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Black Lamb

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Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.

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An honest man

March 1st, 2007

BY DAVID MACLAINE

Late in the morning of September 26, 1976, I was walking on a quiet New Orleans side street, heading toward the French Quarter from Canal Street. It was my first trip to the city; my wife and I had taken Amtrak down from Chicago and had endured a stretch of perhaps six hours, although it felt like more, starting around the time we had crossed the Mason-Dixon line, during which the heating system on our car had been stuck on high. fordgeraldWe had survived the long period of parboiling and were pleased with our lodging in an historic old building just across Esplanade from The Quarter, even more pleased with the discovery that this end of the historical district with its distinctive architecture was removed from most of the overheated tourist trade, was a district in which people simply lived, albeit in houses a couple of centuries old. The night before we had been sitting on an antique four-poster bed to watch Saturday Night Live, a show that had been on the air less than a year and still bristled with novelty. Now we were on our way back from a late breakfast of red beans and rice at a funky little place justly recommended by a dining guide to the city. Jackson Square was only a few blocks ahead of us, but the sidewalk was empty of any other pedestrians beside the two of us. All of a sudden, a car turned onto the street, then another, and we had just barely time to deduce that this was a motorcade, when the limousine reached us , and we were greeted by the waving hands and smiling faces of Gerald and Betty Ford.

I remembered that moment during the Rose Bowl, when Ford’s recent death was fresh in the news, when the sportscasters eagerly reminded us that he had been an all-American center at the University of Michigan. It had always seemed appropriate that my momentary brush with that president had been casual and personal, or at least as personal as a wave from a passing car can get. When I was ten years old I had waited with my mother and sisters on the grassy slope of a freeway overpass in Houston, and had been duly rewarded with a glimpse of John F. Kennedy, waving from the open back seat of his own limousine, but we were part of an ample crowd, and his gaze had never really come our way. He was blonder in the Texas sun than he seemed on TV. Kennedy was a glamorous figure on the TV screen, handsome and witty in his press conferences. Gerald Ford, on the other hand, was the loyal Republican House Minority Leader nominated by Richard Nixon to replace the disgraced Vice-President Spiro Agnew.

He had not only never won a national election, he had also never won or even run for a statewide office. Ford was simply a Congressman, well liked by his constituents who had sent him back to Washington again and again, but lacking the drive and charisma usually required in those who seek higher office. He had been appointed in large part because he was regarded as an honest and straightforward man, but his pardon of Nixon, who was neither, had damaged that reputation, at least among the part of the population that paid much attention to politics. Newscasters still voice the opinion that that decision cost Ford the 1976 election. There may have been other factors, including the fact that to large swathes of the public, Ford was thought of as a dim but good-natured klutz. A tumble down the stairs of Airforce One, a bumped head, a wayward golf ball, and his reputation was sealed.

In fact, the TV show I had watched just the night before had vaulted to popularity in large part because of a comic whose trademark bit was pretending to be Gerald Ford and then taking a spectacular pratfall, who in fact missed that show because he was recovering from injuries incurred in one of those falls during a skit on the presidential debates. Just a few weeks later, Chevy Chase made his final departure from SNL — after having thoroughly alienated the rest of the cast — and headed away for what he expected to be a stellar movie career. And immediately thereafter Gerald Ford had lost the presidency to former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter.

I worked all this out by way of internet searches based on my memory that it was a Sunday, and that I had watched SNL during the trip. I had some impression of this as an important milestone in my appreciation of Saturday Night Live, a hazy recollection that it might even have been the first time I watched it.

That was clearly not the case, I determined, checking the episode-by-episode archives available online, and cross-checking with equally detailed records also available that record presidential speeches and proclamations on a day-by-day basis. I discovered that Ford had been in New Orleans in April of 1975, but SNL didn’t debut until October 11 of that year. Ford was absent from the record on that day and the one before, but a trip to New Orleans without a single public utterance seemed unlikely. On my first pass through I missed the trip of September 1976 because all his speeches took place just across the border in Mississippi, but an inventory of the records at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library finally showed me the way. The SNL episode the night before was by no means a landmark, even though it did include a taped message from presidential nominee Jimmy Carter that seems a lot funnier in retrospect than it did then, and I can’t account for the aura of something special that clung to my memory of watching the show that night.

The same is not true of the episode earlier that year in April when Ford’s press secretary had hosted the show, and Ford himself had appeared in taped excerpts where he pretended to bumble and crash around the Oval Office. Later in the show were more indelible moments. Dan Ackroyd and the ad for Bass-o-matic, dropping a dead fish into a blender, grinding it into a horrid brown mess, taking a sip and declaiming, “Good bass!” There was also Patti Smith and the brooding, brilliant preface — “Jesus died for somebody’s sins/ but not mine” — before her manic performance of “Gloria.”

The SNL archive also reminded me about Jimmy Carter’s taped appearance the night before I saw his rival. In it the nominee promised to be a “lusty, zesty president” maintaining “a timeless Democratic tradition — sexual performance in the White House.” This was, of course, a response to Carter’s interview in Playboy magazine in which he had confessed to having “lusted in his heart.” That response had made Carter the butt of some jokes, and he was playing along as Ford had done, with his slapstick turn. In both cases the joke was or should have been made funnier by the fact that each was being ridiculed for actions the opposite of their proper selves. Carter was in fact an upright and devout Baptist — the “lusting in his heart” line came from the Bible and in fact made it clear to evangelicals that he was one of them — and Ford was very likely the most athletic man ever to hold the presidency.

When I saw Ford pass by on the street, some six weeks before his election defeat, he was returning from a private service in St. Louis Cathedral. There is, my guidebooks tell me, a mural behind the altar of that cathedral showing my sainted many times great-grandfather King Louis IX of France at what they describe as his “press conference” announcing his departure on the Seventh Crusade. King Louis suffered quite a bit more embarrassment than Gerald Ford ever had to face. His drive on Cairo foundered because he chose the route that crosses several branches of the Nile plus assorted other canals, amid which his army was soon trapped, while the king himself was smitten with such a bad case of dysentery that it was deemed necessary to cut away the back side of his armor so he could relieve himself without any loss of time. He was captured and ransomed and accomplished very little, although he was well liked by crusaders and Moslems alike. An appropriate figure, one might say, to intercede for Ford on his own quest, as one likeable, but sometimes bumbling ruler to another, but it’s unlikely indeed that Ford would have asked for help in his campaign, saintly or otherwise divine. He was clearly a man averse to pushing himself forward in any sort of unseemly way.

The timeline on the Ford Library site is full of interesting tidbits. There are the reminders that he changed his name to that of his stepfather, because his mother had had to flee her abusive first husband when their son was still an infant. There is the college football success followed by contract offers from the Packers and Bears, turned down for the sake of Yale law school. There’s the Look magazine spread where Ford was photographed with the model he was dating at that time. There’s also a summary of his service in the Navy during World War II, which is surprisingly circumspect. It mentions his service on an aircraft carrier as “athletic officer and one of the ship’s gunnery officers,” and the fact that service included the great typhoon that struck the American Fleet in December of 1944. It does not go into the details about what Ford did during that typhoon.

The typhoon is the pivotal event in Herman Wouk’s novel The Caine Mutiny and in the film made from the book, which featured Humphrey Bogart as the neurotic Captain Queeg. Bogart’s turn was memorable in the captain’s attempt at self-justification on the witness stand, which actually laid bare his inability to admit any mistake and the flimsiness of his efforts to explain away otherwise damning facts. By the early 1970s Richard Nixon’s false amiability and wheedling tone often brought Queeg back to mind, at least to my family. My father owned the book — he had served in the Navy himself — I’d read it, and we’d all watched the film on TV.

In the book there’s a lot more vivid detail around the typhoon, seen there from the standpoint of a ratty little destroyer-minesweeper trying to survive the huge waves, with a captain who seems to freeze in fear, determined to follow his orders rather than use his discretion and change course to save the ship. In both book and film the mutineers who relieve the captain of his command seem justified at the time, less so in retrospect. The mutineer’s lawyer, played in the film by Jose Ferrer, breaks down Queeg in order to acquit them but confesses that he did so only because he realized that they had been maneuvered into their action by a manipulative fellow officer, played by Fred McMurray, who had himself avoided legal implication. (It was always fun to see in films from the 1950s the faces we knew as good guys on TV in the 1960s: MacMurray, the hapless dad on My Three Sons, here a sleaze-ball, Raymond Burr our stalwart Perry Mason as the wife-murderer in Rear Window, not to mention wholesome TV mom Donna Reed as a prostitute and McHale’s Navy’s Ernest Borgnine as a sadistic stockade guard in From Here to Eternity).

During the televised tributes to the deceased ex-President I learned something that had never been widely publicized during the Ford presidency. During the same typhoon that had created the danger and moral dilemmas of The Caine Mutiny, Ford’s carrier had been tossed about roughly and a fire had started below. The account on the news stressed that this was a serious danger to the ship but did not convey quite how big a deal it was. Fire was the great danger to an aircraft carrier because of the vast stores of aviation fuel they carried. Each plane was its own self-contained fire bomb. If the fire spread very much there were real bombs that would soon explode. In the midst of a huge typhoon there would be few survivors of an attempt to abandon ship. When this fire broke out it was Gerald Ford who was ordered below to lead a team that would try to put it out. Into the smoky lower decks he went. He succeeded, putting out the blaze to save the ship and the thousand-plus men on it.

There was an odd run in American history when five presidents out of seven had all served in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific theater during World War II (Carter was a Navy officer after the war, Reagan merely a naval officer on the movie screen). George Bush senior had his plane shot down. John F. Kennedy lost his P.T. boat in a foolish accident but managed to spin the disaster into acclaim as a hero based on his actions afterward. Nixon was stationed on an island behind the lines where he ran a burger stand. Lyndon Johnson flew around a bit in an airplane to no particular end but contrived to use his political connections to snag a Silver Star.

Gerald Ford was not a rich man’s son or a politician. He took home the same assortment of ribbons and insignias granted to all the others who took part in those campaigns. The most heroic of them all simply went on with his business, proud of having served but making a minimal fuss about his accomplishments. It’s an episode worth bearing in mind for historians trying to sort our whether Ford’s pardon of Nixon was the fulfillment of an unsavory political deal or was simply the result of someone trying to fulfill his duty, to do what needed to be done for the common good regardless of personal risk.

In the course of research for the book I’m working on about an assortment of remarkable medieval women who are also my ancestors, I’ve had to dig a little deeper than you do in the usual survey course, where the kings of days gone by whiz past, distinguished, when you’re lucky, by their nicknames. Of particular confusion is the fondness of the Franks for a century after Charlemagne for his own name Charles. (Well, Karl, to be precise, but the French version dominates on this side of the Rhine.) There was a succession of kings named Charles, all of whom paid whopping bribes to various Vikings if they’d only take their ravaging elsewhere, all of whom had rather unflattering nicknames. It’s hard for the average reader to remember the difference between Charles the Bald, Charles the Fat, and Charles the Simple, and to keep track of which was Charlemagne’s grandson, his great-grandson, or his great-great-grandson.

It turns out that Charles the Simple was the last in the sequence, the one who granted the area around the mouth of the Seine to a Viking called Rollo, which in time became known as the Duchy of Normandy and had a dramatic effect on history. My sources tell me that the nickname of this last Charles did not signify his stupidity, in the sense of simple-mindedness, but his plain-speaking directness, his utter lack of guile and deceit. Commentators still have trouble deciding whether his cession of Normandy was a wise decision or a foolish one.

All of which suggests to me that if American history were known only through the sort of monkish chronicles that tell us about the late first millennium, we’d be left with a bald account of the ousting of Tricky Dick and his replacement by one Gerald the Simple, who was forced to face as best he could the aftermath of his predecessor’s disgrace and the final unraveling of a hopeless war. No chance, of course that the casual reader would see through that “Simple” tag to the straightforward virtues that lay below, any more than the average apolitical American will know how to disentangle Ford the athlete, war hero, and president from the overshadowing memory of a comedian’s trademark tumble. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Maclaine | Link to this Entry

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