Former president Gerald Ford died last night at 93 and, based on the non-stop media coverage, you are led to believe he was the most important president in the history of the United States.
He was not. Not all presidents are great. Nor should they be in the greater scheme of hungry men and their petty dreams. Not all presidents deserve the race to media outlets by their friends and henchmen to be inappropriately venerated by those who claim to best know “the real man.”
Gerald Ford was never elected by the people as Vice President or President. Ford was picked to fill the Vice President slot because he was dull, non-threatening and knew his place.
He was known as the “Accidental President” who became president — for only 896 days — only because Nixon resigned in disgrace.
Ford is best known for his inexcusable pardoning Nixon, and it is most telling how he is remembered by those who need to celebrate his greatness. Andrea Mitchell of NBC news said, “He was humble, decent, honest.”
Is that a compliment or an excuse? Other newshounds can only summon up his All-American football days at the University of Michigan and his being an Eagle Scout as a child as evidence of his greatness. There’s a reason Chevy Chase relentlessly mocked him every week on Saturday Night Live.
Those on television struggle to give form and meaning to Ford because he didn’t have any memorable feats in his public life and so, in a required and ceremonial public death, the life before he became president is celebrated instead of the misbegotten deeds of power. We need to have mourning in America that meets the standard of the achievements of the dead.
Gerald Ford is being venerated not because he was a great president — but merely because he was president — and that difference has mighty and dangerous ramifications in the young history of a nation. Ford also gave comfort and power and safe harbor to Rumsfeld and Cheney. Ford’s death begs this question: Are we a nation of laws or a nation of men?
If we believe in the Rule of Law then we must also accept the fact that any man can become president and the nation will not crumble. Gerald Ford is an example of the power of the Rule of Law but the ceremony and pomp and circumstance surrounding his death is disproportionate to the feats and achievements of his life as president. The biggest accomplishment of Gerald Ford’s life is he married a hardcore alcoholic and remained tethered to her for 58 years.
That is a fine and private accomplishment but it does not deserve the rapt attention of the nation. We need to have balance and humility in our national mourning. If we use power, influence, and meaning to ascribe appropriate mourning to presidential deaths, then Richard Nixon deserves four times the ceremony than Ford — even though the damage Nixon did to a nation and its people was far worse than Ford’s experience. Ford acknowledged his own unimportance when he said, “The problem with me is I’m a Ford and not a Lincoln.” Some deaths are more important than others and the salivating over Ford’s death in the media for broadcasting the celebrity of his death is unseemly.
The other, brighter, example of inappropriate public veneration over a private life was when television broadcaster Peter Jennings died. Jennings was beloved by his friends and, unfortunately for the rest of us, all of his friends are in power positions in the media, and so we were subjected to a full 10 days of public mourning for a man who admitted he committed suicide by cigarette. Jennings’ behavior was not something to be celebrated or admired or imitated. Jennings was a heavy smoker for most of his life. He kicked the habit for 20 years.
Then, in the aftermath of 9/11, he started smoking again. Cancer grew in his lungs and killed him. He tried to fight his bad decision to start smoking again, but lost to the power of a body in rebellion in the smoke. To watch the coverage of Jennings’ death in the media was to witness the endless, inappropriate, veneration of a man who was merely a teller of other people’s stories.
He did not make history. He repeated the deeds of others and claimed none of them as his own. Jennings knew he was a talking head and make light of it in many interviews. Let’s try to find a way to return to reasonableness when someone “famous” dies in America. Let’s acknowledge the death, but not inappropriately venerate a life merely for the benefit of those in power positions who wish to publicly proclaim their touching of the fame of the dead.