"Statesman ... In action faithful, in honor clear;
Who broke no promise, and served no private end."
- From "Moral Essays," by Alexander Pope
The fourth-century B.C. cynic Diogenes and the ancient Greek fabler Aesop had something in common: Both men, tradition says, spent their lives searching for an honest man.
Tradition does not record their success.
Today, with scandalous revelations flowing from Washington, D.C., like soap from the vat of Goethe's Sorcerer's Apprentice, we join the cynic and the teller of make-believe tales in search of at least an honorable, political leader without a clouded record or a sordid past.
Weary of the constant scrutiny of our current president, or the skeletons in the closet of his immediate predecessor, I thought I'd turn back the clock and check the record of some previous occupants of the First Residence. Surely, the stories were sweeter then.
George H.W. Bush and "Bar" - now there's a pair you knew were straightforward with the American people. Not as polished as some, but good-hearted, family-oriented, and as honest as... .
Well, Bush was the director of the CIA when a mixture of guns, drugs, and Nicaraguan rebels began fermenting into what would become the "Iran-Contra" affair. Questions linger about what this president knew about swapping guns for hostages, and when he knew it.
Ronald Reagan, though scored by a free-spending Congress and free-taking entitlement-seekers, was loved by more people than any president since "I like Ike" buttons covered American lapels. Economic rebound, the end of the Cold War and warmth from the good-natured "Gipper" made Americans proud of their president - until Iran-Contra burst its hidden seams, and proud America became suspicious America again. What did this president know?
Richard Nixon, still considered one of America's supreme foreign policy presidents, lost whatever honor he earned when he botched what should have been the least important aspect of his presidential career: raising funds for re-election.
The tiny, "your-sins-will-find-you-out" detail of a political campaign brought down an otherwise exemplary presidency. The shame of Watergate disgraced a man, ruined members of his staff and saddened the entire country.
In contrast to Nixon's fanfare-without-honor presidency, both Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford come close to our honorable man mold. For the sake of comparison, however, and a little more than a year after his death, I've chosen to highlight the otherwise overlooked, honor-without-fanfare president, Gerald Ford.
Not only at the 1976 polls following his brief term, but in the minds of a sickened public following the events of 1974, how could he win re-election? Vice president under the disgraced Richard Nixon, Ford's immediate act to pardon his former boss - "for the good of the country" - turned out to be a huge miscalculation for his own political career.
Comedy isn't the only activity in which "timing is everything." At any other time, Ford's soft-spoken, congressionally-schooled healing theme might have worked. But beginning his presidency on the heels of two national tragedies - the long, unpopular Vietnam War and the turmoil of Watergate - and entering office with neither agenda nor the benefit of the nation's vote, almost guaranteed he would fail to win the nation's heart.
But it's been 30 years, and timing also affects perspective. Ford's mission might only have been to buy some of that time. Political analysts today say the failure of Ford was in reality an extension of the failure of Nixon. He kept the same staff, offered few legislative initiatives of his own, and spent two and a half years mopping up events of the recent past. A short time in another man's shoes allowed little chance for him to create a legacy of his own.
It's also been 30 years without a Kitty Kelly expose, or a bitter, self-aggrandizing memoir. Whatever revelations occurred - his wife's illness and alcohol dependency, for example - have been openly divulged by the Ford household itself, and accepted by the public without reproach.
Nice guys finish last, they say. Maybe so. But through his own business endeavors, the Betty Ford Clinic and other humanitarian causes, our 38th, "stop-gap president" served his country much longer than the scant two and a half years recorded in the history books. His term may have begun when he took an unexpected oath of office in August, 1974, but it didn't end until his death Dec. 26, 2006.
Gerald Ford: Honorable politician found.
Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to seabara at aol.com.
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