Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Gerald R. Ford, 1913-2006

I am a Ford, not a Lincoln. ~ Gerald Ford, when he became vice-president

With Gerald Ford's death came the expected stories about the “accidental president” and the only unelected president. The latter is only technically true, because, let's face it, people vote for presidents, not their running mates. I mean, if voters really based their vote on who the vice-presidential candidate was, George Bush the elder would have sunk beneath the waves with Dan Quayle hanging around his neck. Therefore, any vice-president taking over the unexpired term of a president is unelected. Ford was the first appointed vice president to become president.

Ford had no illusions about the mess that had been created by Richard Nixon and his Merry Band of Burglars. Ford's goal was to put an end to the divisions and move on, a goal he met with mixed success. He was also nearly shot twice, mocked for being clumsy, and defeated by Jimmy Carter. He was an intelligent man who could speak for himself, so perhaps I should let him have his say.
We needed to get the matter off my desk in the Oval Office so I could concentrate on the problems of 260 million Americans and not have to worry about the problems of one man.
I think Ford believed that, but I also think that Nixon made a pardon a condition of his resignation. Whatever really happened (and Gerald Ford has never changed his stance on the pardon), it most likely cost him the election against Jimmy Carter. Picking Nelson Rockefeller as his own appointed vice president didn't help much, but the pardon was a killer. Frankly, given the rest of Ford's term, during which he performed adequately, he should have won. Even though I am a fan of Jimmy Carter for his intelligence and humanitarianism, I think he was not the man we needed in the Oval Office. Unfortunately, the pardon, Rockefeller, and a strange inability to deal with Congress (strange because he was Minority Leader prior to becoming VP) cost him in a close outcome.
Our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works. Our great republic is a government of laws and not of men.
That says a lot about Ford. He believe in the Constitution and the checks and balances built into it. To him, the fact that the Nixon administration's abuses were found out and punished was a demonstration of that. It also played into his pardoning of Nixon. He saw no good in a former President of the United States in the dock along with his henchmen. Perhaps he was right, but I sometimes wondered how he felt about the rehabilitation of Nixon that took place years later. Ford intended forgiveness, not forgetfulness.

The American people want a dialogue between them and their president ... And if we can't have that opportunity of talking with one another, seeing one another, shaking hands with one another, something has gone wrong in our society.
On two separate occasions, potential assassins got within inches of President Ford. Fortunately for him, a Higher Power protected him when the Secret Service didn't, as both guns aimed at him misfired. Lesser men would have decided that the People could just keep their damned distance. Not Ford. He realized that if the President allowed himself to be isolated from his constituents, he would be isolated from their needs.

I know I am getting better at golf because I am hitting fewer spectators.
It started with the stumble down the steps from Air Force 1, a slip on a drizzly day. Had the White House spin doctors let it alone, there would have been a few jokes and that would have been the end of it. But, no, someone got the bright idea to issue a release saying something to the effect that his doctors had proclaimed the President to be above average in coordination and certainly not inordinately clumsy. Chevy Chase went on to make a career of doing Ford-fall-down impressions.

It didn't help that we kept getting reminded in those White House press releases that Ford was a two-way player at Michigan: Center and middle guard. In other words, he got whacked in the head a lot. The comics had tons of fun with that one, too.

Because Ford wanted to remain visible and accessible, his foibles were also on view for all. Other presidents tended to have their leisure moments out of sight of the prying eyes of the media. Eisenhower, for example, was a devoted golfer, but normally, he teed off and said “goodbye” to the reporters. On one occasion, he allowed the press to follow him around. When he had a terrible round, he summarily banned any further media escorts when he was relaxing at Burning Tree.

Ford, on the other hand, was in full view when, during a doubles tennis match, he clonked a serve off his partner's head. On a golf course, spectators had to stay on their toes, as implied by his tongue-in-cheek observation. But, he never hid. Oh, I'm sure he snuck away to play 18 holes with no strangers around once or twice, but he could laugh at himself, at least, once he was sure no one had been seriously injured.

I believe that truth is the glue that holds government together, not only our government but civilization itself. That bond, though strained, is unbroken at home and abroad. In all my public and private acts as your president, I expect to follow my instincts of openness and candor with full confidence that honesty is always the best policy in the end.
Would that our current crop of governmental mediocrities held to that simple but profound philosophy.
I hope and trust that people and historians 50 years from now will write that the Ford administration took over in a very turbulent, controversial period, and we healed the wounds and that we restored public trust in the White House and the presidency. I hope that's how it will be written.
Rest in peace, Mr. President.

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