Melvin R. LairdMelvin R. Laird
Melvin R. Laird in 2005
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Melvin R. Laird

‘Our Constitution Works’

(This article, written by Melvin R. Laird, appeared in the December 28, 2006 issue of the Wall Street Journal; Page A14)

Years ago, in the middle of a severe national crisis, a man arose who, in biblical phraseology, had “healing in his wings.” On Aug. 9, 1974, that man, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr., became our 38th president during the political storm of Watergate and began a vital American restoration with these words: “Our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works.”

Jerry Ford was my close friend for more than 50 years. Our children grew up together. We spent holidays together. It is difficult for me now to imagine moments more rewarding than an August evening in 1974, at the Fords’ modest house in Alexandria, Va., where Betty and Jerry had invited their children and a few intimate friends to ponder history in the making—Richard Nixon’s resignation and Jerry’s ascension to the presidency. Some of us sat on the floor of the small living room, and Betty served snacks as we talked. Having taken off his coat and tie, Jerry helped in the kitchen. He made sure everyone felt at home, paying as much attention to the opinions of his children as to those of his friends. He was no longer Jerry but the president, yet he was still the same.

He was our Accidental President—never elected by the voters to represent anything but his congressional district, which included Grand Rapids, Mich. It was a happy accident for America, and in many ways it was no accident. It was years in the making and required hard work, planning and good fortune. Jerry often told me how fortunate he had been, beginning when he was only two weeks old and his courageous mother fled an abusive marriage to make a better life for herself and her son.

I first met Jerry in 1951, but our paths came close to crossing when we both served in the Navy in World War II and our separate ships were caught in the same typhoon that nearly took our lives in December 1944. Jerry’s brush with death came when he was rushing to put out a fire on the flight deck of the U.S.S. Monterey, and lost his footing. He fell as the storm rolled the ship 25 degrees, and he slid down the tilting deck. Only his quick athletic reflexes and the two-inch rim at the edge of the deck slowed him down just enough to allow him to roll onto the catwalk below. In less than a day, Typhoon Cobra sank three of our destroyers and took the lives of 778 men. Later, some were surprised that Jerry could laugh in the midst of great political turmoil. They failed to fathom how harmless political conflicts can be to a battle-tested veteran.

Seven years later, on a visit to Washington as a Wisconsin state senator, I was introduced to Congressman Ford. He was nine years older than me. We became immediate friends. And when I was elected to Congress, we were seatmates in the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee for 16 years, before I became secretary of defense. He was as plain as bread and occasionally bland, but also unfailingly believable, honest, considerate and—that rarest of commodities—politically dependable.

When it was clear that the mossback Republican leadership of the House needed to be swept aside, I led a group of young Turks (which included Rep. Donald Rumsfeld) pushing Jerry forward through three successive party coups, eventually making him House minority leader. Jerry and I worked as a close team rebuilding the party with policies that offered constructive alternatives and laid the groundwork for Nixon’s 1968 presidential win.

Lyndon Johnson publicly ridiculed Jerry, saying that he’d “played football too long without his helmet on.” Jerry was blessed with an abundance of inner security, so political barbs like that didn’t bother him much. True, he was a star center for the University of Michigan football team; but he also graduated third in his class at Yale Law School and could easily hold his own with any “intellectual,” including Henry Kissinger, when he challenged him on the policy of détente. Johnson insulted Jerry because as president he felt threatened, and rightly so. Jerry had become a formidable political opponent, partly as a result of his opposition to a massive escalation of U.S. troops in the Vietnam War. (In one of the secret tapes released by the National Archives, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara can be heard saying to Johnson: “Jerry Ford and Laird are dangerous.” Johnson agreed.)

Jerry’s most ambitious political goal was to become speaker of the House, but the lack of a Republican majority denied him. Instead, and ironically, he became president of the Senate when Nixon appointed him vice president. I was Nixon’s White House domestic counselor when Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in October 1973, and used my leverage with Nixon to persuade him to choose Jerry over the man Nixon wanted, John Connally of Texas. Jerry survived the most vigorous investigation ever conducted by the FBI up to that time and the first test of the 25th Amendment providing for the appointment of a new vice president. With a man of such integrity waiting in the wings, many in Congress were prepared to run Nixon out of office for his Watergate misdeeds. Three days after his inauguration, President Ford spoke to a joint session of Congress, and said simply: “We have a lot of work to do. Let’s get on with it.” He also warned the American public: “A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.” These remarks delivered in an hour of severe national trial evoked immediate acclaim.

Jerry was not perfect, and he could be faulted for allowing Mr. Kissinger to push too rapidly for détente with the Soviet Union. He could also be faulted for the misguided dumping of his vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, from the 1976 ticket in a vain hope of placating Ronald Reagan and the conservative wing of the party. Later in life he admitted to me he was wrong on both counts. Nevertheless, in his 895 days as president, Jerry Ford accomplished a great deal of good. He inherited double-digit inflation and the worst recession since the 1930s, which he turned into a healthy economic recovery before he left office. He reformed the CIA and had a gift for some enlightened appointments, such as Ed Levi as attorney general and, in my opinion, John Paul Stevens as Supreme Court justice. The 1975 Helsinki agreement on human-rights principles, which he negotiated with the Soviet Union, emboldened leaders such as Lech Walesa in Poland and Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia to challenge Communist rule in Eastern Europe, leading to the eventual collapse of the Soviet empire.

Of greatest importance, however, was his righting of the ship of state. That included the controversial pardon of Nixon. I was 100% behind it, but along with Bryce Harlow urged him to delay until congressional and other support could be publicly lined up in advance. But Jerry was never one to procrastinate once he had made a decision. So when he abruptly announced the pardon a month into his presidency, the nation was stunned, and did not forgive or forget. That probably cost him the 1976 election. Typical of Jerry, he never regretted his decision.

Perhaps the most emotionally satisfying stamp of approval regarding that decision came five years ago in a small scene out of the public eye when Sen. Edward Kennedy admitted that Jerry had been right. The Kennedy-Nixon rivalry was the political equivalent of the Hatfields and McCoys, so the admission had strong emotional resonance. The occasion was the Kennedy family presentation of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award to Ford, precisely for the pardon. Sen. Kennedy praised him that day for going against the tide of popular opinion. “I was one of those who spoke out against his action then. But time has a way of clarifying past events, and now we see that President Ford was right,” Sen. Kennedy said.

Jerry’s reply on that occasion in Boston is something all Americans should take to heart as we mourn his passing: “The ultimate test of leadership is not the polls you take, but the risks you take. In the short run, some risks prove overwhelming. Political courage can be self-defeating. But the greatest defeat of all would be to live without courage, for that would hardly be living at all.” Mr. Laird was secretary of defense under Nixon and a nine-term congressman from Wisconsin.

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