Retrospectives about President Ford and his two-and-a-half-year presidency are giving me a sense of deja vu.
It’s hard not to see an almost eerie similarity between what is going on today and that time in the mid-1970s when Ford assumed the presidency. It’s worth thinking about. If there are indeed common themes, then maybe there are useful lessons to learn.
Like today, the country in the early ’70s was reaching exhaustion from an unpopular war that seemed to have no end. Reports of violence and death every night on the news, coupled with a diminishing comprehensible logic to it all, had everyone at wits end.
The only thing that could sustain public confidence was a sense that our leaders in Washington knew what they were doing. Then political scandal originating from the very sources in which we put our trust popped the balloon.
Making matters worse, the economy was a mess, with escalating inflation, interest rates and energy prices.
The retrospectives on President Ford hail him as a “healer” and as someone who stepped into the breach at this difficult time to soothe a rattled and distraught nation.
Similar themes dominate today’s public consciousness.
Exit polls from the November elections showed three main drivers: votes against the Bush administration, votes against the war and votes against corruption.
Now, suddenly, all our leaders are becoming healers and soothers.
President Bush reminds us of how he worked successfully with a Democratic legislature when he was governor of Texas and says that he is looking forward to working with the new Democratic congress.
Candidates with a hard ideological edge have been put out to pasture.
A new phenomenon has emerged from the Democratic Party named Barack Obama.
The Obama persona seems to hover out there independent of any tangibility. His boilerplate liberal voting record attracts little discussion. The amazing fact that he is a freshman senator barely a third of the way into his term seems irrelevant to his credibility as a presidential contender.
What seems to carry the day for Obama is that he is perceived as a healer and soother.
He’s multiethnic. He talks about the importance of bipartisanship and new political thinking.
“I think the categories we’ve been using were forged in the ’60s,” he tells Tim Russert. “… Take the example of big government versus small government. My instinct is that the current generation is interested in smart government.”
However, as we’re being healed and soothed, a real world turns about us where deeds rather than words tell us who we’re really dealing with.
In the same “Meet the Press” interview, Tim Russert reminds Obama that despite the fact he has talked about the importance of court nominees that can garner bipartisan support, he still voted against John Roberts’ candidacy for Supreme Court chief justice even as Roberts got an overwhelmingly bipartisan 78-22 endorsement.
Obama’s explanation: “Yeah. But I did not support a filibuster in that situation. So the – I mean, there’s a situation where I thought John Roberts was a highly legitimate nominee. I anguished over that vote,” etc, etc.
President Ford may have been a fine gentleman who soothed the nerves of a rattled nation, but his brief presidency became a bridge to nowhere. The major problems confronting the nation were not attended to. And the door was opened to Jimmy Carter, who campaigned as an outsider and healer who would bring new integrity to Washington.
The next four nightmare years are there for all to read about.
We should be aware of the parallels today.
The rhetoric of healing is anesthesia that diverts our national attention from real problems we have and the principles that we need to address them. An election repudiation of a wayward and confused Republican Party was not a rejection of the limited-government, traditional-values agenda that got lost.
Test scores show that, despite No Child Left Behind, black and Latino kids are being left behind. Yet what politician today is bold enough to push for real, market-based education reform?
Social Security and Medicare remain broken. Yet no candidate has the courage to be honest and say they cannot be fixed simply with more taxes.
Democrats talk about reaching out to citizens of faith. But which of these Democrats is talking about 37 percent out-of-wedlock birth rates or the central role of family in the fight against poverty?
The hidden dimension of today’s feel-good politics is denial. A lesson of the ’70s is that denial and loss of principles come at a great cost.
Must we pay this price again?