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Commentary By Max Schulz

Throwing Punches From the Grave

Jerry Ford follows his roundhouse to Bush with a jealous jab at Reagan.

Clichéd politeness dictates that one should not speak ill of the dead. But what to do when the dead speaks ill of you?

That was the dilemma facing President Bush recently after the passing of former president Gerald Ford. In the days following Ford’s demise, Bob Woodward penned a story quoting him as highly critical of Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein. Ford gave Woodward the explosive quotes knocking the current occupant of the Oval Office on the specific condition they be released posthumously.

For someone lauded chiefly for his decency, Ford’s act was thoroughly indecent. At issue is not his disagreement with Bush and with former aides Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld — that’s certainly defensible. But an honorable course would have seen the former president do one of four things:

1. Make his objections public while alive, so that he would have to defend them and deal with the consequences;

2. Air his opinions to Bush privately (he reportedly told Bush he supported the invasion);

3. Tell Woodward the remarks were embargoed until after Bush leaves office; or

4. Simply not say anything at all. Instead he chose a fifth option, cutting a Profile in Cowardice in the process. (Bill Bennett made much the same point here.)

The revelations set off a firestorm for an already embattled President Bush. Yet Bush handled the embarrassment with dignity and class. He ignored the slight, and delivered a touching tribute to Ford at his memorial service at the National Cathedral. In so doing, Bush displayed true decency, and the nation could get on with laying Gerald Ford to rest.

Except that Ford just won’t rest in peace. The former president, it turns out, continues to offer opinions from the grave that he wouldn’t divulge while among the living. In a quarter century of interviews with his local paper, the Grand Rapids Press, Ford discoursed widely and freely on a host of topics and personalities (particularly his fellow chief executives) — but with the proviso, as in the case of Woodward, that his utterances not be divulged until after he died.

Most of what Ford wanted put on record is neither surprising nor controversial: Eisenhower and Truman were great presidents, Carter was a disaster, Kennedy was exciting but didn’t do much, etc. It’s conventional stuff from a conventional midwestern Republican. And if airing his private thoughts in this public manner seems slightly unbecoming for a statesman, well, Jerry Ford never really claimed to be much of a statesman.

Proving that point, Ford is never less statesmanlike than when he opines about Ronald Reagan. In his chats with the Grand Rapids Press, Ford made clear he didn’t care much for the Gipper as president. He thought Reagan was a lousy manager (probably right) and for that reason incapable of being a good president (indisputably wrong), much less a great one. Ford dismissed Reagan as “a superb salesman” who failed to grasp the subtleties and arcana of governing.

Reagan’s popularity clearly rankled Ford, but not so much as the fact Reagan would be credited with winning the Cold War. According to Ford, the American people “liked to hear [Reagan] talk about how good America was and how bad Communism was but, when it came to implementation, his record never matched his words.” In Ford’s view, “Communism was bound to collapse. And it did.” Reagan was no more responsible for vanquishing the Soviet Union — in fact, was probably less responsible — than Gerald Ford.

Unfortunately for Ford, the facts tell a different story. Ford’s presidential record of battling Communism is defined by four things: a continued policy of détente and accommodation with the Soviets and Chinese, the final withdrawal of Americans from Saigon, the pointed refusal to meet with Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Ford’s bizarre debate declaration that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.”

Reagan, by contrast, initiated a massive military buildup which the Soviets tried unsuccessfully to match, bankrupting them in the process. His administration conducted proxy wars against Soviet interests all over the globe, dealing Moscow a particularly severe blow in Afghanistan. Reagan and Bill Casey convinced the Saudis to open the spigots and flood the world oil market, driving down prices and depriving the oil-exporting Soviets of badly needed hard cash. Reagan stood down the Gorbachev at Reyjavik and refused to give up on the Strategic Defense Initiative. On numerous occasions he announced that the Soviet Union was headed for the ash-heap of history. He worked with Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paull II to invigorate the anti-Communist resistance throughout the same Eastern Bloc that Ford insisted was not dominated by Moscow.

Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate and challenged Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. He called the Soviet Union “the Evil Empire” not just because it was true but because uttering that truth would incense and offend Moscow. For the same reason, Reagan praised dissidents like Natan Sharansky. Gerald Ford, on the other hand, snubbed Solzenhitsyn precisely because he was afraid of upsetting the Kremlin.

It’s hard to take seriously Ford’s claims about the Cold War when during his own short presidency he was reluctant to take any steps to hasten the Soviet Union’s demise. Or when he failed to articulate any certainty that this demise would or should ever come.

What makes these new Ford revelations so galling is how they contradict his last public pronouncement about Ronald Reagan. In a tribute he penned for the Palm Springs Desert Sun after Reagan’s death in 2004, Ford called the Gipper “a great president ... [who] worked hard to make sure the Soviet Union collapsed.” Ford made clear Reagan deserved much credit for winning the Cold War, and emphasized he agreed with Reagan’s basic strategy and military buildup. Reagan “was stong and he gave the country the kid of leadership we needed at home but also the kind of leadership we needed in fighting the challenge of Communism. He was perfect.”

By his postumous opinion mongering and catty sniping, on the other hand, Ford has shown himself to be a far from perfect ex-president. When Reagan said something, you knew he meant it. Ford is a different story. Now that the funeral is over: Would the real Jerry Ford please stand up?

This piece originally appeared in National Review Online

This piece originally appeared in National Review Online