I was watching the State funeral for President Gerald Ford and was surprised at how much his short presidency has influenced the US today. Ford was a dealmaker with his biggest aspiration being to one day be the Speaker of the House. Difficult to do for a Republican during a Democrat dominated era in congressional politics. Interestingly enough, his even-handedness made him the singular choice among Democrats and Republicans to replace Spiro Agnew as Vice-President.
His ascendancy to the Presidency seemed to be providential. The right man at the right time. “Cometh the hour, cometh the man” is how the saying goes. It’s hard to explain to somebody how big of a deal all of this was but I remember all of what happened in American politics during that era.
Every day brought a new revelation regarding the Nixon administration and even though partisan politics played a role, there was enough going on to shake any American to the core.
Ford brought a steady hand and was an honorable, decent guy. He pardoned Nixon and set out some guidelines for those who refused to serve in Vietnam to return to the US without penalty. Both of those decisions were meant to be part of the “healing” process in America and they worked.
What they also did was cost Ford the Presidency in 1976.
Jimmy Carter defeated him with the thrust of the campaign being Ford’s pardon of Nixon and his statement during a debate that there was “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” That was a clear reference to the thought process of the people living in those countries but it was portrayed by the media as a President who’s out of touch and not quick enough on his feet. Either way, Ford was denied another four years and Jimmy Carter served as a one-term President.
I was in college while Ford was in office and as a Radio, TV and Film major was invited on a private tour of the White House media wing with a couple of fellow students in 1975. At the last minute, the President left the White House for an appearance at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. His original schedule had him not attending, but he changed his mind. Anyway, our host at the White House felt bad for us because the media wing was completely empty with the White House Press Corp scurrying out the door to follow President Ford. So our host gave us a “back lot” tour of the West Wing, which was very cool.
We got to stick out head in the Cabinet Room and I noticed that each of the big winged back chairs (the ones you see when they let the media in there for the first five minutes) had brass plates on the back with each Cabinet member’s name engraved on them. There was a velvet rope in front of the Oval Office but we got to stand there for a couple of minutes and look inside.
The President’s chair was turned to the side with a pen left on a tablet on the desk as if he had just walked out. I was impressed that it was actually “oval” and it had a beautiful carpet that matched the engraving in the ceiling.
I had forgotten what an influence Ford had on me as a young college student. I was plenty against the war, pro-change and some might call radical but Ford’s decency, his willingness to find middle ground and his ability to put the big picture in front of any personal gain showed me what leadership is about.
In retrospect, even his harshest critics have admitted that the Nixon pardon was the right thing to do to allow the country to move forward. Sometimes it takes a generation to distill history into the proper context. History will always judge Ford as the right man at the right time.