Sunday, December 31, 2006

President Ford and Rev. Ford

It was 1974 and I was graduating from Carolina and Mike Ford was graduating from Wake Forrest. We had talked about being roomates at Gordon-Conwell where we had both enrolled to go to seminary. He sent me a note in the summer saying it wasn't going to work out. Gordon-Conwell was the seminary that Billy Graham, a Charlottean had recommended, and his associate, my Charlotte neighbor Laden Ford, Billy's associate minister (no relation to the President) was my friend and encouraged me to go.

1974 was an interesting year. All of a sudden Gerald Ford became President, the only non-elected President we have ever had. Richard Nixon had resigned in disgrace. I was once given a tour of the White House in 2003 and had a long chat with one of the pages or stewards there who had been there since the time of President Johnson. He had a huge booming voice and was a huge African American man. I asked him what were the hardest days he ever had in the White House. He said it was the day that Nixon resigned and flew off from the White House lawn. He said everyone wept and felt lost.

But the President had lied to us about Watergate, and then had to resign lest he be given his walking papers by Congress. And then a real Christian gentleman had his brief time of fame. It was Gerald Ford, and his son Mike was going off to seminary. No one had expected him to become President. And it changed not only his life, but mine as well, because suddenly Mike Ford was not going to be my roomate. In fact he was going to be followed around by Secret Servicemen all the time during his seminary education. He had decided to go ahead and marry his girl friend Gail, but what a life they were to have-- newly weds sleeping in a tiny apartment at GCTS with two hulking body guards sleeping in the next room and watching their every move. It could not be an easy way to begin a marriage. I was one of the librarians at the seminary library and I remember the day one of the secret service men came to the desk and forlornly asked me "Don't you have anything in this library but religious magazines and books? Not even Sports Illustrated?" I suddenly felt sorry for them, trapped at a seminary doing a thankless job.

And then Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon. We all knew what that meant-- a pardon meant he had done something terribly wrong, like other pardoned criminals. Only Nixon was pardoned in advance of any trial. Gerald Ford was convinced it was the right thing to do, even though he took enormous heat for it. He thought it was the Christian thing to do. I remember hearing Mike talk about how hard that was. To pardon and forgive Nixon was not the hard part, and his Dad was sure it was the best way to help the country get beyond 'our long national nightmare'. He was right, but that did not make it easy. And then he had to do something else hard as well-- get the troops out of Vietnam. He believed that was the right decision as well, prayed hard about it-- and again he was right. It won him no prizes. In fact it probably lost him the election in 1976. You see, Gerald Ford was a kind, gentle, quiet, unassuming Christian man from Michigan. And he got hammered for acting on his convictions in both of those cases. It didn't matter he was going to do it anyway.

I remember the day Mike and I graduated in may 1977. President Ford had not been re-elected, but instead of simply going into retirement, he kept a promise he made to his son and others that when his son Mike graduated he would come give the graduation address to us at Gordon- Conwell. And so he did with two hilarious looking secret service men sitting with him in robes on the platform while he told us about what faith it took to be President, and especially to get through the hard times of his wife Betty's cancer which had led many of us to pray and pray. It was the only time I have met a President in person when I walked across the stage that day, and it was the last day I saw Mike Ford until this past week while watching the television presentation of President Ford's funeral. He has been a minister all these years like me, only serving different flocks. His blond hair had gone somewhat grey and thinned out, but he looked good. But he also looked sad and tired-- he loved his father a lot. During all those years of secret service men bird dogging him I never once heard Mike complain. He was like his Dad in that respect.

History will not like conclude that Gerald Ford was our best President ever, after all he served barely two years. But they were two crucial years and he made two crucial decisions-- the right decisions. I do often wish we had some real Christian statesmen like him to pick from in the next election. But ours is a different era where the political parties are much more polarized, and most of the interesting candidates running from either party, at least thus far, have very little experience in Washington, and even those who claim to be Christians, it doesn't much seem to affect their politics and behavior, only their rhetoric.

And so on this night I send out my best thoughts and prayers to Mike and his family, including his Mom. Gerald Ford deserved a better press, and a better historical assessment than he has thus far gotten. He was the very antithesis of Tricky Dick, who schemed and lied and got caught.

Shakespeare once said "some are born to greatness, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them." Gerald Ford was the latter sort of person, and the true measure of the man was shown when he was equal to the tasks and carried them out with dignity, honesty, and Christian character. May his tribe increase before 2008.


Jim Martin said...

What a fascinating post! Hearing this only increases my respect for President Ford.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Ben, Amen. I appreciate your sharing and thoughts here. With all respect to President Carter, I would have liked to have seen him in office for four more years. But he was there for a special time, and from what I'm picking up seemed specially suited, in character and philosophy to the work and challenges at hand. Thanks.

SJBedard said...

I appreciated your comments as well. I am a bit too young to remember much of Gerald Ford's time in office (My earliest memories of the presidency are from the Carter years). My earliest thoughts of Ford were Chevy Chase's impersonations on Saturday Night Live. It is unfortunate that it is after death that people realize what an important and respected man he really was. You might be interested in an article on the Christianity Today web-site from 1974 anticipating Ford's presidency. It is interesting to look back on.

Traditionalist1611 said...

I would have to say president Ford was a weak president, it was under his watch that we lost Saigon and south Vietnam fell to the communists and he just let them take it. Today the communists still are in charge over there and those people do not get to live in freedom. It didn't surprise me when I read last week that Ford criticized our President before he died about our mission in Iraq. If it was up to people like Ford and his sucesser Carter who was even weaker than he was we would be like France and bowing down to muslim extremists. Apparently ford not only was weak on communists but weak on Islamic extremism as well but now we have a Christian President that actually wants to do something about it and he gets critized for it. So while he wasnt the best President we ever had, i still pay my respects but I wish people would support the current Commander-In-Chief and our troops so we don't lose Bagdad like we did Saigon.

Stoogelover said...

Fascinating reading! And a hearty "Amen" from this southern California preacher.

mark said...

Since when is overlooking the criminal actions of our nation's leader an honorable, Christian action? Let alone beneficial to the nation he's been elected to lead? How can it reasonably be called a pardon when Nixon hadn't even been charged?

Nor were Ford's actions a display of Christian mercy and grace because there was no real notion of what crime was being forgiven. Mustn't the Christian first be aware of their sin in order to properly receive God's gift of forgiveness? This was simply Ford letting Nixon off the hook. (Especially noting the potential that Nixon's resignation was contingent on Ford's pardon.)

Where is there a biblical president for allowing corrupt leaders off the hook? Would the proper Christian action be to hold Nixon to a higher standard of accountability? (You're no doubt familiar with comparisons to Clinton's impeachment.)

The records show many things for which to be proud of President Ford. Obstructing justice ought not be one of them.

As for "dignity, honesty, and Christian character" visit Christopher Hitchen's recent article in Slate. There read of Ford's duplicity with the Kurds in '75 which one investigating statesmen called "the most cynical acts of statecraft on record."

I appreciate your post, and mean no disrespect to President Ford or his family, but I think we should be careful what we honor as a display of true Christian greatness.

Jon Rising said...

Do you suppose that President Nixon --- to you: "Tricky Dick, who schemed and lied and got caught" --- was guilty of little more than many other presidents, who simply were never called on the same actions? Just wondering.

Jon Rising said...

I think you meant to type, LEIGHTON Ford, no?

Ben Witherington said...

First of all Traditionalist, the Vietnam war was something we should never have been involved in in the first place, it was never a declared war at all, and we simply lost. Get over it-- we lost that war. We were not capable of fighting a guerilla war then, and we seem to be very little better at it now.

To Mark I say you must not be a very good student of history. There were the Watergate hearings and we know perfectly well what Nixon was guilty of, not the least of which was lieing to the American public, covering it up, lieing some more about the breakin at the Democratic headquarters etc. We could debate whether this was an impeachable offense, but we won't. What President Ford was concerned about was the state of our nation, which was in a lot of turmoil between the war and Watergate. Not for Nixon's sake alone but for the nation's sake somebody had to stop the bleeding, and Ford was brave enough to do. It is of course true that Ford made some mistakes, including with the Kurds. His advisors let him down at various points, and he accepted the blame.

Having lived through that whole period,and having heard some of the story from the inside as well as the outside, I stand by what I said about President Ford.


Ben Witherington said...

Hi Jon--- You are quite right, I meant Leighton Ford, sometimes my brain spells aurally rather than visually, which seems to happen regularly with musicians-- spelling how it sounds. And you are probably right, since many Presidents have done worse. What is overlooked however is that we were in a horrible war which caused no end of conflict at home, as well as abroad. Nixon's faults in the Watergate mess were magnified because of the other things he had made mistakes on.

My real hero in that whole period was Sam Ervin, the Senator of N.C. who was not about to let those boys off the hook. I remember so well his saying to John Dean who had been busily lieing on the witness stand-- "God is not mocked Mr. Dean, whatsoever a man soweth, that he shall reap as well." He was right.


markj said...

Traditionalist1611...You seem to have forgotten some important details about the way the Vietman war ended. Nixon had already started winding down US involvement. Upon taking office Ford was primarily concerned about the aftermath of the war and the predictable retribution that would be directed at Vietnamese nationals that helped the US. It was a DEMOCRATIC congress that refused funds to provide for a strategic withdrawal that would save as many Vietnamese lives as possible. Nobody that has seen the video of the last chopper leaving the US Embassy can doubt that these people knew what was going to happen. You cannot lay this at Ford's feet. Following that appalling ending, many of the approximately 150,000 Vietnamese that did get out found that they were not accepted in many US communities. It was President Ford that publically condemed that as unamerican.

He was the right man for the times. I pray that we will once again receive the providential blessings of such a leader when the tsunami of nearly 20 years of bad political decisions arrives.

I've had the line from Dylan's "Mrs. Robinson" running through my head slightly modified..."Where did you go Jerry Ford (Joe DiMiggio). A nation turns its lonely eyes to you."
Where did you go Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you."

Anonymous said...

What a great post and great memories. Thanks for sharing them.

Katie Day said...

Thanks Ben. I was a classmate of yours at GCTS. I remember the not-so-secret-service guys reading Argosy in the library. Then, Gail (a friend from high school) and Mike came to my own wedding along with their entourage. It must have been tough for them to have any semblance of a normal twentysomething, grad school existence. Do you know where they are now? I too have lost touch with them.

Katie (Donna) Day

susane said...

I knew Mike at Wake Forest, and I knew Gail, only just as an acquaintance. Mike dated my freshman roommate for a while. I would love to be able to send my condolences to Mike and Gail, but I have no idea how to get in touch with him. Does anybody know?

JohnRandall said...

For a completely shocking look at Ford, look at the video this fundamentalist Baptist church put together. They say Ford is worse than Saddam Hussein! Listen to this pastor on the video, he is very serious:

JohnRandall said...

Ken Abbott said...

Dylan? Try Paul Simon.

Ken Abbott said...

John Randall: Why pay attention to anything Westboro "Baptist" "Church" says?

Scott Foster said...

For Ben, Katie Day, and Susane,

I know Mike Ford b/c I've worked with him at Wake Forest. He is now the Director of Student Development there

Scott Foster said...

His email address is Tell him I said 'hey'. (I'm now a senior at the University.)

Andrew C. Thompson said...

I just read the original post. After watching all the coverage of Pres. Ford's death, the national mourning, and the funeral, this reflection really adds a human interest angle to the Ford presidency.

It seems like Gerald Ford was the "accidental president" if ever there was one. What should not be overlooked is that he came to the presidency during one of the most difficult times in our nation's history. Given that, I think he handled his 29 months in office well. George Will has a recent column in the Washington Post where he argues that Ford is exactly what the nation needed at that point.

Anonymous said...

What an awesome way to end your post, by blessing his tribe.
I appreciate that pure form of respect.
Thanks for your thoughts.

art said...

Thanks for a loving post about Mike and your earlier experience with President Ford. While I might not agree with some of President Ford's decisions, I respect the courage represented in his decisions, especially given the difficult position he was in when he assumed office. In the main, history has justified many of his decisions.

As for Vietnam, you rightly argue that we should not have been there in the first place. After the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, this nation signed on to allow national elections to be held in Vietnam. But the Dulles doctrine, which posited a domino effect should SE Asia fall to communism, prevented that election from ever happening. But this country's withdrawal from Vietnam did not lead to a communist takeover all the way to the shores of Australia.

We also have to remember the circumstances that led to an American buildup in Vietnam. Namely, the report of shots "fired across the bow" of a Navy ship, a report later shown to be less than true. (Sort of like assurances that we knew were WMD were in Iraq.) The US Senate, in a 98-2 vote, sanctioned a buildup of American military might and action, and we were on the slippery slope to military disaster.

Today, while my son serves in Afghanistan, I see too many parallels to the events of 40 years ago when I began my college teaching career and saw my students or siblings of my students drafted into military service.

Still, the issue is not to berate Ford for what he did or didn't do. It is to recognize a man for service given to this country, both while in office and afterwards. Many, I'm sure, were surprised when President Carter cited the number of projects the two of them had worked together on. Too much about our current politics is divisively corrosive, and I am heartened by the legacy of Ford and Carter to find ways to work together for the common good.

Thanks, again, Ben. I also enjoy reading your column in Bible Review/Biblical Archaeology.


Ben Witherington said...

Thanks Art for sharing, you are right about all of that.

There was an interesting interview this week with Ford's Supreme Court nominee, Justice Stevens. He was considered moderate and middle of the road then by Republicans, and today he is considered a liberal by the Bush wing of the Republican party. This is not because Stevens has moved to the left. Its because unfortunately a large part of Evangelical America and its Republican political friends have become reactionary.....


Russell Veldman said...

Dr. Witherington,

Great post! This caught me eye because Gerald Ford and my great-grandfather, George Veldman of Grand Rapids, MI were very good friends and political cohorts. When George ran for mayor in 1954 Ford campaigned for him. George was a devout Christian man and considered Gerald Ford to be a sincere believer in Christ. For a bit more on this, see my blog at
I've put a link to your post on my blog.

Ralph Hitchens said...

Nice story. I got to meet Mike Ford one evening back in 1975; his wife's brother was dating my wife's sister, and my wife & I, her sister & (then) boyfriend spent an evening with the Fords, chatting & playing a board game, as I recall. May have been Risk. The Secret Service guys were expecting us and after letting us into the Ford's apartment they were invisible. Through Mike's good offices my wife's extended family got the "insider" White House tour, seeing the oval office and other rooms not open to the public tours. And I've always believed that pardoning Nixon was the right thing, the Christian thing, for President Ford to have done, even if many found it politically unsatisfactory.

Bill Williams said...

Thank you, Ben, for sharing these personal and precious memories with us. May God continue to use you to bring comfort and courage to others in the new year.


Julie said...

Well said, Dr. usual! Thanks for sharing your personal story and insights. You already know I feel much of the same way.

Many blessings to you and your family in Kentucky!

Donald Johnson said...

My problem with the canonization of Ford can be put in two words--East Timor.

Look it up. But in case you don't know, East Timor was invaded by Indonesia with the complicity of Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger. They knew it would be brutal (Suharto had already killed hundreds of thousands of Indonesians when he came to power in the mid-60's) and they also knew that supplying Indonesia with weapons was in violation of the law. But they did it anyway.

Jimmy Carter, to his lasting shame (whether he feels it or not), went along with this policy when he became President. So did every President up through Clinton, until 1999. Roughly 1/3 of the Timorese population (200,000 lives) were killed.

This is what is so infuriating about these shallow proclamations that Ford or Carter or Reagan were "good men". I like Carter myself--he has done a great deal of good. But facts are facts--Ford and Carter were both complicit in genocide. It's a damning charge to make, but it's true. How God will judge them is up to God, but there is no justification for whitewashing the record, which is what the mainstream press has done, just as it did with Reagan (who supported his share of mass murderers).

You can find all this online with a little googling--you can also Arnold Kohen's biography of Bishop Belo, the Timorese Nobel Peace Prize winner in the mid 90's, or you can read Joseph Nevins book "A Not-So-Distant Horror". I think anyone who wants to praise Ford or Carter, who, I repeat, I greatly admire in many ways, should feel obligated to confront the horror of what these men helped to inflict on the Timorese.

Bill Barnwell said...

I have never have had strong feelings on Ford one way or another. But people had plenty of time to critique him while he was alive, I don't think it's asking too much to focus on his positive qualities during his funeral/mourning, just as any of us pastors would do at any funeral we officiated. Apparently though, his critics here are most outraged that he didn't fight enough wars and drop enough bombs, and also didn't believe that the U.S had the ability to make the rest of the world behave.

Jonathan Moorhead said...

Ben, that is very interesting. Thanks for the history.

Donald Johnson said...

Bill, Ford was no doubt a decent fellow on the personal level. I wouldn't advocate anyone showing up at anybody's funeral with picket signs protesting their actions. But Ford was a public figure--a President of the US--and when there is this mass public mourning and praise for his decency part of what is going on is actually a mass orgy of national self-praise. When a foreign leader dies we don't pretend that it would be indecent to point out the bad things they may have done. Pinochet died recently and the press was full of analysis of his economic accomplishments (real or imaginary) and of course, about all the atrocities he committed. (Predictably enough they glossed over the role the US played in Chile.) The press also offers an historical retrospective when American presidents die, except that in that case the bad things are downplayed or totally ignored and we are given an analysis that conveniently omits the massive crimes that America helped commit. Americans are ignorant enough as it is--the last thing we need is a load of one-sided misinformation that glosses over the ugliness in our past history, all in the name of respecting the dead. (And what about the Timorese dead?) Most people don't know just how unsavory some of our foreign policy has been--the reason this is so is that it is almost never talked about in public.

You say that there was plenty of time to criticize Ford when he was alive. Okay, then, I guess that means that everything I said about his actions regarding East Timor is just common knowledge to everyone. Yeah right. Your own words show that this isn't so. I wasn't criticizing him for not making Indonesia behave, as though we should have launched a military rescue mission--I was criticizing him for actively colluding with Indonesia in the invasion of East Timor. The US didn't simply sit back and let Indonesia invade East Timor. The US gave Indonesia the green light to do it, supplied them with weapons to use (they were heavily dependent on us) and gave them diplomatic support.

My criticism, btw, is exactly the opposite of those being made by the far right who say Ford allowed South Vietnam to fall. I agree with Ben about that--we had no right to be there in the first place, killing millions in someone else's civil war. I half-expect someone to say that Ford was criticized by the left and the right, so that must mean he was okay. Well, no, not unless you think it's okay to arm and support genocidal killers.

But yes, this would be inappropriate to say at his funeral.

Ben Witherington said...

East Timor-- Did it occur to you Donald that there were more factors involved than you seem to know about? Like for instance the fact that our country was in no mood or place to be prepared to be sending troops into another southeastern jungle situation? And frankly, there are a lot of complaints I have about Kissinger who was the architect of such policy. To accuse someone of being complicit in genocide when he had just learned the hard lesson that we do not have an inalienable right to invade someone else's country without permission or a request for help is a bridge way too far. The same applies to the complaint about Jimmy Carter.


Donald Johnson said...

Ben,you're shooting from the hip. You just came back with a devastating retort to a position that I made perfectly clear I don't hold.

The point IS NOT that Ford should have stopped Indonesia with American military force. I said that already--I made it perfectly clear what the issue was, two times now. The point is that he and Kissinger gave their permission to Indonesia to invade, knowing full well what Suharto's human rights record was, and they provided weapons and military equipment as needed, along with diplomatic support So did Jimmy Carter. Do you understand yet? I'm not complaining that we didn't militarily intevene to stop Indonesia. I'm complaining that we helped them invade. We actively aided a country in a brutal act of aggression,one that led to the deaths of an estimated 200,000 people. And yet you come back with the "refutation" that I obviously don't understand that Ford couldn't send in American troops. Well, duh. But he didn't have to aid in the killing, did he?

You can read the books I recommended (and you can add to the list James Dunn's book or Ramos Horta's) or you can google or you can go specifically to the national security archives website (which accumulates declassified documents on a great many disgraceful American policies) and then you can wrestle with the genuinely difficult question of how it is that a presumably good and decent person like Ford could do something so terrible in his role as President. But the reaction I'm getting here supplies part of the answer--Americans have difficulty seeing themselves or people like themselves as being guilty of complicity in genocide, and their brains do strange convoluted things when the subject arises. I brought this precise issue up with some friends and got exactly the same reaction--"You want the US to be the world's policeman". Well, no, I want us not to be standing on the street corner handing out blackjacks to thugs who will use them to beat up little old ladies. I suspect part of the problem is how the issue is framed in the press--we're always hearing deep thinkers in the press arguing about whether or not the US should play the role of global cop. It never occurs to any of these deep thinkers that maybe, before we even get to that discussion, we should first ask whether the US should be actively helping global thugs kill people. So any complaint about how the US actively helped someone commit genocide is magically transmuted in people's minds into a demand that the US launch a military intervention to save the victims.

Put it this way. Suppose I'm a Soviet dissident in the 80's. (Which assumes a wildly improbable level of bravery on my part, but go with it.) I say that the USSR shouldn't be supporting the brutal government of Iraq, which murders its own people and launched a war of aggression against Iran. Would it be logical to hear this complaint as a demand that the USSR behave as the world's policeman? Are those the only two choices?

Donald Johnson said...

Well, I was hoping for a response--ideally, something like "I'll check your allegations when I have the time and if what you say is true, I have some serious rethinking to do." Instead of "If I'm quiet maybe this vehement person will go away." That'll work too, of course, though not surprisingly I've got a few parting thoughts.

1. There's nothing historically unusual about devout Christians being responsible for heinous atrocities. Not because they were hypocrites (though at some level hypocrisy plays a role), but because they sincerely thought that slavery, religious persecution, torture, witchburning, colonial wars or whatever really were morally justified. Even today Christian Zionists defend the very worst aspects of Israel's policies, which Carter rightly compares to apartheid.

2. Christians tend to gloss over this, saying that those people were products of their time. That's too facile, but it's partly right, and since we are products of our time we shouldn't be shocked at the thought that we might be sinning in a similar way.

3. The reason sincere men like Ford and Carter (and a whole host of other prominent Americans, many of them Christian) have actively supported mass murderers (not just allowed it to happen, but supported them with aid) is because of the idol called "National Interest". A good decent person can burn someone at the stake (or supply fighter-bombers knowing they will drop bombs on defenceless villages) because they think there is a good reason for it. Indonesia was important to the US national interest, especially as the largest non-communist nation in that part of the world right after the communists had taken Vietnam. The 700,000 Timorese were not important to us. Tough luck for them and so let's support the Indonesian war effort.

4. I suppose it's a universal human tendency, but Americans are willfully blind about the kinds of things our leaders do. Robert Dole, for instance, was an advocate of support for Renamo, an extraordinarily vicious guerilla group in Mozambique. The US didn't actually support Renamo (though we did support the equally vicious UNITA group in Angola), but Dole and others wanted us to do so. In a sane civilized society (supposing such a thing has ever existed), Dole wouldn't have dreamt of supporting Renamo and if he had he'd have been ostracized, but in the US, if you're part of the political mainstream, people simply can't wrap their heads around the thought that respectable men could calmly advocate aid for groups that perform the most vicious atrocities imaginable.

Which is why some of my fellow Christians think Islam is uniquely evil. Motes and beams.

I've enjoyed your books and your blog, when I've stopped by to visit. Your response here was a big disappointment. I was expecting you to read what I said and respond seriously, because of your past record, but you didn't--perhaps I came on too strong, but my faults in that area don't justify yours. Though in fairness, your response is a fairly typical one.

I'll go away now.