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Gerald Ford on impeachment: In a practical sense, he nailed it

Ford argued on the floor of the House that “high crimes and misdemeanors” should be defined as “whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers them to be at a moment in history.”

Gerald Ford swearing in
Gerald Ford is sworn in as the 38th President of the United States by Chief Justice Warren Burger in the White House East Room, on Aug. 9, 1974, while Betty Ford looks on.
Robert L. Knudsen, White House Press Office

Gerald R. Ford, 38th president of the United States, was president by accident. Make that double accident. He became president without ever having been on a presidential ballot, not even as a candidate for vice president. He is sometimes referred to as our only “unelected” president, meaning he never won an election to either of the two offices.

According to most accounts (and my own recollections), he was a good guy, and he did what he could, which was quite a bit, to restore confidence in our system after both his predecessors — as vice president (Spiro Agnew) and then as president (Richard Nixon) — resigned rather than waiting to be impeached and removed.

Ford was not a creator of glittering phrases, nor known for his eloquence generally. But, over the impeachment-obsessed week just ended, I was thinking of the three most famous phrases associated with Ford, two of which relate to the history of impeachment.

Quote One was “Whip Inflation Now,” abbreviated WIN on buttons that Americans were encouraged to wear during a period of runaway inflation during his brief presidency. The idea was, instead of odious government action, to encourage us all to do what we could in our personal economic activity, rather than relying on the government or economists, to tame inflation. And, if we forget, we could look at our button, and remember. It didn’t work, but it’s kinda sweet in a Forest Gumpy way.

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Quote Two was “Our long national nightmare is over.” Ford said it in a national address, designed to reassure America that things would be returning to normal now that the tainted (but elected by landslide) president and vice president were gone, and that a person (Ford did not immodestly point this out, but we all got it) who was “not a crook” had taken over the Oval Office.

But the third quote, which comes up a lot lately and which set off this post, is something he said when as a member of the U.S. House. In that capacity, Ford was himself attempting to launch impeachment proceedings against U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. Justice Douglas’ liberal rulings, especially on issues of pornography, upset conservatives so much that Ford hoped to get him impeached, although Douglas’ only “high crimes and misdemeanors” were his opinions.

Ford, rather famously, argued on the floor of the House that “high crimes and misdemeanors” should be defined as “whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers them to be at a moment in history.”

Of course, Douglas didn’t get impeached or removed. He retired five years later, of his own accord, after having set a new record, still standing, for longevity on the Supreme Court (36 years, 7 months, and 8 days). In fact, Douglas retired during the brief presidency of Gerald Ford himself, who then nominated, as Douglas’ replacement, Justice John Paul Stevens, who was thought to be (and called himself) a moderate conservative, but turned out to be considered (with good reason) a liberal on the bench by the time he retired.

Ford has been stereotyped in popular memory as not the sharpest tool in the toolbox (Lyndon Johnson mocked Ford’s intelligence with the wisecrack referring to Ford, an outstanding college football player, as “a nice guy [who had] played too much football with his helmet off”).

Nowadays, a lot of very, very smart historians and law professors will gladly share interesting facts and ideas about how the phrase “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors” got into the Constitution and what they meant to wig-wearers who proposed or ratified that language.

But, in a practical sense, Ford nailed it.

If anyone can get a majority of the U.S. House and two-thirds of the Senate to vote aye on articles of impeachment of any “civil officers of the United States,” up to and specifically including the president, that person is no longer president, even if said impeachee still wants to argue that he or she hasn’t committed any crimes or misdemeanors. But if no one can get those votes, no impeachment occurs, no matter how skillfully the crime/misdemeanor argument is pressed.

And it’s pretty clear by now that that the odds are way high in the 90s, percentile-wise, that the House is going to adopt such articles against President Donald John Trump and almost exactly as clear that the Senate will not, by the necessary two-thirds majority, vote to convict.

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We heard impressive evidence during recent hearings from fact witnesses (about the alleged crimes and misdemeanors of the current incumbent), and from brilliant legal scholars and historians about the proper meaning of those High C and M words. I learned a lot.

But, as a practical matter, Gerry Ford’s long-ago assessment of the practical definition of an impeachable offense is looking, unexpectedly, smarter than it formerly did. So I looked to see what some of his other most famous sayings were and, although I don’t claim to know whether he originated this, one he did say:

“The three-martini lunch is the epitome of American efficiency. Where else can you get an earful, a bellyful and a snootful at the same time?”