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Barack Obama in Gerald Ford's Shadow

By Dennis Byrne

Is it possible to explain the mystifying public enchantment with putative presidential candidate Barack Obama in light of the virtues so lovingly and lyrically attributed to President Gerald R. Ford?

America, exhausted from bitter partisan battles, extremist politics, consuming power-lust and all around nastiness, now hungers--we're told--for a government graced with the decency, honesty, compassion, moderation and neighborliness of a Gerald Ford. A politician's political philosophy and policy positions are not as important as his personal qualities. Nobility transcends all. Give us quietude, give us a break.

Everyone, it seems, is looking for a "boy scout"--for the moment no longer a pejorative term applied to a politician who seems too naïve, too goody-goody, but someone, as the name has been repeatedly applied to Ford, of sterling character.

Possibly this explains the peculiar lack of interest by an adoring public and media in Obama's political beliefs and voting record. Obama has established himself with an uplifting convention speech, a pair of books self-describing his down-to-earth values and his sincerity. And media that either choose to, or is afraid to, tarnish this image with anything approaching a skin-deep analysis of what he would actually do as president. Standing alone is the assumption that he would somehow "bring us together."

How, exactly, would Obama do that, other than flash his attractive smile? What is there in his past that would indicate superb unifying powers? No answers have come from the Washington and political press corps, whose labors have become arid of serious political analysis.

So, what to make of Obama-Ford comparisons, which, while not rife, have started to appear in the wake of the sentiments (which I'm sure will be short-lived) that have revealed Ford to be the kind of politician that everyone ought to be? Doesn't Obama stand for the same qualities?

There is the problem. It is quite inaccurate to say that Ford's greatest qualities were in the area of "ending divisiveness" and "bringing us together." It's more than inaccurate; it is a portrayal of Ford that fails to do him justice, even insults the man.

Courage was his greatest quality. For the nearly half of the American population that wasn't around or too young to remember, Ford's pardon of President Richard Nixon was one of the great divisive acts of the half century. Far from bringing us together, if further widened the great divide that drove Americans apart during Watergate and the Vietnam War. It enraged Nixon haters, and fueled conspiracy lunatics. "Moderates" were mystified, if not angered, by what appeared to be an inexplicable act of forgiveness of a criminal who did not ask for forgiveness. Some say that this single act cost him his re-election.

In retrospect, it proved to be a wise act, one that shortened what would have been a national crisis of confidence for years to come. But folks, such as me, who were outraged by the pardon, did not see it this way.

If Ford was not done in by the pardon, other things surely did. Roaring inflation; his perceived betrayal of the "captive nations" of Eastern Europe by supposedly ceding them to Soviet domination; the tabloid headline screaming, inaccurately, that Ford was telling New York City, as it was hitting financial rock bottom, to "drop dead;" his more than 60 vetoes, and the unremitting, and unfair, mockery of Ford as a Klutz and an idiot. After listening to the evidence itemized in the eulogies of the last few days, it's obvious that Ford was underrated and his critics overrated.

But that's not the point here. What Ford did took courage, and courageous acts often go unrewarded and unappreciated. By definition, courageous acts alienate and divide. If the nation is looking for another Ford, it is not looking for a Barack Obama.

To be courageous is to take a risky position, to lead in defiance of prevailing opinion, to go where most don't have the guts to go. Obama has shown none of that, which is not to say he does not have those qualities. Obama's main issue has been himself, which is definitely un-Ford-like. His admirers can only go so far with their "oh-what-a-good-guy-he-is" campaign, before he actually has to come to grips with leadership. To say any of this, however, is in today's popular fashion to turn oneself into Exhibit A of how badly this country needs a "unifier" like Obama.

No, what this country needs is a better appreciation of firm belief. Obama, judging by his voting record, has firm beliefs that place him at a specific place on the political spectrum, somewhere a good deal left of center. That's fine, just as it is fine to have firm beliefs just as far to the right. Without those beliefs, there will be no movement, no progress. Without firm beliefs, nothing's left but the middling, the lukewarm and mediocre. Commitment to the center, without firm beliefs, is abandonment to pointlessness and stagnation.

There was nothing pointless about Jerry Ford. Maybe Obama one day will show that he, too, has a point.

Dennis Byrne is a Chicago Tribune op-ed columnist.

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