Gerald Ford and Fidel Castro. Just Because It’s August.

(Editor’s noteI’m not sure what made me want to lump these two figures together in the first place, but we do have an anniversary coming up– August 9, 2014 will mark 40 years since Nixon became the first and only president to resign the office, so I’ve been thinking about those times a lot…Who am I kidding, I’m always thinking about those times a lot.

Something I haven’t been thinking about a lot is Fidel Castro. He’s been so quiet lately I had to double-check to make sure he’s still around. He is. In fact, four days after we commemorate the ruby anniversary of Nixon’s resignation and Ford’s ascendancy to the presidency, we will mark Chairman Fidel’s 88th birthday (Aug. 13). Apparently a cigar or three a day keeps the doctor away. 

I realize now that starting an essay off with “Gerald Ford and Fidel Castro” sounds like you’re about to reveal some new evidence on the JFK assassination. Actually, I thought the conceit of this article would be that Ford and Castro were both heads of state who turned down promising professional athletic careers. But I quickly learned that, contrary to the urban legend, Castro was never any kind of major league baseball prospect back in the day. I had to come up with something else.

It didn’t take long. While putting this piece together, I began to realize that what Ford and Castro had in common was that each man’s stint as head of state in some way represented the last vestiges of an era that had already preceded them. In Ford’s case, it was the Nixon years and the Sixties. In Castro’s case, his sheer longevity makes him a bygone relic of an era that ended ended 25 years ago and that he’s simply managed to outlive.) 

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FIDEL

 

Castro. The early years.

Castro. The early years.

Usually when we talk about Cold War figures, we are talking about people who have long since passed on or are living out their golden years in quiet seclusion somewhere. The idea of a contemporary of Khrushchev and Eisenhower still wielding power in the 2010s is extraordinary.

 

The last few years haven’t been good for cult-of-personality presidents for life, as we’ve seen with Saddam Hussein and Muammar Khadafi. Meanwhile, the firebrand revolutionary who started it all, 87-year old Fidel Castro, still quietly clings to power, although he lets his brother handle most of the ceremonies now.

 

The Cold War ended 25 years ago. Today’s newest State Department employees were born in an era when the Soviet Union had already ceased to exist. And yet, there is one island on earth where the red star flag still flies, where the Revolution is still alive, where Cold War politics prevents the U.S. from recognizing its existence and vice versa. And yet, to paraphrase Tina Fey paraphrasing Sarah Palin, if you live in south Florida, you can see this island from your house.

 

When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 everything else followed like dominos, until by 1991 the USSR itself ceased to exist and broke up into a couple of dozen little pieces. International Communism was over. Formerly Soviet-allied nations everywhere hastily overthrew their leadership and purged every vestige of imposed Soviet dogma. It probably seemed like a matter of months, if not weeks, before Cuba would follow suit.

 

Yet, 20 years after the USSR ended its special relationship with Cuba and cut its generous subsidies to the island nation, Fidel Castro was still on top, enjoying his seventh decade of power.

 

A now sponsor-less Cuba followed Fidel Castro into the “Special Period,” an era in which petroleum imports dropped to ten percent of previous levels and food shortages reappeared for the first time since before the Cuban Revolution, with citizens being encouraged to grow their own foodstuffs.

 

At a time when other former Soviet-sponsored nations hopped aboard the free-market bandwagon, Cuba downsized to bicycles and windowsill gardens. Unlike the early 1960s, no external forces apparently wanted to overthrow Castro, choosing instead to just wait…and wait…and wait.

 

Castro’s age and failing health finally started to catch up with him in recent years. Titular power was transferred to his brother Raul in Spring 2011. At that point, we assumed Fidel was on death’s door if not already beyond it.

 

We all girded ourselves for the inevitable announcement that the paramount leader had succumbed to whatever undisclosed illness was afflicting him. Summer 2011 came and went, then winter, then 2012, 2013…and now halfway through 2014, we seem to have forgotten all about him.

 

***

 

Cuba has existed for the last 20-odd years as an anomaly, a solitary beacon of a global revolution that pretty much ran its course in 1991. Like a shabby old row house surrounded by skyscrapers because its owner refused to sell out, Cuba sits off the coast of the U.S. in a state of picturesque, solitary destitution, as the two nations hover in a state of mutual non-recognition that seems destined to last as long as Fidel Castro does, the assumption being that once Fidel goes, the cult of personality that he cast over the island goes with him and the market forces that have been kept at bay for half a century will come rushing in.

 

The thing is, no one imagined Fidel Castro lasting this long. Cuban-U.S. relations have been in a strange state of post-Soviet suspended animation for over 20 years now. Their streets are still full of cars from the Eisenhower era, and it’s still illegal for us to smoke their cigars.

 

In one of the more peculiar manifestations of Cold War closed-border politics, the U.S. continues to maintain Guantanamo Bay Naval Base on the island of Cuba, utilizing it as an extra-judicial detention center for the last 13 years.

 

As with the divided city of Berlin, one of the unique characteristics of Cold War politics is that two nations at virtual war with each other can maintain the integrity of mutually agreed upon borders-within-borders indefinitely. So, as Fidel Castro makes a sixty-year career of thumbing his nose at Yankee imperialism, the Yankees carry out their most imperialist activity of all on a little corner of his island.

 

***

 

Castro has outlived six U.S. presidents whose terms overlapped his. He started ruling Cuba two years before Barack Obama was born.

Castro has outlived six U.S. presidents whose terms overlapped his (Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Reagan). He started ruling Cuba two years before Barack Obama was born and was still in charge when Obama took office.

The Castro era seemed to be winding down to its inevitable conclusion in 2011, when Fidel resigned all his offices and transferred power to his 83-year old brother. But here we are three years later, and Fidel seems to have outwitted, or outwaited, death, and Cuba has quietly fallen off the radar again.

 

Cuba is so close, yet so remote. You can windsurf there from Florida. Yet, Cubans are not allowed to come here and Americans are not allowed to go there. My 1970s baseball card collection is a good indicator of the state of affairs. There were several veteran Cuban players whose careers began in the 1950s, but none who started playing after 1959. Either the Cuban talent pool suddenly dried up that year, or external forces were preventing Cuban prospects from getting to the big leagues.

 

As a harbinger of the potential end of hostilities, Cuban baseball players have been once again trickling into the U.S. over the past 15 years.

 

Otherwise, the Cold War rules still apply vis a vis the sole global superpower and this single offshore island, a quarter century after that war ended everywhere else.

 

No Man Is An Island, unless we’re talking about Castro and Cuba.

***

FORD

The secret life of Gerald Ford.

The secret life of Gerald Ford.

Gerald Ford was America’s most unique president in more ways than one. For starters, he was the only president never to have been elected to either the presidency or vice-presidency. For another, he may have been the only president to turn down a professional sports career in order to go to grad school.

 

Ford was a first string All-American football center at the University of Michigan, but opted to forego the $200 per week paycheck offered him by the NFL in hopes of getting accepted into Yale law.

 

Ford’s all-American good looks landed him a steady modeling gig in his 20s, and his resume actually includes a (portrait, uncredited) cover of Cosmopolitan Magazine. It was on a modeling job that Ford met his wife, Betty, who was a glamour girl herself and a divorcee to boot.

 

During WWII, Ford was a highly decorated sailor in the U.S. Navy.

 

When Ford came to national prominence some three decades later, none of these things would be apparent, except for the college gridiron career, about which Lyndon Johnson said, “he played too much football without a helmet.”

 

That was the Gerald Ford we knew.

 

A nice guy, an honest guy, an uncomplicated guy. This might have something to do with why Gerald Ford was never elected to the presidency or vice-presidency.

 

Never elected to either position, just appointed.

 

Even notorious misanthrope Dick Nixon liked Gerald Ford. Nixon remembered Ford as one of the few people who was nice to him when they were both congressmen and then again after 1962, when Nixon was at his political nadir and feeling the most sorry for himself.

 

That’s why Nixon turned to Ford to become his vice president in late 1973 when he needed to replace the disgraced Agnew and stem the creeping tide of Watergate.

 

Ford was appointed Nixon’s vice-president just in time for the Watergate scandal to enter its final lap, and with that appointment Ford’s fate was sealed.

 

Gerald Ford was to become the literal and proverbial fall guy for the Nixonian generation gap that had been tearing America apart since 1968.

 

***

FALL GUY

On Aug. 9, 1974 Nixon exited the White House Rose Garden for the last time and disappeared into a San Clemente exile, leaving Ford to clean up the mess. Ford assumed the presidency with the message, “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over…” which was a nice sentiment, but in truth it was only the beginning of the end. The next few years would be as grim and thankless as the previous few years, if not more so, as the fallout from Vietnam, mounting mistrust in government, and the abysmal economy continued to play out.

 

One of the first things Ford did as president was pardon Nixon for any crimes he may have committed while in office, earning Ford the instant and lasting anathema of the American public and in all likelihood dooming his chances for reelection there on the spot.

 

But Ford was no Agnew. The pardon wasn’t a quid pro quo to help his former boss escape justice, but rather to allow the nation to close that chapter behind it and move on to the other problems it was facing, according to Ford himself. In his typically stilted syntax, Ford explained, “(the Watergate scandal) can go on, or someone must write ‘The End’ to it. I have concluded that only I can do that. And if I can, I must.”

 

Ford’s pardon put an end to the Nixon saga, but another government agency was just beginning to see its dirty laundry aired in public. Due to troubling allegations that started to surface about illicit C.I.A. activities in the late ‘60s, the Church Committee was established by the U.S. Senate under Idaho Democrat Frank Church to investigate methods of intelligence gathering and assassination used by the C.I.A.

 

Over the course of the Ford Administration, the Church Committee published no fewer than fourteen reports on various abuses of power, making the covert overt, putting the embarrassing details right out there for everyone to read and discuss. And discuss they did. A steady stream of testimony was publicly broadcast over a period of months, casting a spotlight on C.I.A. audacity and incompetency that dovetailed nicely with all the dirt on J. Edgar Hoover’s “Gestapo-like” FBI that began to surface after Hoover’s 1972 death.

 

The economy started going south before Ford ever got near the White House, but it blossomed into its full nadir under his watch, with stagflation, unemployment, and gas shortages being the rule of the day.

 

Also, his administration oversaw the fall of Saigon and the final, humiliating retreat from Vietnam via a panicked rooftop evacuation by helicopter of the U.S. embassy staff.

 

***

 

Until Gerald Ford took office, presidential assassination attempts had been a man’s world. But in the Seventies, all the old rules were being rewritten, including that one.

 

Another of Ford’s dubious presidential precedents was that he was the object of not one, but two assassination attempts within the span of just 17 days, in each case by lone female gun(wo)men who were vestiges of the Sixties counterculture.

 

The second of these women was Sara Jane Moore, whose story resembles something out of a Desperate Housewives or Weeds script more than anything else.

 

The Sixties and early Seventies were strange times, marked by revolutionary, often violent fringe groups doing outrageous things for what they believed to be important reasons. By the time the mid-70s rolled around, the Berkeley-based Symbionese Liberation Army was really the only active revolutionary movement still making national headlines with their spectacular kidnapping of Patty Hearst.

 

When Patty was kidnapped in February 1974, Sara Jane Moore was a middle-aged doctor’s wife in the quiet, upscale Bay Area suburb of Danville.

 

After the S.L.A. nabbed Patty Hearst, the group quickly found themselves on the receiving end of round-the-clock media coverage, the perfect platform from which to air their grievances. One of their demands was that Patty’s father, Randolph Hearst, set up a multimillion dollar food distribution network to dispense groceries to the Bay Area’s poor.

 

Hearst complied the best he could by establishing a program called People In Need (PIN). PIN was staffed by a hodgepodge of local minority activists, militant sympathizers, wealthy housewives, and idealistic grad students.

 

Into this mix stepped Sara Jane Moore, who became PIN’s accountant as well as its public liaison officer in charge of issuing press releases, a position that gave her instant name recognition in the Bay Area. Moore’s enthusiasm for the cause and apparent ability to work both in the “straight” world and with the radicals quickly brought her to the attention of everyone from Randolph Hearst to the FBI.

 

Hearst was desperate for any news he could get about his daughter and hoped that Moore’s apparent street cred with the SLA could garner some inside information. The FBI saw the same sort of potential in Moore and recruited her as an FBI informant.

 

But Moore had a larger story, of which the FBI apparently wasn’t aware. Before settling down in Danville with her husband, Moore had already been divorced twice and had abandoned her previous children to be raised by her own parents.

 

In actuality, by the time Moore became the PIN accountant, her most recent marriage had fallen apart and she had relocated to San Francisco’s Mission District to be closer to the area’s radical politics.

 

Moore’s shapeshifting seemed to stem from a narcissistic desire to be the center of attention wherever she went. And so it was that one year after basking in “hero” status as the point-person for PIN, Sara Jane Moore pointed a handgun at Gerald Ford in San Francisco and squeezed off a shot before being disarmed by an ex-Marine in the crowd.

 

That was the second attempt on Gerald Ford’s life. The first had come 17 days earlier in Sacramento when longtime Manson disciple Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme leveled a handgun at the president, but was apprehended by a Secret Service agent before she could fire off a shot.

 

Although Squeaky Fromme didn’t get caught up in the Tate-LaBianca murders, she had been one of Manson’s earliest and most loyal disciples, first joining up with him in Venice Beach in 1967. She was one of the Manson girls who set up camp outside the courthouse where the Manson trials were occurring and carved ‘x’s into their foreheads in solidarity with their compatriots.

 

After the trial, Fromme and another Manson girl named Sandra Good moved to Sacramento to be closer to Charley where he was being held in prison. In her spare time, Fromme began working on a scrapbook of the Manson Family with the intent of having it published, but the project was dropped when she realized it might be too incriminating.

 

During this Sacramento sojourn, Fromme was apparently involved in a grisly 1972 double-execution style murder of a man and woman on behalf of Manson associates in a white supremacist gang. Although she was held in custody for over two months for the crime, there was never enough evidence to charge her with anything, so she was released.

 

Three years later, dressed in a “nun-like outfit,” Squeaky Fromme set out ostensibly to confront Gerald Ford about the plight of the California redwoods, but ended up pointing a pistol at him instead. Although there were four bullets in the gun’s magazine, there was none in the chamber, and Fromme later contended she never intended to actually shoot the president that day.

 

***

TRAGEDY ⇒ FARCE

 

They say that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.

 

The Sixties were a turbulent time full of change, upheaval, and violence, which included devastating assassinations of national figures from John Kennedy to Martin Luther King, to Robert Kennedy. Society itself had been torn asunder by Vietnam, racial politics, and a generation gap dividing the Greatest Generation from the Baby Boomers, whose most paramount virtue often seemed to be their youth itself.

 

Somehow, Woodstock came to be seen as the high point of the Sixties, probably because it signified hippie culture attaining a certain mainstream cachet without anybody getting killed or riots breaking out. More accurately, Woodstock was the leveling out of the Sixties. It was when the weird became the new normal, a palpable event that let the kids know they had landed in the driver’s seat. It wasn’t just some fad after all.

 

But the real tension reducer had been the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. In Spring 1970, campuses across the country were veering into a state of anarchy as the youth openly rioted against the local ROTC chapters and authority in general. This was the Generation Gap at its most militarized, with all too predictable results occurring at Kent State and Jackson State that May, as U.S. state militia and police gunned down students on campus.

 

But the changes the students demanded were already underway. In 1971, the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was proposed and ratified, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18, enfranchising the overwhelming majority of college students in one fell swoop. It was the shortest time gap in history between an amendment’s proposal and its ratification and seemed tailor made to address student unrest.

 

Coinciding with the lower voting age was the phasing out and ultimate abolishment of the U.S. military draft in 1973, the same year that the U.S. withdrew its troops from Vietnam, ending its military presence in that war.

 

At that point, there wasn’t really much left for the average (white) 18-year old to be fighting mad about. The demise of Richard Nixon the following year seemed to be the final act of the Sixties saga. The Counterculture finally had its bogeyman’s head on a platter.

 

But, like Carrie reaching up from the grave or Freddie Kruger making a surprise comeback in the final scene, two would-be assassins and products of the Counterculture would foist themselves into the picture with guns pointed in 1975.

 

In the Sixties, the lone gunman spelled tragedy. In the Ford Years, it was farce.

 

***

 FORD OR CHEVY?

As we’ve seen, in many ways Gerald Ford served as the symbolic fall guy for the Sixties culture wars. And he became the fall guy all over again when Saturday Night Live turned him into a joke.

 

If the biggest cultural phenomenon of the 1960s was Woodstock, the biggest phenomenon of the 1970s was Saturday Night Live. The writers’ room of SNL was probably where the greatest working minds of the counterculture were to be found in 1975.

 

SNL would usher in a new era of TV hipness, where the “under-thirty” generation would take over the late-night time slot and showcase their talents. Their first signature skit was Chevy Chase’s Gerald Ford impersonation, which consisted of nothing more than Chase portraying Ford as a well-intentioned doofus who, no matter what the circumstances, always managed to fall on his face within five minutes of whatever he set out to do.

 

Deserved or not, this is the way Gerald Ford, athlete, war hero, fashion model, and 38th President of the United States, will probably be remembered, at least until all the Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers die off.

Will the real Gerald Ford please fall down?

Will the real Gerald Ford please fall down?

 

 

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