By John Harwood, CNBC’s Chief Washington Correspondent
As the nation honors Gerald Ford today it’s worth remembering that he didn’t receive that same acclaim in his own time. He was ridiculed as a bumbler on Saturday Night Live, assailed by the left for pardoning Richard Nixon, and linked with the final chapter of the first war America ever lost. Ronald Reagan challenged him in Republican primaries, and Jimmy Carter defeated him in the general election.
But the passage of three decades has radically altered perceptions of Gerald Ford.
His humility as the president who toasted his own English muffins, and civility toward his adversaries looks increasingly appealing in today’s bitter and polarized political culture.
His pardon of Nixon—once seen by some as an extension of the Watergate conspiracy itself—is now widely accepted as a healing step that allowed the nation to move on.
So too is the final exit from Vietnam, which extricated the U.S. from a no-win situation without compromising the nation’s ultimate triumph in the Cold War. Esteem for Mr. Ford’s judgment may also rise in light of his posthumously published criticism of the Iraq War, which matches the mood of the American today.
If there is any consolation for President Bush in these shifts, it is this: Gerald Ford is living proof of Mr. Bush’s oft-stated observation that history may judge a president more gently than his contemporaries do.