Gerald Ford as Mighty Mouse

Gerald Ford as Mighty Mouse

Lott book review in The Washington Times
March 20, 2007

Gerald R. Ford <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

By Douglas Brinkley, Times Books, $20, 200 pages


After his swearing-in as vice president, Gerald Ford addressed the nation. "I am a Ford, not a Lincoln," he said. As only one of "two hundred million Americans," the nation's new No. 2 promised that he would uphold the Constitution, always try to do right, and give the U.S. his very best effort.


The speech is usually used to demonstrate Ford's humility and forthrightness. That's certainly the image he wanted to impress upon viewers, and it worked—perhaps too well. However, historian Douglas Brinkley's new short biography, Gerald R. Ford, contains an interesting fact that might have been used to paint a different side of our 38th president.


As viewers were reminded during the coverage of Ford's recent funeral, he was born Leslie Lynch King, Jr. to Leslie King and the former Dorothy Gardner. King beat his wife and threatened worse, so she left him soon after young Leslie's birth. Dorothy moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, to enlist the help of her parents to raise the boy. There she met and married Gerald Ford. Her son eventually changed his name to mirror his stepfather's.


Ford met his biological father only once. King introduced himself to Ford at the hamburger joint where Ford worked part-time during high school, and invited him to lunch: "Although Jerry accepted King's invitation…the encounter left him bitter at his birth father's long absence and resentful of his apparent wealth." Why was King in Michigan? He had come to Detroit "to pick up a new Lincoln."


Coincidence? Maybe. But it's the sort of coincidence that tends to bash this reviewer over the head repeatedly during any survey of Ford's life and career. Mr. Brinkley, for his part, has perfectly rinsed and telegenic hair to serve as a helmet. "Gerald R. Ford" is almost as adulatory as his widely panned panegyric to Sen. John Kerry's service in Vietnam, Tour of Duty.


In Mr. Brinkley's judgment, Ford possessed "a rock-hard moral core." He was "the steadiest of public men, certain of his course, and confident in his ability to keep it." He was even "intellectually as well as emotionally prepared" for the White House.


One result of that preparation was that Ford left the office in "far better shape than he had found it—perhaps even healthier than it had been in decades." Mr. Brinkley takes the fact that The New York Times gushed on for three pages about Ford after his death to mean that "The long healing process"—begun with Ford's controversial pardon of former President Nixon—"was finally complete."


The chief problem with Mr. Brinkley's picture of Ford is that it is cartoonish. His Ford is almost devoid of ego; the real Ford beat out a sitting congressman for his Grand Rapids seat, in part because the local political boss had slighted the young wannabe volunteer. Ford rose to minority leader in the House of Representatives because he backed a successful coup against Republican leadership. He might not have sought out the presidency, but he decided to campaign for (re)election in 1976. And Ford never really forgave Ronald Reagan for launching a primary challenge.


Mr. Brinkley's Ford is a sort of Mighty Mouse, come to save the nation from the "ultraconservative" threat. The real Ford was a partisan Republican who campaigned for the impeachment of a sitting Supreme Court justice, gave hundreds of speeches in defense of an embattled president from his party, vetoed 66 bills from the Democrat-controlled Congress as president, ditched his liberal Vice President, Nelson Rockefeller, and accepted a nominee (Robert Dole) and a platform (pro-life) to cater to conservatives.


Most of these facts are in Gerald R. Ford, but they are downplayed. Every time readers start to learn something interesting about Ford, Mr. Brinkley tries to bring us back to his grand narrative of Ford as our Moderate, Centrist, Nonpartisan, Nondivisive, Healer of the Country's Deepest Wounds.


Often, he uses sports metaphors. Just when we're puzzling how the president could simultaneously praise Rockefeller and show him the door, we are told that "Ford scored a touchdown by nominating Judge John Paul Stevens of the Seventh Circuit Court to replace William O. Douglas on the U.S. Supreme Court."