Wednesday, May 13, 2009

My Dark Sense of Humor

I cannot in good conscience include this among my list of favorite quotes, but I cannot as a connoisseur of dark humor refrain from mentioning it on my blog.

- John W. Hinckley, Jr. (Letter to Jodie Foster, March 10, 1981)

There is a fascinating historical "What if?" associated with the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. Recent literature on the 1980 presidential election have revealed that the first man to whom Reagan offered the vice presidential seat on his ticket was none other than Gerald Ford, the last Republican president and a man whom Reagan had rather viciously opposed for the GOP presidential nomination in 1976 (when Ford, the favorite of the moderates within the party, managed to defeat Reagan, the recognized champion of the right-wing zealots, by the very skin of his teeth).

Such an arrangement would have been unprecedented in the history of American politics, and doubtless would have added an aura of credibility and ideologically versatility to the ticket that Reagan's eventual choice of George H. W. Bush only provided to a much lesser extent. As it were, Americans never had the opportunity to witness such an arrangement - Ford possessed a cordial loathing of who Reagan was and what he stood for (as has been made very clear in Thomas DeFrank's excellent book, Write It Whem I'm Gone), and deliberately established criteria for accepting the vice presidency that were so outlandish that Reagan would have no choice but to refuse them.

But what if Ford had accepted Reagan's offer? Could circumstances have provided Ford with an opportunity to become only the second man to serve as president in non-consecutive terms (the first being a political hero of mine, Grover Cleveland)?

There are two ways in which this could have happened. The first is through Ford seeking election in his own right, and given Reagan's successful re-election campaign in 1984, that would have placed Ford in the potential driver's seat in 1988. By then, Ford would have been 75-years-old. Would he have done it? The answer to that question will always be entirely speculative.

The second way in which Ford could have become president has an answer that is much more concrete. It has come out over the past decade or so that Ronald Reagan came much closer to death after Hinckley's failed assassination attempt than most Americans realized at the time. Had Hinckley either positioned his gun ever so differently, or had his doctors been just slightly more incompetent, then the president would have died on March 30, 1981, and Gerald Ford would have ascended to the presidency under crisis circumstances for the second time in less than seven years. While at least this time he would not have been a completely unelected president (he would have, after all, been legitimately elected to the vice presidency), he still would have earned the distinction of being the only man to ever serve more than four years in the White House without ever having been directly elected to that position (and who indeed failed, albeit by a hair's breadth, to win election in his own right when he sought it in 1976).

How would that make history different today? Most notable is the fact that the Reagan revolution, which pushed America's ideo-political paradigm to the far right for almost thirty years, never would have happened. Ford was not nearly as forceful or inspiring a leader as Reagan, and lacked his extreme right-wing convictions; thus his presidency would have lacked either the political skill or ideological inclinations to cause a permanent partisan realignment. That much is certain.

This is less certain, but still plausible enough to be worth mentioning: By 1984, Ford would have been rendered ineligible to seek another term by the 22nd Amendment, and given that he probably would have appointed George H. W. Bush as his vice president (it is known now that he thought Bush would make an excellent vice president, and considered him for the job three times - once when first becoming president in 1974, again for the Republican nomination in 1976, and a third time when he recommended Bush to Reagan in 1980) and that the economy would have been in an upward swing (which wasn't due to any president's policies), Bush probably would have sought the Republican presidential nomination, received it, and been elected. He may have even been re-elected in 1988, so that by the time his vice president lost to Bill Clinton in 1992, he would have been a two-term president instead of a one-termer. Indeed, had the Republicans posted a Reagan-Ford ticket in 1980, an entirely conceivable set of historical circumstances might have resulted that would have led to the post-1974 presidency reading Ford-Carter-Reagan-Ford-Bush-Clinton-Bush-Obama, instead of Ford-Carter-Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush-Obama, with sixteen years of Bushes in the White House instead of only twelve and six-and-a-half years of Ford instead of only two.

Just a thought.

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