Some Rotarian! Gerald R. Ford, dead last week at 93, crooned the fanfare of the (Un)Common Man. The sole U.S. chief executive not elected to the presidency or vice-presidency tied autobiography (A Time to Heal ) and biography (Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.”) Frank Merriwell, or Chip Hilton? Both lived in Ford.
In 1974, he replaced Richard Nixon, resigning amid Watergate. Ford is said to have calmed America. In truth, he taught America. Jerry B. Goode was impressed with policy, not himself, treating pomp like Billy Graham did sin. He was comfortable with the presidency, and himself.
James Fenimore Cooper wrote, “Truth was the Deerslayer’s polar star.” It lit Ford’s first speech as president: “Here the people rule”; “Ours is a country of laws, not men; “Honesty is the best policy.” Jerry — few called him Gerald — stilled our quiet desperation: right man, right time. Trusting Michigan ’35 seemed as natural as his booing Ohio State.
Born in 1913, Leslie Lynch King, Jr. left Omaha for Grand Rapids when his parents divorced. Mom married Gerald Rudolph Ford: Adopted, the boy took Ford’s name. Parents fancy a child becoming president. Ford hoped to be Red Grange. As president, the ex-All-American relived 1930s Michigan football by reading the sports section first. He liked its lesson: “the value of team play.”
After Michigan, Ford spurned pro football to attend Yale, go to war, practice law in Grand Rapids, and in 1948 begin a 58-year marriage. Another lesson: If a politician is open and reliable, he can become an extended member of the family. Ford did.
Elected in 1948, he began a 25-year skein as Michigan’s Sixth District’s “Congressman for Life.” Then, in 1973, Spiro Agnew resigned as vice president. Nixon wanted John Connally. Instead, weakened by Watergate, he tapped the tortoise, not hare – loyal, familiar, and sure to be confirmed.
“They like you,” Nixon whispered after naming Ford Agnew’s successor. It was easy to see why. “I’m a Ford, not a Lincoln,” he observed, truly and gracefully. On August 9, 1974, Milhous resigned, whereupon his successor said, “Our long national nightmare is over.” Replete with memory is how America felt at repose with him.
Awash in light, Ford tried to dim it: “May Richard Nixon, who brought peace to millions find it for himself.” The new president met crisis. Unemployment hit 7.1 percent. Haters wanted Nixon tried, or hung. Instead, Ford issued a “full, free, and absolute pardon,” maiming his popularity. Out of the blue, the athlete took to falling down stairs. Two people tried to kill him. U.S. civilians left Saigon as Communists took South Viet Nam. The ex-savior seemed Bill Maudlin’s Sad-Sack Kid.
Unfazed, Ford forced Rhodesia to abandon white minority rule, met with Leonid Breznhev in Vladivostok, and signed the Helsinki Pact ensuring the sanctity of national boundaries. Hr ordered an attack on Khmer Rouge (Cambodian) forces who, seizing a U.S. merchant ship, the Mayaguez, refused to release it. Too many of us yawned.
In January 1975, the incumbent said, “The State of the Union is not good.” It was better by 1976 – inflation down, faith renewed, America at peace – yet not enough recalled 1974’s paladin who rose at 5:15 A.M., worked 18 hours daily, vowed “openness and candor,” and seemed constitutionally unable to utter a nasty word. Whose fault? Ours: We didn’t realize what we had.
Ford trailed Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter by 33 points that August. Then, like a timer clicking, America remembered Jerry College. He nearly won despite Watergate, the pardon, and claiming that Eastern Europe was not under Soviet domination. By Election Night Ford’s voice was spent. Wife Betty read a concession speech.
Today, we say thank you: just what the doctor ordered; substance over style. My first vote was for Nixon in 1972, his opponent George McGovern, whom I wrongly called Caligula’s horse. Years later, at Washington’s National Airport, I looked up to see McGovern sit next to me on a plane. To my surprise, I found him eminently decent, like Ford.
Politics, I would learn, need not differ from life. You could fault the other side, and still allow for friendship. But I should known that from 1974-77. Jerry Ford taught us that.
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