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In giving the title Memories of the Ford Administration to a novel recalling the 1970s, author John Updike was making sardonic reference to one of the shorter presidential reigns in US history, and the only one ever headed by a chief executive who was never voted in as either president or vice-president.
Yet Gerald Ford's death last week at age 93 has spurred a wave of revisionist obituaries that now argue he was actually one of the more underrated occupants of the White House. Alas, I'm afraid I can't quite join in that reassessment, given my own memories of the Ford administration, especially as regards its relationship to Israel.
Like countless Americans who were teenagers during those years, my most indelible memories are not of the man himself, but the "impersonations" of Ford done almost every week on the satirical comedy show Saturday Night Live, which consisted simply of Chevy Chase doing a series of increasingly clumsy pratfalls. These skits helped solidify the image of Ford as an uncoordinated klutz in the public mind, despite the fact that this former college football star may actually have been the most athletic chief executive ever.
Still, his occasional stumbles seemed all of a piece with his more serious missteps, such as issuing those ludicrous WIN (Whip Inflation Now) buttons, or his incredible verbal gaffe during the 1976 presidential debate denying Soviet domination of East Europe - a verbal faux pas that may well have cost him that year's election. Ford gave New Yorkers like myself further reason for disdain with his initial refusal to provide federal aid to New York City during the darkest days of its fiscal crises (inspiring the classic headline "Ford to City: Drop Dead"), and his shabby treatment of former NY governor Nelson Rockefeller, ignominiously dumped from the vice-presidential slot in '76 to appease the Republican right wing.
AND OF course, growing up in a Jewish household, there was Ford's problematic relationship with Israel.
Those were dark days for this country and its supporters. Israel was still struggling with the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, and American Jews were fearful that they might be blamed if another OPEC oil embargo sengt gas prices soaring. US foreign policy in the Middle East was being largely dictated by secretary of state Henry Kissinger (then at the peak of his celebrity), and Ford seemed content with allowing him to continue forcibly pressuring Israel to give up whatever Syrian and Egyptian territory it had captured during the war, without getting much back in return.
Kissinger's "shuttle diplomacy" resulted in the only real significant step in this region made during the Ford years, the Egyptian-Israeli Sinai Disengagement Agreement of 1975, in which Israel agreed to pull its forces halfway back from Sinai, beyond the strategic mountain passes. Even though in retrospect this now seems to have been a necessary interim step on the road to the Camp David Accords, I well remember the displeasure in my own Jewish community at the fact that Israel was being forced to give up the Sinai oil fields which had briefly made it more energy-independent.
THE SINAI pact had another significance that for the most part is overlooked nowadays; for the first time, American personnel were put into place as a buffer between Israeli and Arab forces as part of the few-hundred-strong Sinai Early Warning System, and Ford had to answer down real concerns that he was putting American lives at risk in a potential Middle East battleground. Three decades later, many Israelis and Americans are probably unaware that these US military personnel remain stationed down there in Sinai, now as part of the expanded Multi-National Force and Observers (MFO) - an almost anachronistic legacy of the Ford administration still standing guard right below our southern border.
Perhaps inspired by this rare foreign policy success during his tenure (which also saw the fall of South Vietnam and the ignominious evacuation of the US embassy in Saigon), Ford was lured, as most of his successors have been, by the prospect of attaining more comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace agreements. Threatening to "reassess" the US-Israeli relationship in order to pressure Jerusalem into making more concessions, Ford found himself facing strong resistance in Congress to his Mid-East policies, and ironically had none other than Jimmy Carter criticizing him during their election race for not supplying Israel with sufficient military aid.
Having had Carter as his successor probably accounts in great deal for a willingness among supporters of Israel to now look back on Ford with quite a bit more appreciation than they afforded him during his presidency. One other reason, though, should be Ford's agreeing to put his signature on two very important documents that ended up having a tremendous impact on this country: the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, and the Helsinki Accords. The former threatened economic sanctions on the Soviet Union if it didn't improve its human rights policies, and the latter laid a self-imposed obligation to do the same on Moscow's part. This helped pave the way for the emigration of its oppressed Jewish community during the next two decades. Though no doubt swelling Israel's Russian-Jewish population probably wasn't foremost on Ford's mind in those days, he played his role in this too, and a number of Jewish organizations were right to hail the late president this week for making that contribution.
All in all, Gerald Ford did leave something of a mark on this region, and as almost all his eulogies have noted, was that rarity in the White House - a genuinely decent and modest man. But looking back honestly, we can agree with the famous observation Winston Churchill once made about another politician - that Ford was also a man who had much to be modest about.
The writer, a former managing editor of the Post, is director of the Jerusalem office of The Israel Project. www.theisraelproject.org
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