Arizona Diamondbacks broadcaster Joe Garagiola Sr. had front-row seats for the 1976 presidential election. The Paradise Valley resident and his wife stayed that night in the Lincoln Bedroom of the White House and watched election coverage on television with President Gerald Ford and his family.
Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter had gained a slight lead, and the president decided to go to bed when it appeared no quick winner would emerge.
Garagiola, a former St. Louis Cardinals catcher and “Today Show” panelist, shared the story Wednesday, a day after Ford’s death at his California home. Garagiola, now 80, said watching the election unfold with Ford was like living inside a page of history.
“He said, ‘Let’s go to bed, and let’s have a good night’s sleep and see what happens in the morning,’ ” Garagiola recalled. “But I don’t think he slept very well. I know I didn’t.”
Ford conceded the election the next morning, and Garagiola was among the first to offer his condolences to the friend he called “Boss.”
“We should have won, Boss,” Garagiola told the president.
Ford’s reply made a lasting impression.
“He said, ‘I have to give him the White House in better shape than I got it,’ ” Garagiola said. “That was his main concern.”
The friends shared a passion for golf and met on a course at Hilton Head, S.C.
“He was on a putting green,” Garagiola recalled. “He was all by himself.”
Garagiola approached Ford, who was vice president at the time, to introduce himself. He was quickly surrounded by Secret Service agents, but Ford recognized Garagiola and called off the bodyguards.
“Then we putted together,” Garagiola recalled. “And that’s how it began.”
Garagiola had always stayed on the political sidelines, but he grew to admire Ford and decided to campaign for him when he ran for his own term. He traveled with the president on Air Force One and hosted speaking engagements that were designed to resemble talk shows.
Garagiola, whose father was an immigrant, found himself attending meetings and functions with Ford and political heavy hitters such as Dick Cheney, Bob Dole and Henry Kissinger. They were all on a first-name basis with each other.
“I was like a kid in the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory,” Garagiola said.
Ford was a physical guy who frequently threw his arms over friends’ and acquaintances’ shoulders. He had no pretense and laughed easily, Garagiola said.
He recalled that he and his wife Audrie were thrilled to accept Ford’s invitation to spend election night on Nov. 2, 1976, at the White House. Ford had invited Garagiola’s family as well, so the Garagiolas made plans for their three adult children and two daughters-in-law to watch the election returns at the White House for a few hours, then stay at a hotel for the night.
Garagiola later mentioned to Ford that the accommodations were all set.
“This is what made him so great and so human. He said, ‘You know what? I think I have enough rooms in this house. And if I don’t, I think I can find some cots,’ ” Garagiola said.
The entire family spent the night at the White House – nobody slept in cots.
The next morning, as it became apparent Ford lost, Garagiola was crushed, he said. Ford took the defeat far better than he did. In an unexpected twist, the president tried to cheer up Garagiola.
Wednesday, as Garagiola flipped through a photo album that chronicled those moments, he stopped at a shot of the two men standing together in the Oval Office. Ford had his arm draped over Garagiola’s shoulders. “To me, of all the pictures, this is the one I treasure most. Look at him. He’s smiling. I’m crying,” he said.
Off the campaign trail, the friends attended charity golf events and baseball games together. “He knew baseball,” Garagiola said.
Ford was as happy to meet Garagiola’s baseball friends as they were to meet him.
Garagiola said he never talked to Ford about the Watergate scandal or the pardon Ford gave to former President Richard Nixon. Garagiola said the topics never came up, and he preferred to focus on the future rather than dwell on the past.
“He was so human,” Garagiola said. “He was a people person. After you’re around him for five minutes, he’s like an old friend.”
Members of Arizona’s congressional delegation said Ford distinguished himself for guiding the country during an era of distress.
Ford led with grace and courage, said Sen. John McCain, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for the presidency in 2000 and is expected to run again in 2008.
“In one of the most generous and selfless acts by a political leader in modern times, he sacrificed his own ambitions to help move our country beyond the divisions and disillusionment caused by Watergate and a lost war, and restore our trust in our governing institutions,” Mc-Cain said. “In war and peace, he served America faithfully and well, and will be remembered as the good man to whom this nation turned in a difficult hour, and who did not let us down.”
Republican Sen. Jon Kyl said, “Having known him for many years, I can say that he was an extraordinarily decent and honorable man who enjoyed his public service. The nation is forever grateful for the reassuring leadership that President Ford provided at a crucial time.”
Republican Rep. John Shadegg said Ford, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives before being named vice president, brought honor to the presidency. “Ford was the right man for the right time to bring stability to the nation,” he said.
Arizona Republican Party chairman Matt Salmon, a former member of Congress, said, “During his time in the White House he demonstrated great courage and strength as he sought to unite our nation as we emerged from a tumultuous period in our history.”
Republican Rep. Jeff Flake said he met Ford twice in recent years when Ford returned to Washington to visit. He said Ford was a decent man and that government would benefit from more people like him.