Gerald R. Ford, RIP

The death of Gerald R. Ford (1913-2006) is an occasion for a little historical reflection. He came to the presidency as the only non-elected president in our history. Under the 25th Amendment he was appointed as vice-president when Spiro Agnew resigned in disgrace in 1973. On August 9, 1974, he became our 38th president when Richard Nixon resigned under the duress of the Watergate fiasco and an impending impeachment trial. He won the Republican nomination in 1976 only to loose to Jimmy Carter, in an extremely close election. (I voted for Carter and have regretted it for many years!)

Little known facts about Ford include the following: (1) He survived two assassination attempts. (2) He vetoed 39 bills in his first fourteen months, most of which were sustained by Congress. (3) He worked successfully to prevent a new conflict in the Middle East between Egypt and Israel. (4) His work focused mainly on the economy, which got much worse under President Carter.

When Richard Nixon considered a nominee for vice-president in October 1973 he had four finalists in mind: John Connally, Nelson Rockefeller, Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford. Nixon said he knew Ford the best of the four but most believe Ford was chosen because Congress would easily approve him in a time of incredible and deep-seated distrust and rancor.

When sworn in as president Ford gave perhaps his most memorable, and eloquent, speech saying:

“My fellow Americans, our long nightmare is over. Our Constitution works. Our great republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule. I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your president by your ballots. So I ask you to confirm me with your prayers.”

Ford’s most controversial act was to pardon Richard Nixon on September 8, 1974. Most scholars and journalists believe this probably cost him the election in 1976. But most now agree that it was an act of courage and profound wisdom. It was done for love of country, with no hint of a back-room deal having been made in advance. In effect, this decision ended the drawn-out nightmare that had divided the country for months and stopped a process that might have kept Richard Nixon’s tangled case before the public, in a bitterly divisive way, for many years to come.

Gerry Ford was a plodder, not a visionary. Even in campaigning he chose not to attack Jimmy Carter’s record as governor of Georgia, which could have been done with great effect. He chose to focus the campaign on his own record as president. (This appears to have been consistent with his approach to healing the nation, thus not creating more bitter partisanship.) Gerry Ford was a genuinely decent man and was respected by almost everyone who knew him. Asked once at a news conference to recite his accomplishments he replied with characteristic humility: “We have restored public confidence in the White House and in the executive branch of government.” This was no small accomplishment given the times in which Ford led us as our president. I am grateful that Gerry Ford led the nation through such dark times. He will clearly not be remembered by historians as a great president. I am quite sure that he didn’t care that much about such things, being a man known for his down-home humility. But he was an effective president who did a good job leading the nation through a very difficult time in our history.

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