A fuzzy aura has been generated around Gerald Ford, 38th president of the United States, who died at age 93 on Dec. 26.
He is hailed as a decent man, a “uniter,” who led the nation out of its worst political nightmare, the Watergate scandal. The accolades contrast Ford with the divisive, arrogant politician who currently occupies the White House.
Yet when I arrived on Capitol Hill in the spring of 1968 as a reporter for this newspaper’s predecessor, the Daily World, House Minority Leader Gerald Ford (R-Mich.) was still spearheading a racist crusade against Rep. Adam Clayton Powell (D-N.Y.). Powell, as chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, had pushed through pro-people, pro-labor legislation, including ground-breaking civil rights laws, Medicare and War on Poverty measures. Powell was also outspoken in his opposition to the war in Vietnam.
Ford signed the resolution denying Powell his House seat in January 1967, even though Harlem voters had reelected him in an 80 percent landslide. Powell called it a “political lynching” and Ford was leading the mob.
Ford had already won notoriety as a member of the Warren Commission investigating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Serving as J. Edgar Hoover’s handpicked agent inside the commission, Ford doctored the final report, changing the location of the entry wound to the back of Kennedy’s head to buttress the FBI’s line that Lee Harvey Oswald was Kennedy’s “lone assassin.”
President Richard Nixon appointed Ford vice president when Spiro Agnew was forced to resign in 1973. A few months later, then-White House Chief of Staff Al Haig visited Ford in his Arlington, Va., home to warn him that Nixon’s resignation in the Watergate scandal was imminent. Haig outlined a number of options, including that Ford grant Nixon a pardon as soon as he was sworn in as president. Ford always stoutly denied he accepted any quid pro quo. But it did not quiet the outrage when he actually did grant Nixon a pardon. It is widely seen as the reason he was defeated by Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976.
The pardon dovetailed with the strategy of the ultra-right Republicans who were seeking to build a firewall around themselves as the Watergate conspiracy was exposed. Blame for the scandal would be pinned exclusively on Nixon and a narrow circle of advisers. The aim was to block any accounting for the broader political crimes that were coming to light.
At the time, the House Judiciary Committee was preparing articles of impeachment that went far beyond the White House “plumbers” break-in of the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel, June 17, 1972. A young African American congressman from Detroit, John Conyers, for example, was writing an article charging Nixon with “high crimes” in widening the Vietnam War by illegally invading Cambodia. There were also articles charging Nixon with abuses of power in unleashing domestic spying on peaceful law-abiding protesters by the FBI and CIA. Another focused on criminal covert warfare by the CIA including assassinations and coups d’état against foreign governments.
Nixon’s forced resignation killed consideration of these documents before they saw the light of day. Nixon was out but the vast infrastructure built by the ultra-right remained in place. Ford even kept on ringleaders of some of the sordid crimes of this larger Watergate, including two young Republican thugs, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Nixon had assigned them to the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) to wreck the anti-poverty agency from the inside. I remember attending a press conference by then-Republican Leon Panetta in which he described in chilling detail their thuggish behavior.
True, Ford was forced to acknowledge the nationwide and worldwide outrage over CIA assassinations, signing an executive order banning these crimes, a ban that remained in place until George W. Bush junked it.
Ford’s pardon of Nixon helped the ultra-right move closer to their goal, realized in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan, of establishing an imperial presidency stripped of checks and balances. Reagan, George Bush (senior), Cheney, Rumsfeld and the rest of the neocon crew unleashed the most brutal anti-worker regime in U.S. history, starting with the smashing of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization in 1981. Every gain won by the working class in the past century was targeted for outright repeal or “death by underfunding.”
Reagan unleashed a drive for total U.S. global domination, including at one point 60 separate “contra” counterrevolutionary wars around the world. He vowed to spend the Soviet Union into bankruptcy in a runaway arms race.
All these ultra-reactionary currents came to a head when the Bush-Cheney regime seized power in 2000 in what this newspaper called “a very American coup.” The 2006 midterm elections marks the first time since Watergate that the people have succeeded in slowing if not stopping this ultra-right juggernaut.
If he had been a man of courage, a defender of the Constitution he was sworn to uphold, Ford might have averted all this tragedy. He could have started by declaring: “I will not pardon that criminal.”
Tim Wheeler (greenerpastures21212 @ yahoo.com) is national political correspondent for the People’s Weekly World.