Ford: Not a Lincoln but a Hayes? A Lesson in History and Political Science

Article excerpt

As history or social studies teachers, we are constantly striving to make the past come alive for our students and to help them see that, not only does the past relate to the present, but it can also give us insights into the future. The recent passing of former President Gerald R. Ford provides social studies teachers with just such an opportunity. Ford's death brought his name to the attention of middle and high school students, and opens the door to teaching an important lesson on presidential history. It also offers an opportunity to have students begin thinking about the 2008 presidential election.

Discussion of the Ford presidency inevitably involves his famous self-characterization: "I'm Ford, not a Lincoln." This statement will stir questions such as, "What did President Ford mean when he said this?" or "What do the names 'Ford' and 'Lincoln' really mean or stand for in this statement?" A comparison of Presidents Ford and Lincoln should allow teachers to broaden the discussion or lesson to include the four major theories on presidential performance from political science. The four theories are:

1. Richard Neustadt's theory that a president's power or success lies in his power to persuade, due to a lack of Constitutional power;

2. James David Barber's theory that presidential power or success is based upon a president's personality type;

3. Theodore Lowi's theory that a successful president is one who sticks to a strict constructionalist interpretation of his Constitutional powers, and, therefore, does not set up overwhelming public expectations;

4. Stephen Skowronek's theory (described in further detail later on in this article) that presidential power or success is dependent upon outside forces (social, economic, and other).

According to Skowronek's theory, it is possible to predict a current or prospective president's level of success by looking back to a time when outside forces were similar to current conditions. After seeing how president X did under those conditions, it is possible to make a similar forecast about a current or prospective president facing similar conditions. Understanding the "signs of the times," is key to applying Skowronek's theory. What is going on in society that is shaping the presidency and that the president may be attempting to re-shape? The sidebar shows the kinds of characteristics teachers and students should try to identify across time periods.

Evaluating the Ford Presidency

As part of the national mourning that took place following Ford's passing, various tributes and retrospectives to and about the former president expressed Ford's wish that historians remember him as a "healer," in reference to the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War. Ultimately, he has been recognized as a very humble man, and American political history and analysis seem to bear out his statement: "I'm a Ford, not a Lincoln." However, political history and analysis also seem to bear out that, while Ford may not have been a Lincoln, he may have been a Hayes--a President Rutherford B. Hayes, so to speak. Almost 100 years apart in terms of their time in office, both Hayes and Ford, to a significant extent, have been obscure figures within American political history and analysis. However, they shared a strength of political character, most notably seen in their steadfastness and stability in the face of significant political adversity.

Rutherford B. Hayes came into office in March 1877, on the heels of the contested election of 1876; the election was settled in his favor by the Compromise of 1877, in which northern, radical Republicans politically traded an end to military Reconstruction in the South with southern Democrats in return for their certifying the presidential electoral vote in favor of Hayes. Hence, a cloud of public cynicism hovered over Hayes throughout his term in office--he was often referred to as "Rutherfraud'" instead of "Rutherford. …