Tuesday, January 02, 2007
In memory of the funky president
Welcome to 2007 and the special “last throes” edition of this blog! Today we’re looking back over the events of the past week and mourning the passing of President Gerald Ford. Ford took office after the scandal of Watergategate, which was not only named after a famous hotel but set in motion a series of far more serious Presidential scandals, such as Filegate, Travelgate and of course the queen of them all, Monicagate. But from the first moments of his brief tenure in the White House, Ford set about restoring Americans’ faith in government with a series of groundbreaking hits such as “(Get Up I Feel Like I Gotta) Whip Inflation Now,” “Cheney Don’t Make No Mess,” and of course “Funky President (People It’s Bad).” Watching the memorials for Ford last week, I found myself strangely moved by their evocation of a time before rank partisanship and outrageous nut-flexin’ overtook Washington, when Republicans and Democrats could work together as friends and white people welcomed Black Power accompanied by serious musicianship—before Democrats poisoned the well by forcing Republicans to drive people like Ford and Rockefeller from positions of power in the GOP, before the R&B charts got so nasty and confrontational and full of songs that are hard to sing.
Not many people know that Ford was actually born in Barnwell, South Carolina, under another name, Leslie Lynch King Joseph Brown, Jr. His father left the family not long thereafter; Ford did not meet him again until he was released from a juvenile detention center and began work at a Greek restaurant. After touring the South with the Famous Flames and playing football at the University of Michigan, Ford was elected to the House of Representatives as a Republican. In his later life, he often said of his time in Washington that although he was widely known as the hardest workin’ man in the House, he had no real ambition to become the Godfather of Soul, hoping simply to become Speaker of the House if his party ever regained the majority. Ironically, although Ford remained a Republican all his life, his enthusiastic embrace and eventual pardon of Richard Nixon cost him much of his support in the black community.
I especially liked this bit from the CNN obituary:
Allies and opponents alike remember Ford as a gentle, gracious man, nothing like the bumbler familiar to us from Chevy Chase’s portrayals on “Saturday Night Live.” “He was actually a brilliant and innovative dancer,” noted distinguished statesman Tom DeLay. “And what stamina! I remember when they put that cape on his shoulders, he looked so exhausted I thought they were going to have to carry him off the stage. And then he stripped it right off and started singing and doing the splits and everything, just as fresh as a daisy! Whooooo-eee! That man was truly Mister Dynamite!” Deeply divisive former president Jimmy Carter agreed, saying that Gerald Ford “frequently rose above politics by emphasizing the need to get on the good foot and dance ‘til you feel better.”
I personally believe that by the late summer of 1974, when he took office, Ford’s best work was behind him. Still, his increasingly staccato vocals, in which his shouts and exhortations, like Jimmy Nolan’s “scratch” guitar, became primarily a rhythm instrument, helped pave the way for rap and hip-hop; and of course his “Our Long Funky Drummin’ Nightmare is Over” has since become one of the most-sampled speeches in the history of American oratory. Most of all, though, he will be remembered as the president who got us through the exceptionally bleak period of Terry Jacks’ “Seasons in the Sun,” the Carpenters’ “Top of the World,” and Olivia Newton-John’s “If You Love Me, Let Me Know.” We had to get over that crap before we went under! For Ford’s calm demeanor and funkalicious footwork, the nation will always be grateful.