Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Time for a Change?

By Jackson Baker

FEBRUARY 2, 1998: 

Remember Gerald Ford? The president of a generation back who, predecessor Lyndon Johnson once said, couldn’t “walk and chew gum at the same time?”

Ford came off as an endearingly bumbling figure, whether he was forgetting that a Soviet bloc existed in a televised debate or falling down stairs in one of those frequent mishaps of his that, comically re-enacted on TV’s Saturday Night Live by Chevy Chase, made both Chase and SNL staples of baby-boomer America.

There was always more to Ford than that image, but it stuck, and, while in a sense it augured poorly for his historical reputation and, along with his pardon of his presidential predecessor, Richard Nixon, helped to defeat him for reelection in 1976, it was one of the reasons he got to be president in the first place.

Few people doubted Nixon’s intelligence or even his competence as a chief executive, but the Watergate scandal, with its revelations of presidentially authorized break-ins, wiretappings, and enemies lists, confirmed what had long been suspected of the self-made man from Whittier, California – that his character belonged to the dark side of American life.

Hence, a perceived national need to escape from tragedy into the sitcom dimensions personified by Ford and the rest of his family – wholesome and middle-of-the-road but still within hailing distance of the social changes then going on in post-Vietnam America. For such reasons did the political Establishment in Washington, both Democratic and Republican, force Ford upon Nixon as a vice-presidential replacement to the disgraced (and highly partisan) Spiro Agnew, driven from office by his own revealed corruptions.

After Nixon’s resignation in 1974, Ford served the country’s purposes well enough until successors emerged – first, in the person of Democratic outsider Jimmy Carter, then in the Hollywood-style presidency of Republican Ronald Reagan.

Flash forward to the present day when, fresh from a resounding reelection and standing high in the polls – like Richard Nixon when Watergate broke in 1973 – Democratic presidential incumbent Bill Clinton seems to have found himself tripped up by the consequences of his own long-suspected flaws.

Though Clinton’s philandering nature has often been compared to that of John F. Kennedy, it is likely that he has more in common with another would-be JFK clone, former U.S. Senator Gary Hart, who was forced to abandon his own presidential campaign in 1987 after being found to have committed some sexual monkey business aboard a yacht of that name and at various points elsewhere on the compass. Unlike the genuinely lustful JFK, both Clinton and Hart seem, frankly, to have been working too hard at establishing an image of themselves as studs. And the difference shows.

“Priapic,” people called Kennedy, but it’s hard to make that adjective work as a descriptor for Clinton, a man whose sexual ambitions seem largely inclined to the domain of oral sex. (Try explaining that predilection to a school-age child.) And, granted, the now-vindicated Gennifer Flowers may not have been the bimbo we thought she was, but Paula Jones (whose own story looks better and better) is undeniably a skank, her $24,000 makeover notwithstanding. And Monica Lewinsky? A 21-year-old intern? Come on, Mr. President!

It may be time for a change, and, just as in 1974, there’s a suitably centrist and unthreatening successor at hand. It’s Vice President Al Gore, he of the stiff jokes told so endlessly by himself and others. The undeniably competent Gore has had his own problems, mainly with revelations of his role in the Democrats’ fund-raising orgy of 1995-96. But the main reason the Veep was losing ground as a presidential sure thing in 2000 was his irreparably rigid and uncharismatic persona. That may now be his main claim to the highest office in the land.

Jackson Baker is a senior editor of the Flyer.

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