Sunday, December 31, 2006

Jerry Ford, Forgiveness, and Seventies Liberalism

In the mid-1970s, when Kathleen and I were students, we subscribed to the New Republic. We either got a really low rate, or, more likely, my dad paid for the subsciption. Before 1975 it had been THE magazine of American liberal politics. But when Martin Peretz took over the magazine that year, things began to change. In addition to becoming unquestioningly pro-Israel, the magazine often espoused a hard-edged liberalism that was difficult to distinguish from neoconservatism. Stephen Chapman, now on the Chicago Tribune's editorial board, wrote in its pages that we should scrap Amtrak. His solution to intercity ground transportation: what he called "the humble bus."

But the article that convinced us that the New Republic had abandoned its liberal heritage was a column about Gerald R. Ford. The columnist--I don't remember his name--lambasted Ford for something he did as a teenager. He forgave his father.

Ford's biological father, Leslie Lynch King, left the family 16 days after Gerald was born, and divorced Ford's mother a few months later. The future president, originally named Leslie King, jr., became Gerald R. Ford, after his stepfather. King visited Ford while the future president was working at a restaurant. One of the first things Ford told his father was that he forgave him. That one simple statement outraged the New Republic columnist. It was, I recall, couched in Jewish vs. Christian language, conveniently ignoring that Judaism has a tradition of forgiveness. My feeling was that the columnist was deeply into the pop psychology of "let it all out." You don't forgive someone until you've spilled out all your angry feelings. The columnist essentally called Ford a wimp for forgiving his father right away.

This was also the era of "The personal is political." Kathleen remembers being told by a strident Seventies feminist that she couldn't be a true feminist if she was Catholic or married. So Ford's forgiveness of his father was a political act which foretold his pardoning of Nixon. Maybe it did, but to me, it showed Ford's maturity. And while I still disagree with Ford's pardon of Nixon before he was ever charged with a crime, I can sympathize with him wanting to get the past out of the way.

The column was a sign that at least some liberals had strayed from their roots in the Social Gospel Movement of the early Twentieth Century. We liberals had dethroned Nixon and Americans had elected one of the most liberal Congresses ever. With power came arrogance. And perhaps that arrogance helped sour the American public on liberalism.

After years of arrogance and meanness by the Right, we liberals have at least a modicum of power. Let's hope we don't mess it up.

1 comment:

gerry rosser said...

I gotta admit, I think the terms "liberal" and it ilk (like, say, "conservative") have become nothing more than buzz words, and I don't use 'em. A child forgiving a parent is not a political act, it is a human act, a human choice, and, frankly, it is none of my business.

Hope the new year finds you well and full of happy prospects.