights, including habeas corpus guarantees of a fair trial and the Fourth Amendment’s requirement of warrants for searches. He ignored the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, one of the Watergate-era reforms enacted to limit the President’s power to wiretap Americans.
Bush also claimed the unilateral right to take the nation to war as he plotted to invade Iraq. Though arguing that congressional approval was not needed, he pushed through a war-authorization vote in the weeks before Election 2002, dividing Democrats and helping the Republicans regain full control of Congress.
Then, brushing aside the United Nations Charter and objections from key allies, Bush launched the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Three weeks later, Saddam Hussein’s government was toppled. On May 1, 2003, Bush celebrated his victory on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln under a banner reading “Mission Accomplished.”
In that dramatic scene, the imperial presidency had completed an extraordinary historic recovery from its low point on Aug. 9, 1974, when Richard Nixon tearfully resigned in disgrace and Gerald Ford took the oath of office.
But Ford’s actions then – and his silence about the Iraq invasion later – served the cause of the imperial presidency, even if the mild-mannered Republican from Michigan knew better.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'
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