One of the most haunting Inside Baseball stories to emerge from modern American political life is the story of Gerald Ford telling his golfing buddies that he was sure he would go to hell for pardoning Richard Nixon. This story was publicized by Hunter S. Thompson, a man who famously found his own measure of peace towards the end after a career of fastidiously measured commentary, so we can make of it what we will, but the possibility that it wasn’t 100% bildungsroman fiction or otherwise total bullshit gives me pause.
The implications are eerie. Most glaringly, Ford had resigned himself to his own looming damnation because he had a conscience. Without one, he would not, as they say, have given a damn. Whatever he was feeling, whatever combination of regret, haunting, fatally poor judgment in a time of crisis, or tragic political destiny, these were the thoughts of a man capable of moral thought and willing to engage in it despite the fear and the pain.
Or, as his incidental biographer would say, the loathing. By the way, did you know that the hippie Boomer swarm now has earnest hagiographies of Thompson on film? You probably didn’t want to know that, but you do now. #TheMoreYouKnow, assholes. Incorrigibly parasitic and belligerently entitled Boomer shitheads living vicariously through the storied moral clarity of their tortured mad-genius auteur senpai is always a scene of beauty. Truly this is a tapestry that ought to be chucked into the fucking wood stove once we’re done burning the all the combustible death-trap fixtures on the commune, since it really isn’t and never has been one. Not that it would necessarily be a bad idea to burn it all down at once, or that I have any idea what 1946 birth cohort ever gave an uppity youngster like me the concept of arson as praxis.
Sure, Thompson could be legit wack, and he was temperamentally one to comingle fact and opinion, but the essay of his that I linked ran in the Atlantic, which employs professional fact-checkers, so that probably isn’t just a cock-and-bull story that the old boy made up for the moral force or the lulz. And as I said, it’s haunting. In the archival imagery, Ford consistently looks more at peace than many of his predecessors, especially Nixon and LBJ, and at least two of his successors, Bush II and Trump. He pulled some dipshits moves when he was in Congress, but in no way did that make him special, and it’s painful to imagine a man who completed his presidency with such public grace and decency quietly bearing such a burden in his old age.
The possibility that he was damned by his own conscience is even scarier. Does this mean that psychopaths, who are so numerous in politics, outmaneuver the judgment seat precisely because they are so soullessly evil? Do these ghouls actually corrupt the source code so utterly that they, of all people, can evade judgment? Given how demonically they carry on here on earth, it’s worth pondering, but not enjoyably so. If life is in fact the one-night stand that forever is not, think about what this may mean, and be thankful that I’m not meming Bryan Adams for thoughts on heaven. *Glen Campbell, back on the line, as he is from time to time* Well, I can’t say that dying didn’t at least spare me some of this ridiculous horseshit, but God help y’all if that fucker ever leaves the airport when he flies through Houston and is allowed near a computer after that. *I’m afraid this sidebar’s over.* Seriously, does Dick Cheney ever give these things a moment’s thought? W? Henry Kissinger?
All three are still among us. Kissinger looks like hell, whence so many think he came, and has for years, and yet he’s still hobnobbing with leaders who would be too embarrassed to associate with him in public if they didn’t hold the rest of us in dripping contempt. Ford wasn’t some It’s a Wonderful Life-ass nightgown cunt of a heavenly do-gooder, but the grotesque swathes of what came before and after him in high office make him look positively good, and we’ll never be able to grope our way to decent leadership again if we don’t keep the memories of what we’ve done halfway right in the past. I’m not trying to bitch and whine about the Donald as some special apocalyptic aberration, either; Jimmy Carter is the only successor to Ford in the presidency to date who had the decency not to flagrantly degrade their office for scandalously crude and selfish reasons. If Ford thought he was going to hell for what he did in office and no other modern president felt likewise after examining his own conscience, that speaks eloquently well of Ford and terribly of the others.
What makes this story really perverse is that Ford was sure that he would be damned because he had shown mercy. This may have something to say about the nature of mercy and its flaws, but what it really speaks to is the sheer dysfunction and perversion of American politics. The crux of Ford’s guilt for pardoning Nixon was that he had established moral hazard. This would be a much more compelling argument if Tricky Dick hadn’t just been driven from office by a Congress outraged enough to impeach him. Congress hadn’t even had to follow through with a trial and removal from office; the threat to do so had been adequate. Nixon had already faced a significant measure of justice and accountability; resignation in lieu of trial has always been an option for officials facing impeachment, because impeachment is expressly a mechanism to compel sitting executive officials to prove their fitness for office when a quorum of legislators question it.
The crooks and thugs who eventually followed the Nixon Administration included some real choice pieces of shit, but Ford had no way to predict any of that. There was no way to predict Oliver North by extrapolating from Chuck Colson. There was no way to extrapolate Reagan as president from anyone who preceded him in that office, and it would have been extremely difficult to predict his policies as president from those he pursued as the governor of California. The only arc that anyone could have followed without functionally supernatural powers of observation and prediction was that Sunset in America would continue to be a vapid dogwhistling bullshitter. Not a decade after Ford’s retirement, the Republican Party started going in a direction that had nothing to do with him or those around him. Ford was never the one collecting the country’s worst religious busybody wackos, starve-the-beast supply-side asshats, and latter-day robber baron scumbags.
The fundamental mistakes in Nixon’s aftermath weren’t even his to make. Ford had retired after an exceedingly long career in public office, and sensibly and decently so. No one anywhere else on the political spectrum had the power or the political skill to stop the unsavories from commandeering the GOP and redirecting it to their ill ends. By the time Congress started seriously demolishing its credibility as stewards of the powers of impeachment and removal, Ford was quite elderly and a critical mass of his nominal fellow-travelers in the GOP had no interest in what he thought of their mummery and grandstanding. The Clinton impeachment, followed as it was by the Bush, Obama, and Trump nonimpechments, did a great deal of damage to the credibility of national political norms, but that wasn’t on Gerry Ford. The sexually repressed wacko hardliners in the GOP brought articles of impeachment over a blowjob, and since none of Slick Willie’s successors have been impeached for extreme civil liberties and due process violations or verbal outbursts of gross public immorality, a norm has been established that impeachment is an impotent mechanism (giggity) for loudmouths with skeletons in their own closets to use when they’re butthurt that the president is getting too much action from his plump Jewess.
*Larry Craig, taking the typical wide stance* I wasn’t jealous of HIM, you naughty little twerp! When our leadership class has recently included such gems as Gateside Downlow, J. Denny Dundiddly, and the Third Mr. Jefferson Beauregard Secessions, we’d be jerks to try to lower the boom on Gerald Ford, or to agree with him for being so painfully hard on himself and so despairing of his own fitness for godly mercy.
Honestly, Ford should have gone to mass. He should have gone to Rosary gatherings. There wasn’t any need for him to convert, but that was a man whose inherited Protestant faith failed to provide him the guidance he needed through an especially difficult moral quandary that would have tried any president. Carter has never noticeably been failed by his Baptist faith, nor was Nixon by his Quakerism, but Ford would have been well advised to go to mass and the Rosary, find an out-of-the-way seat, and listen and be still. He needed that. He was a prominent object lesson on why we pray for our dead.
To be sure, he would have made a great first Catholic ex-president. That would have been badass as fuck. By Zapruder we haven’t had one yet, no matter how fervent we may insist that we would cherish him above Ruby. Tricky Dick would have made himself a respectable credit to the faith, too; peace at the center isn’t exactly Catholic, but it’s close enough. (Mainly it’s too Anglo-Saxon in its phrasing.) No, I’m not trying to be cute or start a flame war or anything. The old crook knew that he was troubled. He was humble enough to recognize that he had gotten grandiose. Besides, much of the reason why he looks so bad is that his contemporaries in Congress were assertive enough to hold him to account. They didn’t just talk about booting his ass out of the White House, as they feebly and ridiculously do these days when Trump mouths off with his latest heinous outburst.
If you want a scandalously bad RCIA hotshot candidate, try Mocha Haole in all his chameleonic smugness. Try the Big Dog or LBJ, both of them incorrigibly slippery Dixie sleazeballs. Go figure that it wasn’t a man of chastity or decorum who showed up in Washington with those initials. As he supposedly said, banging his fist on the table, I’ve had more damn women by accident than the Kennedys have had on purpose! Whether he said that or not, that’s truer than Gerald Ford’s irreversible and eternal damnation, and if we’ve five minutes to put Signora up against the wall in this, our time, rightly divided, we oughtn’t spend it praying for any of those three because they perhaps came to some grief in an indulgence of horn.