Decency and dignity with former presidents
TWO FORMER presidents are amused by a cartoon showing a little boy looking up to his father and saying, “Dad, when I grow up, I want to be a former president.”
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In 1973, as US President Richard Nixon began his second term in office, his vice president, Spiro Agnew, found himself facing accusations of receiving bribes and kickbacks from contractors while he was serving as governor of Maryland. (Any similarity with certain individuals is purely accidental.) He would enter into a deal with federal prosecutors, resulting in his resignation as vice president along with being placed on probationary status for a period of three years.
This development would lead to Nixon choosing Rep. Gerald Ford Jr., House minority leader, as the new vice president of the United States.
Ten months after Agnew’s departure, it was Nixon’s turn to submit his letter of resignation from the presidency to then State Secretary Henry Kissinger. The Presidential Succession Act of 1792, as amended in 1947 and 1967, mandates that when a president leaves office by resignation before completion of his term, he is required to submit such resignation in writing to the secretary of state. Responsibility for a break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate Hotel complex led straight to the Oval Office and President Nixon, forcing him to resign.
Exactly a month after being sworn in as the 38th chief executive of the United States, President Gerald Ford—believing that putting the former president on trial was not worth the additional trauma that the nation would have to endure, considering “the prolonged and divisive debate” that would take place—issued Proclamation No. 4311, granting pardon to Richard Nixon.
“I, Gerald Ford, President of the United States, have granted and do grant a full, free and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon for all offenses against the United States which he has committed or may have committed during the period January 20, 1969 through August 9, 1974.”
His main concern was to start the healing process so the nation could move forward, as well as to restore the dignity of the Oval Office.
Some political analysts saw the pardon to have doomed Ford’s electoral future as the nation was not yet ready to forgive Nixon. And in the election that followed in 1976, Ford would lose to Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter by the slim margin of 50 percent to 48 percent of the popular vote.
The inaugural speech of President Carter was one of the shortest on record and it began with the lines: “For myself and for our nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land.” Carter would later reveal that those lines received more applause than any other words in his inaugural address. Perhaps, it was an indication that after two years, the American people had come to accept the wisdom of the pardon granted by Ford to Nixon.
The first official act of the new president was to grant unconditional pardon to draft evaders from the Vietnam War. It would cover only civilians who evaded the draft by hiding or going abroad. Those already in the service who deserted or were Awol (absent without leave) were not included.
President Carter in turn would lose to another governor, Ronald Reagan of California. In a landslide victory, Reagan won both the popular vote as well as the electoral college count.
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As former presidents, the Republican Gerald Ford and the Democrat Jimmy Carter would form a bond of friendship that some historians consider “the most intensely personal relationship between any two presidents in history.” They were in regular contact by phone or visits, and enjoyed each other’s company immensely. In 2006, Carter received a call from Ford and after an exchange of greetings, Ford said he had a special favor to ask. Without much thought, Carter readily agreed. Ford then asked if Carter could deliver the eulogy at his funeral. Caught unaware by the unusual request, it took a few seconds before Carter could stammer out his reply, saying he would do so only if Ford could make the same commitment. A few months later, with much sorrow in his heart, Carter fulfilled his promise (“A Full Life, Reflections at 90, Jimmy Carter”).
On Jan. 3, 2007, at the Grace Episcopal Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Jimmy Carter delivered the eulogy for his friend Gerald Ford Jr. His first lines were the same as the first lines of his inaugural address.
“For myself, and for our nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land. Those were the first words I spoke as President. And I still hate to admit that they received more applause than any other words in my inaugural address.” Carter related how both he and Ford served in the US Navy as junior officers; Ford, on a battleship; he, on a submarine, with both ending up as commanders in chief.
“Ford entered the White House by fate, not by design. He knew he was not perfect, but he was prepared to serve his country and left the office a much better place.”
State Secretary Henry Kissinger, who also spoke at the services, praised his former boss: “According to ancient tradition, God preserves humanity despite its many transgressions because at any one period, there exists ten individuals who without awareness of their role, redeem mankind. Gerald Ford was such a man.
“Gerald Ford left the presidency with no regrets, no second-guessing, no obsessive pursuit of his place in history.”
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For the sake of our children and grandchildren, it is my hope that when future former presidents speak, it is to heal the nation’s wounds, uplift our spirits, and not to cause more pain and divisions among the people.