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Michael Barone on Gerald Ford

Wednesday, January 3, 2007
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HH: I’m joined now by Michael Barone, whom I last saw in the White House a week before Christmas. And Michael, Happy New Year to you.

MB: Well, Happy New Year to you, too, Hugh.

HH: And I’m looking forward to when your book, The Glorious Revolution comes out, talking to you at length about that. When’s the pub date, Michael?

MB: Pub date is, I believe, in May, May 8th, which is VE Day.

HH: Oh, we’ll look forward to that. Michael Barone, today, one of those rare days when America stops and honors one of the very few men who have led the country, Gerald Ford. A magnificent ceremony this morning, wonderful words said all weekend long, including the Vice President’s talk in the Rotunda. You wrote a piece about him today. It’s over at Townhall.com. He’s really underrated by historians at this point.

MB: Well, and in U.S. News and World Report, too. Yeah, well, I think he’s underrated. I think that, you know, President Ford came to office in what really were dreadful times for the nation, and not just because of the impeachment of, or the impending impeachment of President Nixon, but also because the post-war consensus had really fallen apart. The post-war consensus for Keynesean economics at home, the post-war consensus about the Cold War, and how it should be fought, had been frayed, and really partisanized by the Vietnam war starting in 1967, ’68, and during the terms, the years when Nixon was in office. So he had a really daunting challenge. And you know, the trajectory for the country seemed downward. We were looking forward to the bicentennial, but that really didn’t resonate very much with Americans at that time, in my view. There was a feeling, with our liberal elites leading the way and proclaiming it, that America was in decline, and indeed deserved to be in decline, that we weren’t going to have long term low inflation, economic growth anymore, that America was in retreat in the world. And Ford fought against that, and he laid some of the groundwork for the revival of America in the 1980’s.

HH: Now Michael Barone, when next hour comes around, Jonathan Chait of the New Republic and the Los Angeles Times is going to join me. He wrote a column on Sunday in the L.A. Times, I don’t know if you saw it, in which he puts forward, almost absent-mindedly, the idea that it doesn’t really matter sometimes who is president, that things just happen, and he exonerated Carter for stagflation, and all the other things that went on. But I just don’t buy that. I think presidents have enormous consequences, and that they take decisions which have repercussions down through thirty, forty, fifty years. It’s the great man theory of history. I buy it. Do you?

MB: I buy it to a considerable extent. I mean, sometimes events look like they’re in the saddle, and as I say, when President Ford came into office in August of 1974, many things seemed to be in a permanent downward trajectory. America seemed to be in decline. But when you look at some of the things President Ford did domestically, his…he really, after some initial stumbles, succeeded somewhat in reducing inflation, and he got the nation off the course of thinking that wage and price controls, government mandates, could control the economy. That had been conventional wisdom in World War II and the years thereafter. With Ford, it turned around. He laid some of the groundwork in his administration for deregulation of transportation and communications. It didn’t come into effect fully until later. Interestingly, some Democrats played positive roles in that, people like Ralph Nader, Ted Kennedy on airline deregulation, which went forward in the Carter administration. And then we saw terrific communications deregulation in the Reagan administration. Those things contributed enormously, Hugh, to America’s vibrant economic growth in the 1980’s, 1990’s, and in this decade as well. And so Ford deserves credit, I think, for that. On foreign policy, you know, Ford was criticized on the left because he wanted America to play a positive role in the world, and the Democratic Congress prevented us from providing the aid that we had promised South Vietnam when they were attacked and invaded by North Vietnam in 1975. And Ford was criticized for accommodating the Soviet Union in detente. One of the things he was criticized for was the Helsinki Accords, which seemed to ratify the status quo in Eastern Europe. But as President Ford has pointed out, since then, the Helsinki Accords also included what’s also called the human rights basket, proclaiming that people have certain rights. And that turned out to play an important role in delegitimizing the Soviet Union, and the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe in the 1980’s. And I think President Ford deserves credit for that turnaround in American policy.

HH: A couple of other aspects…

MB: …viewed in different ways under Carter, and accelerated by Reagan.

HH: A couple of other aspects that you referred to. Your very last paragraph, “Ford was ridiculed as a bumbler, though he was a gifted athlete, dismissed as a lightweight, though he entered the White House with a considerable command of foreign and domestic policy.” In may respects, he was the first president of the new media, and I’m thinking Saturday Night Live here, defined him far more in sort of a forerunning of Colbert and the Daily Show, than did ordinary media, that the reserve, or the respect automatically extended to presidents vanished in that period, Michael Barone. I don’t think it was a good thing that it did.

MB: Well, I think it did, and you know, it vanished to some extent under presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, who were two talented men with some very strange personal characteristics, and who, you know, if you go back to the journalism of the 1940’s and 1950’s, Hugh, the practicioners then said our job, really, is to maintain the faith of the American people in the basic decency of our system, and the probity and honor of our political leaders, and in particular, our presidents. That changed with Vietnam and Watergate, and the journalistic profession decided that its job was to delegitimize our leaders, and delegitimize the view that this was a special and specially good country, the view that’s been called American exceptionalism. And we’re still living with the way that the sort of self-loathing that the chattering class has for our society. President…the Ford administration, you’re right. Saturday Night Live, the kind of ridicule of Ford because he stumbled in getting off a plane, when in fact, he was a talented athlete, and a man who generally moved gracefully, and who spoke sometimes in seemingly stumbling ways, but in ways that when you talked to him, or when you listened carefully, it was clear that he had a full command of the issues, of the arguments, both for and against his own positions, and a view towards how they would, how those decisions would afffect the future courses of events.

HH: Was it the first great gaffe in presidential debates, Michael Barone, as well? I recall 1960 was decisive, but it wasn’t because of a gaffe, and I think the ‘Poland is free’ was the first time that we realized ten seconds of talk on a national stage could destroy a candidate.

MB: Well, he was speaking, I think, sort of State Department lingo. We were maintaining that, you know, Poland was a separate country, and not totally dominated by the Soviet Union. What’s interesting was when you think about history, is that in some ways, what President Ford said turned out to be right…

HH: Yeah.

MB: He said the Polish people do not consider themselves to be subject to the Soviet Union. And we saw in the 1980’s how the Polish people demonstrated that they were not going to be subjected by the Soviet Union. When Pope John Paul II came there, and more than, you know, something like half the Polish people saw him in person in the Summer of 1979. When you saw Lech Walesa leading the strike and the solidarity movement, you know, taking command of the situation, even when the Soviets…

HH: Michael Barone, we’re out of time. Always a pleasure. Happy New Year to you, Michael. Talk to you many times in ’07.

End of interview.

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