ONE OF MY favorite scenes from "Stripes" is when Bill Murray's girlfriend complains about how he constantly plays Tito Puente albums. Murray responds that, one of these days, "Tito Puente's gonna be dead, and you're gonna say, 'Oh, I've been listening to him for years, and I think he's fabulous.' "
In recent years, the Tito Puente effect has afflicted liberals to a stunning degree. The press corps, the liberal intellectual establishment and the Democratic Party once considered Ronald Reagan a warmongering, senile fascist. Now it's hard to find a self-described liberal to offer anything but praise. Barry Goldwater has also been Tito Puente-ized. His granddaughter's recent HBO documentary depicts him as a cuddly-wuddly live-and-let-live sort of guy. Hillary Clinton, James Carville and Al Franken all pony up testimonials about how swell the 1964 GOP nominee was. Younger readers might need to be reminded that the liberal establishment hated Goldwater with such a blinding passion that reason, decency and truthfulness were deemed luxuries his critics couldn't afford.
And now we have dear, sweet Jerry Ford. Everybody, it seems, loves Ford. Ted Kennedy even gave him a Profile in Courage Award a few years ago. But there's an interesting difference. Ford was Tito Puente-ized early. His decision to pardon Richard Nixon -- the courageous act for which he later got his Profile award -- elicited enormous criticism and, some argue, cost him the election in 1976. But he quickly rebounded and was never hated the way Reagan, Goldwater or Nixon were. Tricky Dick's rehabilitation will take awhile longer, even though he was more liberal than any president since. As with Herbert Hoover, too much has been invested in his demonization to write it off merely for decency's sake.
I went back through old issues of the National Review -- no reflexive friend to moderate Republicans -- trying to find examples of conservatives beating up on Ford. I couldn't find any. I may have missed the stray barb, but it seems that even though Ford defeated Reagan, the conservative Golden Boy, for the 1976 nomination, nobody could muster much bile for Ford. It seemed that the serendipity, for want of a better word, of Ford's presidential ascendancy, and the burning desire to put the havoc of Vietnam and Watergate behind us, inoculated Ford from rancor from all sides.
I think another reason Ford didn't divide Americans the way every president since LBJ has is that he represented a consensus figurehead, unthreatening to both sides. The left saw him as the sort of Republican they could roll. Former Illinois Rep. Robert Michel, who would himself hold the position of minority leader, told GOP freshmen in the 1970s: "Every day I wake up and look in the mirror and say to myself, 'Today, you're going to be a loser.' " He continued, "And after you're here awhile, you'll start to feel the same way. But don't let it bother you. You'll get used to it." Ford was in this mold, and what Democrat couldn't love a Republican like that? Ford seemed to epitomize liberal fantasies of an era of Republican pushovers as he fought the Democratic effort to cut off American support for the South Vietnamese.
Conservatives, meanwhile, saw Ford as a bookend. They understood that their ascendancy in the GOP was assured after the Nixon immolation. Indeed, Ford presided over two transitions. The first was the end of the Vietnam and Watergate eras. The second and larger transition was away from the New Deal consensus and "me-too" Republicanism. The left didn't understand that after Ford came the Reagans and Gingriches, not the Rockefellers and Lindsays.
But Ford's legacy is more important than the maneuvering of ideological partisans. Politics is about moments. The American people in 1974 yearned for a respite from the ideological clamor of the previous decade. Ford, by the sheer force of his own character, turned the Oval Office into the calm eye of a storm the American people had grown all-too-weary of.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan said Ford was the most decent man in politics he'd ever met. Ford's "luminous affability," in the words of the National Review, "enabled him to unite the country instantly, magically, in a way that would have been impossible for the [men] who had been lining up for the job.... This accidental President was exactly -- for the moment -- the right man."
Considering the ideological clamor of the current moment, it's tempting to ask who the right man, or woman, today might be.