At times like the present, when our angry and polarized political discourse is stoked by a dark and divisive leader, it is useful to remember that we have survived such periods before.
In 1954, after the excesses of Sen. Joe McCarthy were defused by the calm Dwight Eisenhower and the mainstream press led by Edward R. Murrow, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to his son saying that Americans seemed to be blessed with a political gyroscope. “Everything, even lunacy, is mass produced here,” he wrote. “But somehow they manage to return to normality.”
After Richard Nixon's unhinged behavior caused responsible Republicans led by Barry Goldwater to push him to resign, Democrat Tip O'Neill credited divine providence for bestowing upon America this ability to right itself. “God has been good to America, especially during difficult times,” he said. “At the time of the Civil War, he gave us Abraham Lincoln. And at the time of Watergate, he gave us Gerald Ford.”
Gerald Ford? Yes, Gerald Ford. A Midwesterner graced by Rotarian decency and an Eagle Scout's moral compass, he helped restore calm after a stormy national nightmare.
Donald Rumsfeld, who served as Ford's chief of staff and then defense secretary, has now written a slight but worthy book praising him and his short tenure. He portrays Ford's character and common sense in ways that not only contrast him with Nixon but also seem an implied rebuke of President Donald Trump.
“Ford's kindness, midwestern politeness, and willingness to put other people's interests ahead of his own were so distinctive,” he writes, lauding his “honesty, integrity, and basic human decency.”
Rumsfeld also uses his praise of Ford to extol the virtues of another concept that has been lost in the current maelstrom: an instinct to preserve the center. He draws his book's title from the famous Yeats line “the center cannot hold,” and even the quotes from the century-old poem seem to rebuke our current Washington clime: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.”
Ford played center on the University of Michigan football team, and Rumsfeld uses that as a metaphor for how he served when “our country was urgently in need of its 'center.'” He worked with his Democratic friends from his days in the House, and he even appointed one of them to serve as his senior counselor in the White House. Both in his governance and in his campaigning, he shied from excess partisanship.
This book has, intentionally or not, three layers. The first is its narrative of the Ford years. The second is its implied criticism of our current dark politics and of a president who does not readily accrue descriptions like kindness, politeness, honesty and “willingness to put other people's interests ahead of his own.” The third and most intriguing layer is that of Rumsfeld casting himself as a champion of the center and humility. For those of us who remember the hawkish and assertive role that he, alongside his Ford-era deputy Dick Cheney, played in the George W. Bush administration, this may seem somewhat out of character. But it is nevertheless welcome to have those who once exalted boldness and brashness recognize that times like these should make us want to celebrate virtues that are more Ford-like.
The nice thing about the Ford presidency was that it was generally unexciting, at times even pleasantly boring. Even its most momentous events, other than Ford's pardon of Nixon, now seem eminently forgettable: the Mayaguez incident, the Solzhenitsyn snub, Whip Inflation Now buttons and the Vladivostok summit with Leonid Brezhnev. Remember the Glomar Explorer? Neither can most of us. The 128 weeks of Ford's presidency served up less excitement than a 128-minute tweetstorm by Trump. Though this was a virtue of the Ford presidency, it is a downside for a book about it.
Rumsfeld exacerbates this problem by seeming content to plumb the shallows of Ford's policies rather than trying to go deep. He is aided by inclusion of some contemporary memos he wrote, but he does not accompany them with any historical research or even an effort to read most of the memos and memoirs of other players.
For example, one of Ford's most significant acts was to declare in a speech, as Saigon was about to fall and Congress had decided not to send it more aid, that the Vietnam War “is finished as far as America is concerned.” He expressly decided not to let Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who wanted to continue battling Congress on the issue, know about the line. It was an important case of Ford asserting his practical, sensible and calming disposition on a divisive issue. Kissinger and others later detailed the genesis of the sentence and what it said about Ford's instincts, but Rumsfeld seems unaware of the complex backstory and treats the stir caused by the sentence as mainly due to a lapse in speechwriting procedures. The result is that despite his desire to celebrate Ford, Rumsfeld actually seems to underappreciate him at times.
Nevertheless, Ford's basic goodness sweetly suffuses this book and makes it a welcome tale and worthy parable. Rumsfeld approvingly reports how, after Saigon fell, Ford felt a moral duty and compassionate urge to resettle in the United States more than 100,000 refugees from South Vietnam. On the right, especially in places such as Texas, there was vocal opposition, and Congress refused to appropriate some of the necessary funding. Ford decided to go around Congress and, with help from volunteers and civic groups, find ways to make sure the refugees could come. “To ignore the refugees in their hour of need would be to repudiate the values we cherish as a nation of immigrants,” he later wrote, “and I was not about to let Congress do that.”
Such examples of everyday decency make Rumsfeld's book revitalizing. In today's troubling times, it seems hard to imagine that we will someday wake up again to a period when empathy, honesty, self-effacement, humility, politeness, compassion and a desire to find common ground are the virtues not only of Eagle Scouts but of our national leaders. So it's nice to be reminded that this was also hard to imagine in the darkest days of the Nixon presidency, until one day we woke up with Ford.
Walter Isaacson is a professor of history at Tulane University. His biography subjects include Henry Kissinger, Benjamin Franklin and Leonardo da Vinci. He wrote this for the Washington Post.