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Remembering President Ford
Posted by David Postman at 11:44 AM
Much has been written and said since last night about Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon. It was clearly the defining moment of the Ford presidency.
But there was another piece to Ford's efforts to "bind up the Nation's wounds" that gets far less attention. He established a limited clemency for Vietnam draft resisters and military deserters.
Ford's proposal was attacked by the left and the right and the program met only with limited success. But Ford's commitment to the "rebuilding of peace among ourselves" and how he went about trying to convince the American people it was the right thing to do, says a lot about the high aspirations of Ford's brief presidency.
Ford brought up clemency for draft evaders before he pardoned Nixon. And he did it in front of a crowd that he knew would find it objectionable. It was just 10 days into his presidency, on Aug. 19, 1974, when Ford spoke to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Chicago.
He said that young men who were hiding or on the run because of military-related crimes were, in a sense, casualties of war, "still abroad or absent without leave from the real America."
One of the last of my official duties as Vice President, perhaps the hardest of all, was to present posthumously 14 Congressional Medals of Honor to the parents, widows, and children of fallen Vietnam heroes.
TIME Magazine reported that the VFW crowd cheered when the President said "unconditional, blanket amnesty for anyone who illegally evaded or fled military service is wrong."
But the veterans sat in shocked silence as Ford went on to say that he wanted the deserters and draft dodgers who fled abroad during the Viet Nam War "to come home if they want to work their way back." Pledging to throw "the weight of my presidency into the scales of justice on the side of leniency," he added: "I reject amnesty, and I reject revenge."
The VFW reacted quickly and the next day passed a resolution opposing any sort of amnesty. TIME reported:
On the way back to Washington, Ford, in shirtsleeves and with his tie loosened, strolled aft to Air Force One's press section to explain his change of policy and why he had picked such a hostile audience for his announcement. He said that his thinking had been shaped in part by the views of his children and those of former Defense Secretary and close friend Melvin Laird, who had unsuccessfully tried to get Nixon to modify his hard-line stance. More over, Ford had concluded that his pledge to bind up the nation's wounds required a new approach. He explained: "You can't talk about healing unless you're going to use it in the broadest context."
When was the last time you saw a major political figure do something like that? This was much more real — hitting raw nerves of a frayed country — than anything Bill Clinton did with his vaunted "Sister Souljah moment."
When Ford formally announced the clemency program at the White House Sept. 16 he said:
The primary purpose of this program is the reconciliation of all our people and the restoration of the essential unity of Americans within which honest differences of opinion do not descend to angry discord and mutual problems are not polarized by excessive passion.
The program was administered by the Presidential Clemency Board. In some cases it required an offender to complete some alternative service to the military in order to get a clean record. It does not appear to have worked very well. According to a document guide at the Gerald R. Ford Library at the University of Michigan, the board, known as the PCB, completed 14,514 cases.
While the PCB claimed to have succeeded in its assigned task, many people disputed this statement. Only about 19 percent of the eligible people even applied for the program. Many draft evaders and deserters attacked the program for not going far enough and demanded an unconditional amnesty. At the same time many people in the military and in veterans organizations were unhappy with any form of amnesty or clemency.
The American Friends Service Committee, which counsels young people on terms for conscientious objector status and worked with draft resisters, says the program was a failure in part because it required all deserters to get a less than honorable discharge from the military and to lose all benefits.
Most exile groups based in Canada, Sweden, Britain and France endorsed a boycott of the Ford program because of its punitive nature. The "oath of allegiance" requirement was considered especially offensive given the generous treatment of Nixon. Nixon received a pardon, pension, and was not required to swear allegiance to the U.S. despite his role in undermining democracy.
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said the clemency program was one of two great contributions Ford made to healing Vietnam divisions. The other was to recognize "Congress and the American people had had enough" and he "let Vietnam fall."
Jimmy Carter would later grant a blanket pardon for draft evaders that was welcomed much more by anti-war factions in the country than what Ford did.
"But it was the right thing at the right time — a parable of Ford's Presidency. He was a moderate Republican — in today's terms, a liberal Republican, the last one to serve in the White House. Ford did the right things for the right reasons, for the most part, and paid with the elected term he otherwise would probably have won in 1976. Not a bad legacy at all."
A side note: I met Ford once, long after his presidency was over. He was on a rough, little golf course in Juneau in 1989 or 1990. He was there vacationing with James Callaghan, the former British foreign minister.
He was staying on a massive luxury yacht docked in the harbor. The yacht was said to be owned by Texas developer Trammell Crow.
Ford was as pleasant and unassuming as I imagine any former president could be. He talked with a couple of reporters about his golf game, about his long friendship with Callaghan, and about his aging body. He said he had a recent artificial hip (or maybe it was a knee) that he said could set off metal detectors at the airport.
And then he said something like, "You should see this," and reached toward his waist. For a moment I thought he was going to drop his pants right there on that scrub of a golf course to show off his doctor's handiwork.
But no, he was a man of dignity, if not of pretension. He pulled out his wallet and showed us a card that verified his artificial part that he said was to prove to he wasn't trying to smuggle anything through security.
Ford showed us his swing, and he was off for a rough round of golf.