James Brennan: The names they carry

By James Brennan, Columnist
Published February 23, 2015

For the last two years, there has been something greatly bothering me about my college education. As excited as I am to feel the pride in holding a college degree in my hands, I have to admit some apprehension over a few words that will appear on my diploma: Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

On September 8, 1974, President Gerald Ford granted a full pardon to former President Richard Nixon, one of the most pernicious criminals in recent history. Ford was widely castigated across the country for his decision, with questions arising about Ford’s motivations, his competence and the legitimacy of the Oval Office. Ford made a tough call, and whether his choice was right or wrong is highly questionable.

Were one to study public policy at the University, it sure wouldn’t seem that way.

Today, the Ford School serves as a permanent memorial to a largely misunderstood period of history. The school’s halls are adorned with photos of Ford’s life, a large portrait of the former president and commemorative posters of the school’s renaming and groundbreaking. According to Paul Courant, public policy professor and former director of the Ford School’s predecessor, the Institute of Public Policy Studies, there was little resistance to permanently memorializing Ford despite his rocky decision-making.

“Almost everybody, by the time we named the school, had come around to the view that actually pardoning Nixon was the right thing to have done,” Prof. Courant told me. “I didn’t detect any unhappiness about it within the faculty or students.”

Books about Ford paint him as a genuinely decent man committed to public service, while his own writing bleeds with a humility that’s hard not to admire. He would have been the first to admit that he was not perfect, nor was his decision-making. But herein lies the problem with the Ford School: memorials aren’t there to spark debate or respect nuance. As Adam Gopnik writes in The New Yorker, “The memorials’ end is to sacralize their subject in a way that shames anyone who contests its centrality — to build in a way that makes contention come at an extremely high price in social discomfort and disapproval.”

For Gerald Ford, the unquestioned orthodoxy is simple. As Susan Collins, Dean of the Public Policy School, told me, “There is increasingly a view in retrospect that he did the right thing even among people who strongly disagreed with him … the idea (was) that in order to heal the country, it was more important to move forward and focus on other topics instead of focusing on the travesty of what Richard Nixon had done.”

There is little doubt that Ford made the pardon with good intentions, but it being the “right thing to do” is far from settled. Looking at the way executive immunity has grown since Watergate, it becomes increasingly difficult to view Ford’s decision positively. As Glenn Greenwald argues in his book “With Liberty and Justice for Some,” the same reasoning behind the Nixon pardon has excused endless high-level law breaking from Reagan to Clinton to Bush to Obama.

Ford created a precedent where the prosecution of executive officials would “tear the country apart.” This argument that America needs to “look forward and not backward” and avoid “reopening old wounds” is exactly why Bush-era officials have never been prosecuted for torture and warrantless spying.

In both situations, the assumption is that the American people are too sensitive or too vindictive to see presidents treated like any other criminal. I don’t know what these platitudes about the country being “torn apart” are supposed to mean, but if America can survive a civil war and the assassination of presidents, it can survive Richard Nixon and Dick Cheney facing trial. Ford let Nixon go with the stroke of his pen, but his legacy is the reason Cheney and others will never face justice. In 1974, when asked about writing an executive code of ethics, Ford responded, “The code of ethics that will be followed will be the example that I set.”

To be fair, Gerald Ford is not the only questionable person memorialized at the University. Sam Zell filled the Chicago Tribune’s leadership with philandering drunks who drove the company to bankruptcy, while Alfred Taubman is a convicted felon. Weill Hall, the Ford School’s home, as well as the Joan and Sanford Weill Deanship, are both named in honor of an investment banker dubbed “The Shatterer of Glass-Steagall.” This phenomenon is not limited to the University; plenty of campuses are dotted with schools, buildings and programs named for powerful people with shady pasts.

To their credit, both Collins and Courant welcomed critical inquiry into Ford’s legacy. Dean Collins expressed her desire to hold events debating the Ford presidency, especially the pardon of Nixon, and wished I had voiced my concerns sooner. While I appreciate the open-mindedness, an occasional panel discussion will be long outlasted and overshadowed by the sheer size and permanence of the Ford School itself.

The public policy school is not about to change its name, nor are any of these other institutions in question. But shouldn’t there be more debate on who deserves to have their name adorn our University? Shouldn’t policy schools scrutinize presidents, not deify them?

Shouldn’t we be worried about distorting history?

The day that Ford was to pardon Nixon, Jerald terHorst, Ford’s press secretary and longtime friend, handed in his letter of resignation. Writing to the president, terHorst said:

“I cannot in good conscience support your decision to pardon former President Nixon … Try as I can, it is impossible to conclude that the former President is more deserving of mercy than persons of lesser station in life whose offenses have had far less effect on our national wellbeing.”

It wouldn’t be much, but along with the statue and photos of Ford, maybe terHorst’s letter deserves a place in my school, too.

James Brennan can be reached at jmbthree@umich.edu.