Obama is Gerald Ford, Not Lincoln

Americans, and Greek-Americans in particular, remember the name Spiro Agnew. His was the first high-level scandal of the Nixon Administration, one that came before Watergate.

Vice President Agnew, pleaded no contest to accusations of tax evasion, as part of a deal to avoid the even more serious charges of having accepted over $100,000 in bribes while Governor of Maryland.

Agnew resigned the Vice Presidency on October 10, 1973, and two months later, on December 6, Congress completed the confirmation of his successor, whom President Richard Nixon had appointed, Gerald Ford.

“I’M A FORD, NOT A LINCOLN”

“I’m a Ford, not a Lincoln,” the new Vice President told the nation. A clever play on words that not only suggested Ford’s modesty, but also lowered any expectations that he would be the next great American leader – one who might find his likeness carved on Mount Rushmore alongside Lincoln’s and those of some of the other greats.

Less than a year later, on August 9, 1974, Ford became America’s 38th President, immediately upon Nixon’s resignation, amid near-certainty that he (Nixon) would have been impeached, and convicted, for his role in the Watergate scandal.

Even though he had been Nixon’s second-in-command, Ford was not perceived by the scandal-worn nation as culpable in the whole sordid mess.

Appearing to be far more open, forthright, and transparent than his predecessor, Ford, the nation reasoned, was kept in the dark about the secretive goings-on at the Nixon White House. America had embraced its new President warmly.

All of that changed just a month later, when Ford pardoned Nixon, thereby rendering the ex-President immune from criminal prosecution.

Essentially, there was no plausible evidence to suggest that Nixon had either planned or knew about the principal Watergate crime – a break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s offices at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC.

The implications, however, were that Nixon played a significant role in covering up the evidence once it surfaced, thereby criminally obstructing justice.

And painful though it was for him to quit the Presidency, resignation does not by itself establish exoneration from criminal liability. Otherwise, suspected murderers or bank robbers, for instance, could simply quit their jobs and avoid prosecution.

Rather than subject the beleaguered nation to more Watergate anguish, including watching their former leader paraded from jail cell to courtroom in a prison jumpsuit, hands cuffed behind his back like a common thug, Ford pardoned Nixon so that the nation could begin a much-needed healing process. “Our long, national nightmare is over,” he said.

Years later, Ford’s harshest critics, including liberal lion Edward Kennedy, softened their attacks and conceded that, in retrospect, they understood – and even agreed – that Ford’s decision was best for the nation.

Save for the usual smattering of conspiracy theorists – who thought Ford and Nixon made an “I’ll pick you as VP, then I’ll resign, you’ll become {resident, and you’ll pardon me” quid pro quo deal – most of the nation, by Ford’s death in 2006, understood.

Not so 30 years earlier, in 1976, when Ford ran for reelection (or rather, election, as he had never been elected to begin with). The country replaced him in a close contest, favoring fresh-faced Washington outsider, Jimmy Carter.

In the ensuing four decades, presidential historians have, by and large, given Ford average grades. Hardly anyone ranks him among America’s best or worst Presidents. He always seems to fall somewhere in the middle.

Aside from the Nixon pardon, now forgiven, forgotten, and even vindicated, virtually nothing Ford did makes it to the forefront of heated debates about the presidents.

Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, and even  Nixon, have their staunch admirers and detractors. Much like a debate about what to eat for dinner: sushi or steak. Ford, on the other hand, is more of a benign side dish – like coleslaw – which almost never generates a strong opinion one way or the other.

IS OBAMA THE NEW FORD?

This brings us to Barack Obama, the current President who, like some of the others, is often the subject of intense debate. And even though his Presidency is not quite yet over – a lot more can happen in the next two years to affect it positively or negatively – it seems that if things continue to go the way they’re going, historians will wind up ranking Obama somewhere in the middle.

Sure, Obama will always be remembered as the first African-American President. Then again, John Quincy Adams was the first son of a President, William Henry Harrison was the first Whig – and had the shortest tenure (he died after 32 days in office), and William Howard Taft was the heaviest – weighing over 300 pounds, he once got stuck in the White House bathtub.

Along those lines, Obama, too, a half century from now is more likely to be a trivia question than a President remembered for having done particularly good or bad things.

Sorry, Obama worshippers, who think he’s the greatest thing since FDR, or detractors, who insist he’s “the worst President ever.” Like Adams, Harrison, Taft, and Ford, and coleslaw, he is simply unremarkable. An Obama, not a Lincoln.