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Crimes of the "ordinary guy" president
The real Gerald Ford

January 5, 2007 | Page 11

LEE SUSTAR looks at the grim truth behind the media's glowing tributes to former President Gerald Ford.

PARDONING NIXON wasn't the half of it.

President Gerald Ford, portrayed in obituaries as an amiable moderate, gave a green light to genocidal terror in East Timor, backed a string of military coups in Latin America and enthusiastically supported apartheid South Africa's war in Angola, as the U.S. scrambled to contain its imperial losses after defeat in Vietnam--all in a little more than two years.

At home, Ford not only let his predecessor, Richard Nixon, off the hook for his crimes, but he ushered in the era of neoliberal austerity by denying federal assistance to New York City during its financial crisis of 1975--forcing cuts in the kind of social programs Ford had opposed as House Minority Leader. As the famous New York Daily News headline described Ford's response to pleas for assistance, "Ford to City: Drop Dead."

While Ford's cockamamie "Whip Inflation Now" campaign deservedly became a national joke, it provided political cover for an employers' offensive that began with cuts in real wages during the 1974-75 recession, and that continues to this day.

And by the 1980s, the "ordinary guy from Grand Rapids" was so egregious in cashing in on his former office with million-dollar paychecks, $100,000 speaking fees and corporate board seats that he had to be pressured into taking a lower profile.

If Ford's eulogies today feature fulsome praise for an unelected president whose tenure was widely seen as a flop, it's because of his role in carrying out damage control for the political establishment--shoring up the U.S. imperial project and boosting the careers of people like George Bush Sr., Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.

As Cheney put it, "It was this man, Gerald R. Ford, who led our republic safely though a crisis that could have turned to catastrophe. Gerald Ford was almost alone in understanding that there can be no healing without pardon."

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THAT PARDON, of course, cleared Richard Nixon of crimes committed in relation to the Watergate scandal, in which Republican operatives broke into the Democratic National Committee offices in 1972.

Ford had been elevated to vice president in 1973 after Vice President Spiro Agnew stepped down and pleaded no contest to criminal corruption charges.

Congressional Democrats, then in the midst of a 40-year span of control of the House of Representatives, told the embattled Nixon that Ford, then House Minority Leader, would be an acceptable replacement. Their logic: Ford was an insider who had collaborated with Democrats and gave little evidence of having initiative or new ideas.

According to his biographer, Ford never authored a single piece of major legislation in 25 years in the House. Instead, as a member of the powerful Appropriations Committee, he crafted spending bills to favor allies, while giving pro forma opposition speeches on behalf of the weak and listless House Republicans.

Nixon agreed that Ford was the best choice to replace Agnew. He apparently thought that having Ford as VP was anti-impeachment insurance--that congressional Democrats wouldn't dare remove him from office if a colorless hack like Ford would be his replacement. In its obituary of Ford, the New York Times noted that Nixon said to Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York, "Can you see Gerald Ford sitting in this chair?"

The threat of impeachment and criminal prosecution finally drove Nixon from office in August 1974--but only after he was sure that Ford would pardon him.

As journalist Daniel Schorr explained in a National Public Radio commentary, Ford, while still vice president, asked then-White House chief of staff Alexander Haig to explain the pardon powers of the president. While there was no formal agreement, it was an unmistakable signal that if Nixon stepped down, Ford would deliver. Just weeks after taking office in August 1974, Ford did.

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FORD TOOK office as the U.S. entered its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and was finally driven from Vietnam in humiliating defeat. To meet these challenges, he surrounded himself with younger, ambitious types, clearing out most of the remaining Nixon gang.

Ford installed former Rep. Donald Rumsfeld of Illinois as chief of staff, with Dick Cheney as his assistant. Rumsfeld later became Secretary of Defense as Cheney moved up to run the White House. George H.W. Bush was sent to China to serve as ambassador, as Ford pursued Nixon's overture to China's rulers in order to keep pressure on the former USSR in the post-Vietnam phase of the Cold War.

Bush would return to Washington to serve as director of the CIA, stabilizing the agency after revelations of political assassinations and domestic spying were forced into the open under the pressure of the Vietnam defeat and the mass antiwar movement.

Those scandals pressured Ford into signing an executive order banning political assassinations by U.S. government agents--an act usually portrayed as evidence of Ford's "decency." In fact, this was public relations cover for continued covert CIA operations aimed at rolling back Third World national liberation movements and propping up pro-U.S. dictatorships.

Ford played a personal role in this second effort, touring the world with Henry Kissinger, the main Nixon holdover--who for a time served as both Secretary of State and National Security Adviser. Kissinger took Ford to, among other countries, China, Russia, South Korea and Indonesia.

In Indonesia, the two assured the dictator Gen. Suharto that the U.S. would not object if he invaded the former Portuguese colony of East Timor. The resulting invasion of December 1975 led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people--ultimately, one-third of the East Timorese population.

The U.S. took a more direct role intervening in Angola, as CIA forces collaborated with apartheid South Africa's army to try to thwart the nationalist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) from taking power.

Former CIA agent John Stockwell recalled in his memoirs that the agency's Angola task force in Washington was set to have a wine-and-cheese party to celebrate their success--until Cuban forces and the MPLA routed the South Africans and their Angolan allies.

The resulting outcry led to a congressional ban on further intervention--which Ford bitterly denounced. "This abdication of responsibility by a majority of the Senate will have the gravest consequences for the long-term position of the United States and for international order in general," he railed.

Ford and Kissinger had greater success in rolling back the left in South America--thanks to their ally, Gen. Augusto Pinochet in Chile, whose Operation Condor got CIA backing in its international campaign of murder and torture of those who opposed military dictatorships.

Peter Kornbluh, director of the National Security Archive, wrote of a 1974 press conference in which "Ford became the first U.S. president to acknowledge and defend covert operations against a democratically elected government" during the Pinochet coup in 1973.

Ford failed in his bid to win the 1976 presidential election. But in his two-plus years in office, he oversaw major initiatives to crush resistance to U.S. imperialism and help launch the long war at home on U.S. workers.

The stories that politicians like Cheney and Rumsfeld tell about Ford as an "ordinary guy" are so much political myth-making. But their gratitude to Ford for services rendered are real enough.

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