Opinion, by Michael Royster
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The death last week of Itamar Franco, Brazil’s President from 1992 to 1994, has triggered a reminder of the late Gerald Ford, President of the USA from 1974 to 1977. They had much in common, starting with the fact that they both succeeded presidents who were forced from office in disgrace. In Ford’s case, it was Richard (“I am not a crook”) Nixon, and in Itamar’s case, Fernando (“Me neither”) Collor de Mello.
There’s more in this vein. Both men owed their unexpected elevation to historical irregularities. In Ford’s case, he had been appointed Vice-President by Richard Nixon, after the elected Vice President, Spiro Agnew, had resigned in disgrace. In Itamar’s case, his predecessor as both Vice President and President, José Sarney, had wrongly usurped the presidency upon the death of Tancredo Neves, who had not taken office.
Both men assumed office during their respective countries’ worst economic crises in years. Ford’s administration was marked by both inflation and recession; Itamar’s by a continuation of the rampant inflation and recession that had signaled Sarney’s regime. Both men’s initial attempts to do something about it were ineffectual. Ford started the fatuous Whip Inflation Now (WIN) campaign and Itamar, running through Finance Ministers like water, forced VW to re-introduce the (old) Beetle many years after it had gone out of production.
Both were known for stumbling: Ford physically and verbally; Itamar politically, witness his appearance in a Rio Carnaval box owned by “bicheiros” (the numbers racketeers) while accompanied by a semi-undressed “model” named Lilian Ramos.
Ford had other, bigger problems, in the area of foreign relations. Although the Vietnam War had officially ended, the Fall of Saigon happened on his watch. US relations with Israel came to an all-time low, and Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy was foundering. Itamar had no such problems, if only because no one was sure what Brazil’s foreign policy was.
The mention of Henry Kissinger is by way of being an introduction to the other main similarity—both Ford and Itamar have always been seen as being presidents who just couldn’t cut the mustard, who depended, in short, on their cabinet ministers to get anything important done. Domestically, Ford’s Chiefs of Staff were Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney (remember them?).
Itamar, similarly, couldn’t get a handle on the economy, where inflation was still out of control after Sarney’s plan and Collor’s plan both drowned in floods of zeroes. He appointed three Economy Ministers, none of whom won his support for anything, until finally taking his leap of faith with Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and the Plano Real. This saved the economy, but doomed Itamar to a permanent lack of respect, for FHC won all the credit.
As a direct result of this seeming lack of mojo, both Ford and Itamar tried to run for president again, but were rejected by their own political parties, and then ceased to play any significant part in the national politics of each country.
Michael Royster, aka THE CURMUDGEON first saw Rio forty-plus years ago, moved here thirty-plus years ago, still loves it, notwithstanding being a charter member of the most persecuted minority in (North) America today, the WASPs (google it!)(get over it!)