It’s been more than 45 years since Gerald Ford was sworn in as the 38th President of the United States.
(Ford was appointed Vice President following the resignation of Spiro Agnew who was facing felony charges of tax evasion and corruption back home in Maryland. That made Ford the first — and thus far, only — person to have served as Vice President and President without ever facing the nation’s voters.)
So on Aug. 9, 1974, Ford succeeded Richard M. Nixon who had resigned earlier that day rather than face impeachment and almost certain conviction in the Senate over Watergate. Two days earlier, Nixon was visited in the White House by Sen. Barry Goldwater, House Minority Leader John Rhodes and Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott — all Republicans like Nixon.
Nixon reportedly suggested to Goldwater there were 30 senators who would stand by him. Goldwater is said to have told Nixon: “Mr. President there are no more than four senators who will support you — and I’m not one of them.” The following night, on national television, Nixon announced he would resign the next morning.
After being sworn in as president, Ford addressed the nation.
“My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over,” Ford said. “Our Constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men.”
Nearly 46 years later, we face another national nightmare, and there are many who now lack Ford’s confidence our elected officials will follow the Constitution. There is scant indication that Wednesday’s vote in the Senate to acquit President Donald Trump of charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress has ended the country’s deep divisions. At Tuesday evening’s State of the Union address, Trump refused Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s offer of a hand shake and, following Trump’s speech, Pelosi made sure she was seen ripping apart her copy of the speech.
Nor are there any signs the ordeal has “taught Trump a lesson,” as speciously suggested by Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. Thursday, Trump spoke publicly, claiming he was unfairly investigated by “dirty cops… We went through hell, but have done nothing wrong.”
He did single out Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky for doing “a fantastic job” in conducting the trial. “This guy is great.”
Trump is already running for re-election and his support has actually gone up during the impeachment, cresting at his personal high point of 49% support.
Members of both parties were in a bind, moral and political. There were both Republicans and Democrats who voted as they did simply on the basis of party.
But there were Democrats and at least one Republican who voted their conscience, especially those like Doug Jones of Alabama and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Democrats who must face voters in states where Trump is overwhelmingly popular.
Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, the former GOP presidential candidate, distinguished himself most for following principle over party. Romney was the sole Republican to vote to convict Trump on the abuse of power charge. He will be attacked and ostracized by some in his party and certainly by Trump.
Clearly, however, many senators acted out of pure political interest — refusing even to hear witnesses. Too many veteran Congressional observers and even Romney have said most Republican Senators view Trump much differently when speaking among themselves in private.
There just don’t seem to be many Goldwaters, Scotts or Rhodes around today.
An unfortunate consequence of Trump’s impeachment and acquittal is that it will embolden him. That was on display when he spoke Wednesday. Trump has demonstrated disregard for normal guidelines, democratic institutions, and the need for Congressional oversight. What will restrain him now?
Romney won’t suffer his nightmare alone. The country will endure its own nightmare until the question is resolved (let us hope) by the November elections. But given what has transpired, the losing side may not accept the outcome.
That’s why I’m hoping for a landslide victory, regardless of who wins.
Ronnie Ellis is the former statehouse reporter for CNHI Kentucky and writes a weekly column. Follow him on Twitter @cnhifrankfort.