Four of us were sitting in a restaurant a while back and one asked, “Who do you think was the most courageous President of the past 50 years?”
I thought for a moment, passing through the series of Commanders-in-Chief that have been in office in my lifetime, and internally argued for one vs. the other until I settled on, perhaps, a most unlikely candidate. Gerald Ford.
Some remember his wife Betty’s outspokenness, her admissions of addiction, the clinic which still bears her name, more than President Ford. Others remember his occasional faux pas, preserved in time by Chevy Chase in SNL’s early days. Still others remember his singular attribute as a President, one which I hope remains his alone—the only President never elected.
It’s that last fact that sealed the deal for me. It is the reason I think he was most vulnerable to the out-of-nowhere governor of Georgia.
You see, I believe that Gerald Ford made a decision—an unpopular decision but the right one—fully conscious that making it would guarantee that he would not be re-elected. He pardoned Richard Nixon.
I’m sure his fellow party members who were privy to his thinking begged him not to. They knew it was the “people’s mandate” that Nixon be crucified for what he and his cronies had done.
I don’t know what drove Gerald Ford’s decision, but I like to think that he recognized that the “people’s mandate” for vengeance is not always wise, that as another friend once said, the Achilles heel of democracy is that there is no guarantee that the majority knows what’s best for it.
I think, also, that Ford was among the last politicians to practice empathy, to recognize, as Atticus Finch told Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year—that you can’t judge another fairly until you try to walk in his shoes and live in his skin. Ford told a joke on himself not long before he died, or maybe it was just a lesson he learned back then. He said in an interview once that when he’d been on Capitol Hill (for those who don’t know your history, he was the Speaker of the House, who ascended to the Vice-Presidency on Agnew’s resignation, and then to the Presidency on Nixon’s), he was often among his fellow Congressmen and women, railing at the sitting President, saying to himself, “How could he be so stupid?”
Then, by either cruel fate or divine intervention, he’d found himself on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, where a regular utterance heard about the leaders in Congress (the same group from which he had come) was “How could they be so stupid?”
I think, if not before, he certainly came face to face with what Atticus was talking about. You just never know what another is thinking, but it’s worth imagining what it feels like to stand in their shoes before you go shooting off your mouth.
In the end, Gerald Ford’s decision to pardon Nixon was a most unselfish one. He went against the “people’s mandate,” knowing it wouldn’t bode well for his political future, like a wise parent who holds his ground against the “everybody’s doing it” that always renders its head in adolescence.
I read of our new Congressman’s alleged response to a Dacula constituent who asked what she should do because she worked for a corporation that didn’t, or couldn’t, pay a pension. “When do I decide I’m going to take care of me?” he said. Funny, but I think he decided that long ago…
Don’t get me wrong. I suspect he is a nice enough guy. I don’t know him personally, but I find that response to be incredibly telling, incredibly demonstrative either of a lack of empathy or just plain incapacity to stand in the shoes of one who, trying her best to take care of herself, made a decision to work for a corporation that didn’t pay a pension because there was a promise, a promise that now threatens to be broken, that if she paid a part of her salary for at least 40 quarters, matched by her employer, into a system, she’d have a paltry sum to depend on, even if the economic tide swung in the direction it has. And, that promise threatens to be broken at a time when she, unlike our relatively young friend, probably doesn’t have time to recover, and no real options to do so anyway.
I bet he goes to church every Sunday. I’ll bet he’d tell you that he’s a Christian, and that he believes that he is, though I’m not sure what particular teaching of Jesus he would call on to defend his position, unless he has conveniently placed himself in Jesus’ shoes instead of the shoes of the stone-throwers—the ones, if we’re honest, we all wear. To love one’s neighbor as oneself doesn’t require that you martyr yourself, but it sure does require a capacity for empathy far beyond what Rob Woodall’s statement implies he has.
There is no doubt that we’ve got a hornet’s nest of trouble in Washington, and that we need major change in our fiscal policies. There is no doubt that we need to take strong measures to balance the budget, to stop the climbing debt, to stimulate the economy. But I can assure you that it doesn’t take much empathic thought to realize that to break the spirit, the backs of those who carried us thus far, the promise…isn’t the way. You can’t pay taxes if you don’t have income, you don’t have income unless you have a job, you can’t get a job if nobody’s hiring, and you can’t give a charge to the economy unless you have money to buy something or trust that if you do, there’ll be more coming in, even if it’s a Medicare reimbursement.
Hmmm…trust. In what exactly? That leaders like our young Congressman have our best interests at heart?
If Gerald Ford had asked, “When do I decide I’m gonna take care of me?” he would have chosen his chance for re-election over what was best for the country. But he didn’t. He was unselfish, and courageous, and empathetic.
We needed the likes of him then.
We need the likes of him now more than ever.