An unlikely president who restored trust in the office
“Our long national nightmare is over,” Gerald Ford declared when he took office as president a little over 32 years ago.
Those words were to prove the most memorable of his brief administration and also the most apposite.
The feverish dream of Watergate, with its byzantine intrigues, Borgia-like treachery, and months of hearings and trials, was suddenly gone: The country awoke to a new president who lived in Northern Virginia and toasted his own English muffins before commuting to work in Washington.
The image of suburban simplicity was quickly seized on by the media and conveyed to a national audience eager for the return of that condition for which President Warren G. Harding had invented a new word many years before: “normalcy.” As always, there was quite a bit of bunk to the image. Mr. Ford had been deeply involved in practical politics for more than a quarter-century. He soon acclimated himself to the White House, and before long decided he liked it enough to set his sights on a full term. He didn’t achieve that goal, but in the period between Richard M. Nixon’s resignation and Jimmy Carter’s inauguration — just under 2 1/2 years — Gerald R. Ford did the main thing that needed doing, even though there were some in the Nixon White House who had thought him unqualified for the presidency: He reassured the people about the nature and quality of their government.
It was said of Franklin D. Roosevelt that he had a second-class intellect but a first-rate temperament. Something of the same might be said of Jerry Ford, although he was no Roosevelt and, as far as intellect goes, he took some unfair hits for a fellow who was in the top quarter of his class at Yale Law. On assuming office, he presented himself as what he was: open, friendly, honest (at least in comparison to what had gone before) and above all “decent,” as people never tired of saying. That last adjective can, of course, be both high praise when speaking of someone’s personal integrity and a somewhat fainter commendation when applied to the sort of job he’s done. Mr. Ford felt both sides of it.
Thirty years ago, as Mr. Ford was departing office, we wrote on this page of him: “In his first days and months, it was as if he had liberated Washington — from its personal fears and hostilities and suspicions, from the dark and squalid assumptions that people had come reflexively to make about one another and about the way things ‘really’ worked. God knows who was (and is) still listening on whose line or who is plotting what gruesome revenge against what political foe. Our point is merely that Gerald Ford brought to the White House an open, unsinister and — yes — decent style of doing things that altered the life of the city and ultimately of the country.”
He was the last of the traditional Midwestern Republicans to occupy the White House: internationalist, fiscally conservative, supportive of civil rights legislation — a throwback to the pre-Goldwater era. His odd route to the presidency — he was chosen to replace the disgraced and departed Spiro T. Agnew as vice president, then elevated by Mr. Nixon’s resignation — was undoubtedly the only one that would have gotten him there, given the direction his party was going. Indeed, when he ran for election in 1976, he had to jettison the vice president he’d chosen, Nelson A. Rockefeller (too liberal), and fight off a formidable challenge from the avatar of the Republican future, Ronald Reagan.
That battle didn’t help him in the general election. But Mr. Ford was also the victim of a series of misfortunes that he’d done nothing to precipitate: economic troubles that included both inflation and stagnation; the fall of South Vietnam and Cambodia; the new and explosive problem of volatile energy prices; even the rising popularity of a Saturday night comedy show that portrayed Mr. Ford, onetime college football hero and probably the most athletic president in the country’s history, as a stumbling klutz.
But what hurt him most was an act of his own, taken one month into his presidency: the pardoning of Richard Nixon for whatever the former president had done or might have done. Today, with the passions of the period greatly diminished, it’s hard to recall how much discord that decision created, even among those who believed Mr. Ford to be a trustworthy successor to Mr. Nixon. It’s also hard, from today’s vantage point, to see how an indictment and trial would have done the country much good. The pardon may have come too soon and been too broad, but it was basically the right thing to do. It hurt Mr. Ford politically, however, probably costing him the 1976 election.
In the spring of 2001, Mr. Ford received a John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage award for that decision. The late Mary McGrory recalled in her column in The Post the uproar that had followed the pardon, and noted: “I myself contributed to the din with a series of screeds about unequal justice. But almost 27 years later, it looks a little different. What seemed then to be cynicism now looks more like courage. A most dubious decision has acquired the patina of the only one possible.”
In January 1977, Jimmy Carter began his inaugural address: “I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land.” That still stands, both as a tribute to Gerald Ford and as a reminder to his successors of the importance of what used to be praised as the gentlemanly virtues.