Combing through some old links I came across something Juan Cole wrote when Gerald Ford died ten years ago at the age of 93. Remembering back to the turmoil of the Nixon years -- followed, of course by Ford and Carter who faced the challenges and aftermath of that tawdry mess -- it seems in retrospect that they were little more than deck hands, mopping up the mess between two larger-than-life egotists whose appeals had more to do with vision than content. Their visions were great, but they were surrounded by subordinates who resorted to, shall we say, less than good principles.
All presidents make errors, and some abuses occurred on Ford’s watch, though they often were initiated by Kissinger. But Ford faced with no illusions the challenges of his era, of detente with the Soviet Union, continued attempts to cultivate China, the collapse of Indochina, the fall-out of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, and the beginnings of the Lebanese Civil War. Ford was right about detente, right about China, right about Arab-Israeli peace, right about avoiding a big entanglement in Angola, right to worry about nuclear proliferation (one of his worries was the increasing evidence that the Middle East had a nuclear power, Israel, and India was moving in that direction).
Ford’s challengers on the Reagan Right were wrong about everything. They vastly over-estimated the military and economic strength of the Soviet Union (yes, that’s Paul Wolfowitz). They wanted confrontation with China. They dismissed the Arab world as Soviet occupied territory (even though the vast majority of Arab states was US allies at that time) and urged that it be punished till it accepted Israel’s territorial gains in 1967. They insisted that the Vietnam War could have been won.
But despite its illusions and Orwellian falsehoods, the Reagan Right prevailed. Ford only momentarily lost to Carter. Both of them were to lose to Reagan, who resorted to Cold War brinkmanship, private militias, death squads, offshore accounts, unconstitutional criminality, and under the table deals with Khomeini, and who created a transition out of the Cold War that left the private militias (one of them al-Qaeda) empowered to wreak destruction in the aftermath. The blowback from that Reaganesque era of private armies of the Right helped push the US after 2001 toward an incipient fascism at which Ford, the All-American, the lawyerly gentleman, the great Wolverine, must have wept daily in his twilight years.
In the larger than life images of Nixon and Reagan it's easy to overlook the truly decent accomplishments of Ford and Carter. The sad and foolish current conventional wisdom is that Jimmy Carter was one of our worst presidents but that notion says more about "conventional wisdom" than about Jimmy Carter. Need I mention that conventional wisdom just allowed Donald Trump to be president? That stupidity speaks for itself.
And Barack Obama, whose intelligence and deportment are unmatched in our lifetime, now steps out of the spotlight as another president who is more form than substance, a bigger than life persona with a gift for self-aggrandizement, takes his place in the Oval Office.
So ends the era of self-deprecating wit in the presidency. It was a privilege to have been alive to enjoy it.