Remembering Gerald Ford

With the recent passing of Gerald Ford, I am thrown to reminiscing about his tenure during the mid-1970’s. It’s hard to say that it’s a period of fond memories, either for me personally or for the U.S.

I remember Vietnam, Watergate, inflation, recession, bad Top-40 music on AM radio (no matter how hard I try, I can’t forget 10cc’s “Big Boys Don’t Cwy”), disco and leisure suits (which go hand-in-hand), long hair, Pet Rocks, mammoth American land-yachts that rusted prematurely…..

…and, of course, the OPEC oil embargo and what we then called “the Energy Crisis”. Thirty years ago, the U.S. was consumed by concern about energy, and we rapidly moved to smaller cars and lower thermostats in the winter. (Remember Jimmy Carter’s cardigan sweater?)

However, it took a recent Thomas Friedman oped in the New York Times to remind me that Gerald Ford was the first to coin and use the phrase that we are now hearing increasingly often yet again: “Energy Independence”. Before even Amory Lovins, Gerald Ford was an unsung pioneer in pushing alternative energy and energy efficiency to address our energy challenges.

He imposed a (gasp! horrors!) $3/barrel tariff on imported oil — back when oil was about $11/barrel — and signed the Energy Policy Conservation Act of 1975 that included major investments in alternative energy research (leading to today’s NREL), state-level energy conservation programs, and the creation of the CAFE standards to improve automobile fuel efficiency.

In today’s age, it seems incongruous, but remember that Ford was a Republican, and these were the types of policies that the Republican party used to promote.

Although he was considered mediocre in his day, it is increasingly clear through the rearview mirror of history that Gerald Ford was in fact a pretty darn respectable President — and particularly foresightful in energy. As Friedman notes, if we had only followed Ford’s path consistently for the past 30 years, we wouldn’t be in anywhere near as dire an economic and environmental situation as we are today. Alas, the 1980’s followed the 1970’s, Reagan followed Carter, energy prices collapsed, energy R&D budgets were radically shrunk, energy urgency dissipated, and “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” became the mass mantra (as well as one of those unforgettably weak Top 40 songs). Twenty years’ worth of gluttony ensued: big TVs and bass-boats, sprawl and SUV’s, McMansions and me-too-ism.

Friedman asks President Bush to honor Ford’s legacy by making the rest of his term dedicated to and organized around a renewed commitment to energy policies that will far better serve our long-term interests. Let’s hope Bush, or perhaps more plausibly the new 110th Congress, hear Friedman and follow through.

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