By Jeff Greenfield
I suppose I can’t help it.
After a lifetime immersed in American politics, perhaps it was inevitable that my reaction to the early days of the new papacy has been to conjure up memories….of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.
I mean no disrespect. But in watching Pope Francis’ powerful first gestures—shunning the elaborate vestments for a simple garment, choosing a modest apartment over the lavish Papal accommodations, and heading back to his hotel in Rome to pay his bill!—I was reminded of two presidents who embraced simplicity but were ultimately rejected by voters. And thereby hangs a tale about the power, and the limits, of symbolism.
When Gerald Ford suddenly stepped into the presidency in August 1974 after Richard Nixon’s resignation, he was a relatively unknown figure despite his years as House Republican leader and his 10-month stint as vice president. After Nixon’s polarizing presidency—capped by nearly a year and a half of Watergate frenzy—Ford was at pains to establish him as a healing, unthreatening, modest leader. As he described himself even before taking the presidential oath, “I’m a Ford, not a Lincoln.”
When Ford disclosed he had toasted his own English muffins and poured his own orange juice before heading to the Oval Office, pictures of the new president in the White House kitchen hit front pages across America. It was the perfect contrast with Nixon, who had ordered up uniforms for the White House Guard worthy of a European principality.
Now fast forward a few months to the impossibly long-shot presidential campaign of ex-Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, a self described peanut farmer whose quest seemed so improbable that a home state paper headlined: ‘Jimmy WHO? Is Running for WHAT?”
Making a virtue out of necessity, Carter’s financially challenged campaign drew attention to the candidate’s humility. He stayed at the homes of supporters, where he made his own bed; shared rooms with aides at low-cost motels; and carried his own garment bag.
In the post-Watergate atmosphere of 1975 and 1976, the just-plain-folks personalities of both Ford and Carter seemed the perfect antidote to Nixon’s arrogant, isolated presidency.
But as alert history-minded readers know, Ford and Carter were both rebuffed by voters in their efforts to hold on to the presidency.
Ford’s decision to pardon Nixon for crimes associated with Watergate cost him dearly, even though it now looks like a prudent choice to avoid years of contentious litigation. Ford’s occasional slips—of tongue and body—turned him, unfairly, into a comic figure that elevated Chevy Chase of “Saturday Night Live” to national fame. And an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress all but assured Ford’s legislative goals would be dead on delivery.
Carter narrowly defeated Ford in 1976. But the charm of the peanut farmer faded under withering blows of double-digit inflation, recession, the Iranian hostage crisis and a deeply divided Democratic Party. Carter lost in a landslide to Ronald Reagan in 1980.
So does this history tell us that Pope Francis’ early steps are doomed to irrelevance? No.
Unlike presidents, a pope’s personal decisions can have a swift, decisive impact on the actions of others. Offhand, I can’t think of any congressional committee chairs or Fortune 500 CEOs who felt it necessary to abandon the perks of their offices because Ford and Carter did so.
By contrast, Francis’ rejection of the lavish pomp that surrounded his predecessor, Benedict, is offering a model that others in the Catholic hierarchy may well want to follow—if for no other reason than to avoid the embarrassment of the contrast.
The thick cloud that has surrounded the church in the wake of the pedophile priest scandals may strengthen the impulse toward humility. When it comes to the priestly vows of “poverty, chastity and obedience,” the church has demonstrated some pretty serious problems with the second but can demonstrate its fealty to the third by more vigorously embracing the first.
There are, however, ways in which Francis will face challenges similar to those that tripped up Ford and Carter.
If the church does not clearly and unflinchingly demand and receive full accountability for the evasions and cover-ups that marred its response to the child abuse scandals, none of the pope’s humble gestures will count for much. If Francis’ symbolic embrace of the poor does not govern the church’s behavior in the cities and towns of Latin America—where church and state have in the past been linked by privilege and indifference—then the words of the new pope will remain hollow. Ultimately, deeds trump symbols.
Of course, in one key way, the new pope has a powerful, perhaps decisive advantage over the 38th and 39th presidents: Having received the keys to the kingdom, his electoral lock is permanent.