That's Character

The dignity of Ford's post-presidency

By Robert D. Kaplan
From the archives:

"The Pardon" (May 2002)
Seymour Hersh took an in-depth look at Ford's pardon of Nixon and its repercussions.

In all the commentary about Gerald Ford, one aspect of his life that has received little notice, but which I suspect is subconsciously behind a lot of the accolades, was his public role after he left the White House. It was understated to the point of disappearance. Two years ago in a piece about the media in Policy Review, I wrote that it may take long "for the realization to seep in that Ford has been our greatest contemporary ex-president. For in an age of mass media, where divinity is dependent upon being noticed by the crowd and being forgotten is the equivalent of excommunication—high character is rightly defined by the willingness to embrace obscurity the moment one relinquishes lofty bureaucratic responsibility."

Indeed, because of the way technology has revolutionized the media, never before in history have all of us been so tempted, and under so much social pressure, to have our opinions in the marketplace. If any former president has been a creature of an age of mass media it has been Jimmy Carter, who for a generation now, cannot seem to go a few weeks without issuing a statement, embarking on a diplomatic initiative, or publishing yet another new book or article. Behind all his undeniable good deeds, this former president seems to have an obsession with being noticed by the crowd. While his diplomatic initiatives have sometimes been well-founded, overall they have complicated rather than helped along the work of sitting presidents, both Democratic and Republican. It is almost as though he has been competing with them, offering an alternative address for foreign dictators who don't much like White House policy. And yet the more high profile stunts he tries—and the more books he publishes—the more devalued he seems to become. Being noticed by the crowd exacts its own law of diminishing returns.

Contrarily, there was Ford. In the 1980s, I remember commentators saying that while Carter was engaged with the world's problems, Ford was merely on the golf course. But that was precisely the point. A former president should, at least in a public sense, fade away to a significant degree, so as to leave his successors as wide a berth as possible for action. Of course, Carter has done much good with his foundation that rarely gets public attention. And, of course, Ford was quite active in good works, even as he spoke out on domestic and global issues on occasion. My point is only that Ford's high character was evinced by his willingness to generally shun publicity rather than to welcome it. The result was an air of dignity that grew over the years, encouraging the current tributes.

The fact that Ford embargoed, until after his death, an interview he gave Washington Post writer Bob Woodward in 2004 is further proof of his estimable reticence. While his displeasure at President George W. Bush's Iraqi policy was real, he seems to have had mixed feelings about publicly airing them. He had to have known that once deceased, he would not be able to go on television or issue statements, clarifying or embellishing, according to the news cycle, what he had told Woodward. He knew that he would be stuck with what he said. That's character.

From the archives:

Post-President for Life (March 2003)
The post-presidency of Bill Clinton will, like the Clinton Administration, be noisy and attention-getting. Will it accomplish anything—or turn out to be limbo in overdrive? By James Fallows

President Bill Clinton's post-presidency is still in the making. It would be unreasonable, given his personality, to expect him to be as low-key as Ford. But with his profusion of energy and pace of activities that guarantee him a certain amount of media coverage anyway, the degree to which Clinton can avoid the klieg lights will raise, rather than weaken, his stature. The American Presidency may not be history's last word on the most important position that any single individual can hold. But for the time being it is. And those who have held the office owe it to their successors never to even try to upstage them.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2006/12/thats-character/305576/