THE PARDON. Gerald Ford found himself appointed vice-president, and then Commander in Chief -- two executive positions soiled by Watergate and sorely in need of a trusted, uncorrupted leader. Even though the governmental processes set in motion by a "third-rate burglary" proved the system of checks and balances worked, the rule of law triumphed with a Pyhrric victory. Ford's gargantuan task lay in convincing a nation all vestiges of an imperial presidency left when Richard Nixon stepped onto Marine One for the last time.
Ford proved he fit the job description within weeks, cementing his legacy by pardoning Nixon. Voters held it against him in 1976, when he tried to win the office he inherited. But the 38th President put any aspirations aside.
From an AP report by Larry Margasak:
Ford knew the pardon could damage his election chances."If I run again," he said. He was already at peace with leaving office.
"I'm aware of that," Ford recalled snapping at a cautious aide. "It could easily cost me the next election if I run again. But damn it, I don't need the polls to tell me whether I'm right or wrong."
And he had support. Many agreed Nixon had already been tried, convicted and punished in the courts of media and public opinion. Anything more would needlessly salt wounds. The nation didn't have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore, and that was good enough.
THE PRATFALLS. The Nixon pardon did not alone seal Ford's electoral fate. Many people still remember two major slips -- one physical, one verbal -- that left him wounded.
Many of us remember the fall down the stairs of Air Force One, parodied relentlessly by Chevy Chase in Saturday Night Live's infancy. And many Ford backers winced when he said the Soviets weren't dominating Eastern Europe.
Still, Ford's everyman qualities refreshed people. From Bill Adair of the St. Petersburg Times:
Sure, he might not have had the intellect of other presidents. Lyndon Johnson speculated that Ford had played too much football without a helmet.So what if he lost his balance every so often?
Barry Goldwater once took him to task for being a dull speaker.
But when Nixon resigned, we didn't want anyone flashy. We wanted someone who was honest, who would avoid doing anything drastic and would keep the Cold War cold.
"His ordinariness was welcome," wrote historian Laura Kalman in To the Best of My Ability: The American Presidents.
THE PERSON. Over and over again, as the tributes and reflections pour in, a characterizaton of Ford repeats itelf: decency. A "decent man." People speak of him with an honest and unwavering respect. Googling "Ford and decency" brings up thousands of articles.
Here is a segment of one, from the Arizona Republic:
Ford was an unelected executive whose popularity plummeted with the Nixon pardon. He presided over a nation wounded by politics and war, one that was deep in the throes of rising inflation and near-negative growth. Yet, aided by both sides of the political aisle, he served undisputed as the nation's commander in chief. Politics then did stop at the water's edge.Said Republican Sen. Jon Kyl:
"Having known him for many years, I can say that he was an extraordinarily decent and honorable man who enjoyed his public service. The nation is forever grateful for the reassuring leadership that President Ford provided at a crucial time."Said Republican Sen. John McCain:
"A man of great moral character and patriotism, he led our country during a time of great distress, and saw us safely through our troubles with grace and courage."Said Democratic Congressman Raul Grijalva, an unabashed liberal:
"Former President Ford stepped into the presidency during a very turbulent time for our country. He handled a very delicate situation, with a grace and humility that is expected of our commander in chief."Tinges of wistfulness emerge in the condolences, cloaked statements about what democracy should be and what it isn't in our current political environment. The president nobody elected was the president everybody needed. He had no great doctrine or vision or urgency to leave a legacy. He simply provided steady leadership.
THE PONDERINGS. We can argue about whether voters get the presidents they deserve or deserve the presidents they get. We can write books of lamentations on political moderation. We can take cheap shots at the Bush Administration and crow, "At least nobody died when Ford said the Russians weren't running Poland!" We can dream. We can wish and pray for honorable statesmen, leaders of uncompromised integrity who love democracy more than life itself.
The reality is we don't see those people in Washington's spotlight. Okay, maybe Barack Obama, perhaps John McCain, but who else comes to mind?
But before you cry too many tears for your beloved country, remember this: a great number of our leaders go about their lives with the honor and integrity we expect of them. They do their homework, understand the issues, vote with a balance of knowledge and conscience, and still win reelection without sacrificing their souls to the almighty campaign dollar. And we are proud of them. Gerald Ford would be, too.