Never speak ill of the dead, except when in trying to praise the departed you are actually slighting him and his achievements and insulting the intelligence of your readers;
Lede on an AP story on Gerald Ford:
Gerald R. Ford was a man of limited ambition who, through bizarre circumstances never before experienced by the country, achieved an office that others win through the greatest determination and calculation. The nation's 38th president, Ford wanted only to become speaker of the House. History had another place for him.
Only Speaker of the House. Only.
Tell Nancy Pelosi she's soon to hold a job only the unambitious aspire to.
Tell it to the ghosts of Sam Rayburn and Tip O'Neill.
And if Speaker of the House is a job for the shy and retiring, what does that make the job Ford held when Nixon tapped him for Vice-President, Minority Leader of the House of Representatives?
And missing from this pretty picture of Gerald Ford as a man of limited ambition forced by history into a role he was too humble to want for himself is the fact that he ran for President in 1976.
You'd think from that paragraph that after serving out the two years of his appointed Presidency he said, "My work here is done," and rode off into the sunset.
This is another version of the pretty story being told over and over by the Media about Gerald Ford, as if it had something to do with the truth: After the ruthlessly ambitious Nixon was driven from the White House, the country was "healed" by the sunny, cheerful, unambitious, own-toast-making, "amiable" Jerry Ford.
I don't know if Jerry Ford ever wanted to be President of the United States---before the day in 1974 when he accepted the Vice-Presidency knowing full well that Nixon was not at all likely to serve out his term---he may not have. But that wouldn't have made him a man of limited ambition. It might just have marked him as a man with realistic ambitions.
As a young Congressman, or even as a young military veteran and former college football hero thinking of starting a career in politics, he may have wanted to be President but figured that there was no real chance that he could be and so he decided to channel his ambitions in other directions.
But if he had been ambitious for the Presidency, so what?
Would that have made him any less "amiable?"
Nothing gets done in this world except by people who are ambitious. Ambition in itself is not a vice. It depends on what you're ambitious to do and how far you will go to realize those ambitions. When we disparage someone as ambitious, when we say Caesar was ambitious, Napoleon was ambitious, that guy in the office who's determined to make CEO by the time he's 35 and who is lying, cheating, and backstabbing his way to the top is ambitious, we are saying that those ambitious types are consumed by their ambitions.
We do not mean that the job of CEO should go to a person who has no ambition.
We do not mean that the country should be governed by men and women who don't want to accomplish much of anything.
Nixon's flaw wasn't that he was ambitious. It was that he was ambitious and vain and angry and insecure and power-hungry and corrupted by power and his own anger and vanity.
The difference between Nixon and Abraham Lincoln is not that Nixon was ambitious and Lincoln wasn't.
George Washington is revered for his lack of ambition...to be a king. Unambitious he was not. Ambition tempered by humility and a strong sense of right and wrong is in fact a desirable quality in a leader.
Nixon was not brought down by the gods. He was thwarted and finally run out of town by men and women of great ambition, including Gerald Ford.
The AP story pretty much repeats its lede with this graph not very far down:
And so the man who did not covet the presidency, who never had sought national office and who wanted only to become the "head honcho" of the House, became president by chance — unlike many since who have devoted huge amounts of time and money in pursuit of the Oval Office.
I like that "since" in the clause after the dash there. As if in the Golden Age before Nixon, only the humble and uninterested ever ran for President.
But, again, it's as if Jimmy Carter had another opponent devoting huge amounts of time and money in pursuit of the Oval Office.
Two pretty stories are being told here. The first is that once upon a time America and Americans were better than they are now, a land where all the men were strong, all the women were handsome, the children all above average, and nobody was ambitious.
This pretty story is one of the most pernicious in the library of national cliches. By presenting contemporary America as a corrupt and fallen nation compared to our glorious and innocent past, the teller of the pretty story implies that the way to improvement and salvation is to go backwards. Reaction is the politics of nostalgia.
The other pretty story is only a little less destructive. All Presidents, except those named Nixon or Clinton, are good and honorable men who put the best interests of the country ahead of everything, including and especially personal ambition, which is why they have all managed to do wonderful things.
What would have been the result if AP had chosen to write an obituary of the real Jerry Ford? If instead of the amiable doofus who became President through "bizarre circumstances"---Watergate is turned into a kind of natural disaster in this phrase, an unlucky accident that befell the country, and Nixon's bad character is erased from history---we were told about a savvy and ambitious politician who brokered his way into the White House?
We'd then have to tell the story of the real Ford Presidency, which can be at best described as a triumph of mediocrity, in which Ford's main achievement was mostly a matter of his not doing anything---he didn't start any wars or let any cities drown or make any determined efforts to undue generations of social progress and justice.
There'd be nothing "great" about Ford's life to write about, is that it? All his achievements as a United States Congressman? Piffle.
What we have here is a story that disparages wanting to be President at the same time it accepts the idea that the only great job is that of President.
But mainly what we have is a perfect example of the reflexive institutional condescension of the Washington Media, the "You can't handle the truth" dismissive arrogance of the National Press Corps towards ordinary Americans.
We children---we voters, we citizens---have to be spoonfed
our pretty stories so we can go about in comfortable ignorance,
childishly secure in the knowledge that our leaders are all great and
noble, smarter than us, wiser than us, better than us. They don't
need our advice or our energy or our supervision. We should just
go about our business and, as far as the wise men and women of the
Washington Media Elite are concerned, our business is to mind our own
Atrios has been riding this one hard for the last couple weeks, the arrogance of the wise men and women who think that their having been wrong about everything for the past six years does not disqualify them from telling us how the country should be run over the next six.
Tom Watson assesses Ford the President and finds that he was mostly harmless.
And a little while back, Ezra Klein made the point that the way to figure out what a politician will do in office is to ignore the pretty stories the press corps makes up and then reports on as fact and pay attention to what that politician says he will do and at what he has already done. From the New York Times obit, here's Jerry Ford on Jerry Ford's supposed lack of ambition and his being in the position to become President by chance:
“The harder you work, the luckier you are,” he said once in summarizing his career. “I worked like hell.”
Cross-posted at the American Street.