Lessons about life are all around us. I learned long ago that they are learned until the day we die.
The recent death of former President Gerald Ford has gotten me to thinking about those life lessons. I was born in 1965, so Nixon and Ford are really the first two presidents I remember well (I recall seeing LBJ on TV as president, but when you’re 3 or 4 years old those memories are pretty dim.) One of my earliest memories dealing with the nation and politics, besides Watergate and the Viet Nam War, is the resignation of Nixon. I remember that my Dad and I were at my uncle’s home watching it on TV. Although I didn’t fully understand the ramifications of it at the time, I knew that it was something big. My Dad taped Nixon’s speech on his little portable tape recorder, and if he did that it meant that something of great importance was happening.
Afterwards, I remember all the talk about what Ford should or would do. When Ford announced about a month later that he was pardoning Nixon, I remember how many people felt it was the wrong thing to do. I guess a lot of folks, feeling betrayed and victimized by Nixon, wanted blood. There was the feeling that the pardon was only a continuation of the nightmare known as Watergate – and that members of the “Good Ol’ Boys Club” was taking care of themselves.
Senators and Congressmen were all over the TV saying what a disgrace it was – how wrong the pardon was. Ford said he wanted to heal the wounds, that the only way for this country to go on with its business and not be consumed with the circus that a Nixon trial and conviction would bring for a year or two.
It obviously cost Ford the subsequent presidential campaign. All the while, besides the negativity over the pardon, Ford had to endure endless comic derision over his supposed stumbling and tripping – most famously by Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live. What was most ironic was the fact that Ford was our most athletic president in history.
Over the past few years, and especially during the week-long funeral events for Ford since Christmas, I’ve been thinking how he stuck to his convictions regardless of what others said. His eulogists, commentators, etc have all been making the point that he did what he thought was best for the country regardless of opinion. Many of those who criticized him then are now admitting that they were wrong and Ford was right. And this time it is sincere – not just because Ford died. One example is Sen. Ted Kennedy, who never changes his mind about anything. He admitted that he was wrong about Nixon’s pardon, and that Ford was right. That’s probably the only time in his entire life that Kennedy admitted to a mistake.
Ford never sought the presidency. All he aspired to was to be Speaker of the House. A close circle of friends, early in his political career, had to cajole him to run for minority leader. Unlike most other congressmen, I don’t think he ever looked in the mirror and, as the saying goes “saw a future president.” He is the only president in history to be elected to neither the vice-presidency or the presidency. Therefore, he came into office with no staff, no cohorts, no “boys club.” And, he owed everyone nothing.
And I think that was the difference with Ford. In him, we had a president who never sought, never campaigned for the office. He was thrust into it by circumstance, during one of the most tenuous and turbulent periods in our nation’s history. Our very governmental fiber was poised to crack like an eggshell, and he was put at the helm of it all. And he did what he thought was right, everyone else be damned.
We get a president who never sought nor won an election higher than that of congressmen, and he (in my opinion) turns out to be one of the best in history. The ironic twist is that our electoral and political machinations are designed to not allow that to happen – except in the most rare combination of circumstances. That we could have more presidents who don’t aspire to the office – but it will rarely, if ever, happen again.
Ford deserves the accolades he has been receiving, and the opinions about his presidency and character are likely to continue. From now on, the history books are going to be even more kind to him, moreso than even the positive transition that took place over the last couple decades. When we needed a simple, unassuming, and decisive president – one who didn’t look to focus groups or talking heads to find his convictions – we got him. Maybe, after all, even the loopholes in our democratic process were inadvertently designed to save our skins.
Rest in peace, Gerald Rudolph Ford. It took us a long time – much too long – to realize your wisdom, and what it did for our country. But sometimes the realization of character that takes time, is the sweetest of all.