WASHINGTON—He was known for pardoning Richard Nixon, wearing Whip Inflation Now buttons and losing one of the closest presidential elections in history.
But later, historians recognized a different legacy for former President Gerald Ford: as a founding father of the human rights movement, for supporting the 1975 Helsinki Final Act.
Ford, who died Tuesday night, backed the Helsinki accord even though political conservatives at the time claimed that it was a land giveaway to the Soviet Union. The pact in essence recognized territorial gains that the USSR had made in Eastern Europe after World War II. But it also had a provision that the Soviet Union grudgingly agreed to: recognizing human and religious rights.
Experts and analysts who were remembering Ford on Wednesday said that clause provided a hammer that dissidents such as Poland's Lech Walesa, Russia's Andrei Sakharov and the Czech Republic's Vaclav Havel used to chip away at the Soviet Union until it crumbled.
"Ford recognized that as his single greatest foreign-policy agreement," said Yanek Mieczkowski, an associate history professor at New York's Dowling College and the author of "Gerald Ford and the Challenges of the 1970s." "It led to greater agitation for human rights and ultimately the fall of the Iron Curtain."
Ford's impact can be seen in Human Rights Watch, a group that initially was called Helsinki Watch and was established shortly after the accord was reached to monitor its enforcement.
"It was something that he (Ford) was criticized for at the time, particularly by the hard-line Cold Warriors," said Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch. "But the text provided dissidents behind the Iron Curtain an extremely important tool. It was no more than a piece of paper, but they were able to shame their governments into treating people a little bit better."
President Bush commemorated the 30th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act in August 2005 by crediting it with helping to "lift the Iron Curtain by undermining despotism with the simple ideals of freedom and human rights."
High praise was in short supply in 1975 as Ford prepared to go to Helsinki to sign the accord. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who was a member of Ford's National Security Council, recalled the intense political pressure that Ford was under not to sign the agreement.
"There were editorials in major newspapers like The Wall Street Journal ("Jerry, don't go") and The New York Times (a "misguided and empty" trip), conservatives like Ronald Reagan and Senator Henry M. Jackson were critical, and Americans of East European descent were especially outraged," Gates wrote in his book "From the Shadows." "Ford paid a terrible political price for going—perhaps the election itself—only to discover years later that the (pact) had yielded benefits to us beyond our wildest imagination. Go figure."
Still, Ford was stung by criticism over the accord and rarely touted it, said Mieczkowski, who interviewed Ford for his book. He thinks that Ford's defensiveness contributed to a gaffe during a 1976 presidential debate with Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter that hurt his re-election chances. Carter narrowly defeated Ford.
In the televised debate, Ford declared "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe" and that Poland wasn't "dominated by the Soviet Union."
"The words came out wrong," Mieczkowski said. "It was a response to criticism from conservatives like Sen. James Buckley (R-N.Y.) and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Ford deserves more credit than he receives for the collapse of the Soviet Union."
According to Mieczkowski, Ford meant to say that his administration "did not recognize or concede domination by the Soviets in Eastern Europe," a line he'd practiced. He was supposed to go on to talk about his travels to Poland and Romania, where he found the people "in their hearts and soul did not feel Soviet dominance."
Elected officials, world leaders and citizens remembered Ford as a decent, principled man who helped heal the United States from the deep wounds of the Vietnam War and President Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal.
Bush, vacationing at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, called Ford "a great man who devoted the best years of his life in serving the United States."
"Americans will always admire Gerald Ford's unflinching performance of duty and the honorable conduct of his administration, and the great rectitude of the man himself," he said.
French President Jacques Chirac called Ford a "great statesman" who was thrust into America's highest office in 1974 under difficult circumstances. "I want to pay tribute to his great moral qualities and his political courage," Chirac said.
Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, whom Ford nominated, called the late president a wise man "who had the courage to make unpopular decisions that would serve the country's best interests in the long run."
"Time has proved that his decision to pardon Richard Nixon was such a decision," Stevens said in a written statement.
Several former Ford administration officials who went on to work in the current Bush White House echoed Stevens' sentiments.
Vice President Dick Cheney, who was Ford's chief of staff, said his former boss was the right president for America at the right time.
"America needed strength, wisdom and good judgment, and those qualities came to us in the person of Gerald R. Ford," Cheney said.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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