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Read Cockburn and St. Clair’s Whiteout:the CIA, Drugs and the Press and discover how the CIA gave a helping hand to the opium lords who took over Afghanistan, thus ushering the Taliban into power and helping to finance Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network.

Ford and theAgency

By Jamey Hecht

Ford: “A shallow place in a river, where a man or beast may cross
by wading.”

Oxford English

Gerald Ford’s reputation has lately come under the knife for a major facelift. This April in Boston, Former President Ford (R-MI) received the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award from the folks at the Kennedy Library. At this same moment, Ford’s colleague Henry Kissinger has been accused of war crimes in a detailed and devastating two-article expose, published earlier this Spring by the venerable Harper’s Magazine.

According to the Associated Press (30 April, 2001), Ford was given the Courage Award “for taking the political risk of pardoning former President Nixon after Watergate. The award is given annually to an elected official who followed his conscience despite the political cost. Ford, who pardoned Nixon to help the country recover from ‘our long national nightmare,’ said he is glad to be recognized for making the decision, which some say cost him the 1976 presidential election.”

Rather like a real-life Mr. Magoo, Ford has a well-established, serial tendency to get raised up to sublime heights by somebody else’s official fiat. This Kennedy award is only the most recent episode (in 1999, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Freedom). Ford was, of course, our only unelected President, as well as the first Eagle Scout—winner there of no fewer than 26 merit badges—to achieve the nation’s highest Office. Long before his appointment, Ford had been lifted to national visibility by President Johnson, who recruited him onto the Warren Commission. In a recent History Channel special, Ford recalled that when Johnson asked for his service, he resisted, claiming to be “too busy with Committee work; I have no time!” until Johnson pressured him further.

No such thing happened, as you’ll hear if you click the link below. But smiling through a self-flattering reminiscence (Ford’s fantasy, I think, of his youth as a hardworking Congressman with his own priorities who briefly resisted the legendary pressure of LBJ) is no big deception, just Ford’s passive participation in his own current national myth-making effort. That effort, however, is no mere flattery of the old man. In print, television and radio, our political culture sustains an expanding gas-cloud of doctrinally correct, historically baseless praise of Gerald Ford. If there are people who believe it, I’d attribute their belief to an accurate (if unconscious) recognition of Ford’s role as the grand credibility-launderer of presidential politics these last forty years. As the only surviving member of the Warren Commission (which legitimated LBJ’s presidency), as a former president (legitimated by Nixon’s appointment), as the man who pardoned Nixon (legitimating “our great Republic” by announcing that “our long national nightmare is over”), Ford holds the whole story together. As to his actual gifts, he may be some odd kind of crypto-genius, but the appearances don’t inspire confidence, and they never did. Any stone can hold a giant cathedral in place, if somebody places it in the right spot.

Partly because Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Bush Jr. staffed their administrations with officials from the Nixon and Ford administrations (e.g., Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who has resumed his old Ford cabinet post a full 25 years later under George W. Bush), the “long national nightmare” of legitimation crisis extends all the way into the present. The nightmare is a good deal longer than Ford would admit. It begins on 25 November 1963, when LBJ calls Ford and tells him about the Presidential Commission he’s forming. Johnson wants “somebody on [House] Appropriations [Committee] who knows CIA over in your shop, because I’m covering the [Senate] Arms Services [Committee] angle with [Senator] Russel.”

“You know very well I would be honored to do it, and I’ll do the very best I can, Sir.”

The mandate of this Commission was to establish that the accused assassin was indeed the guilty and sole perpetrator of President Kennedy’s murder. We have the Oval Office telephone recordings of LBJ assembling the W. C., man by man (they can be heard at JFKLancer.com, or at Challenge of Democracy: http://www.hpol.org/lbj/warren/). Some (Senator Russel, and more importantly Chief Justice Earl Warren) put up resistance, reluctant to participate in a Commission whose purpose was best expressed in the 25 November 1963 memo of then Deputy Attourney General Nicholas Katzenbach:

“The public must be satisfied that Oswald was the assassin; that he did not have confederates who are still at large; and that the evidence was such that he would have been convicted at trial… Speculation about Oswald’s motivation ought to be cut off… We need something to head off public speculation or Congressional hearings of the wrong sort.”

President Johnson overcame their resistance with the threat of nuclear war: he brandished some secret evidence—its source was J. Edgar Hoover, and it has long since been discredited—indicating that Oswald was working with the Soviets as an assassin, and if that were to get out, Johnson warned, “there could be war, nuclear war… 40 million Americans could die.” So: conscience and duty demanded that these chosen men destroy their old conscience and their old duty (loyal to President Kennedy, concerned with the question of what really happened), and put on the new (loyal to Johnson, and concerned with the future). To men like Earl Warren, this entailed a kind of moral suicide, the source of those legendary tears he shed on agreeing to serve on the Commission that will bear his name forever.

To climbers like Arlen Specter (who smelled the establishment’s desperate need for his services and built a career on the rewards), the leap into responsibility for a collective act of deception must have been very different. What Ford really experienced is anyone’s guess, of course. But Johnson had reached out to him as someone on the House Appropriations Committee “who knows CIA.” Whenever the Warren Commission had a mess on its hands (e.g., when it became impossible to reconcile the lone-assassin story with the position of the bullet holes in President Kennedy’s clothing), Ford did his patriotic duty and miseld the public. This dogged, prolonged labor of misstatement and distortion goes far beyond Ford’s notorious, personal rewording of Report’s description of the wounds on the 35th President. It’s Shakespearean luridness can only be appreciated in the context of all those other chilling memos, transcripts and telephone calls from Hoover, Katzenbach, and President Johnson, whose recently released contents hover on the internet like the Ghost that Queen Gertrude just wouldn’t see.

Among the bitter ironies of this “Courage Award” is that for the most part, Ford’s passive courage lay in the hubristic, Faustian bargains he made with other Presidents, to protect them from the consequences of their active abuses of power. Ford: a shallow place where more evil men than he could cross over into a new political future where the worst of their excesses would be officially denied and/or concealed, by all right-thinking persons, especially, Ford. Then there’s the irony that this revamping of his reputation is motivated in part by a desire to legitimate President Bush’s reinstatement of the Cold Warrior Rumsfeld, a dangerous appointment that has produced a split between the old hawks and the more rational wing of the administration over at the State Department.

But the bitterest irony is the most obvious one, that Ford’s career in the presidential arena began with his participation in the wholesale deception of the country about the murder of the 35th President. Long before his eerily similar role in the Nixon story, through his Warren Commission service Gerald Ford actively and passively helped to protect knowledgeable and guilty individuals and groups, including government officials, who in 1963 had stolen the Presidency and murdered John F. Kennedy. There followed forty years of militarism and CIA aggression, and now the “Kennedy” award goes to: Gerald Ford. CP

* For G.F.’s Eagle Scout career, see http://www.geocities.com/Yosemite/Rapids/2247/Eagles.html

Jamey Hecht is the author of Plato’s Symposium: Eros and the Human Predicament.