Gerald Ford was always the accidental president, thrust into the Oval Office with scant preparation at a critical juncture in American history. The contemporary judgments of himself and his presidency were unsparingly harsh.
Just one month after taking office, following the only resignation of a chief executive in American history, he dispelled all the public good will and generous expectations accompanying his ascension by pardoning his disgraced predecessor, Richard Nixon.
Ford believed, correctly, that a country riven by Vietnam and Watergate was in no shape for a long, divisive trial. Ford, who died Tuesday at 93, lived long enough to see his critics concede his judgment was farsighted and right, but it cost him dearly.
Events treated him harshly in other ways. Perhaps the best athlete to ever occupy the White House, he was unfairly stereotyped as clumsy, but Ford was secure enough in himself to laugh at the caricatures. His active lifestyle contributed to a robust retirement.
A graduate of Michigan and Yale Law, he gained a reputation, again unfairly, for being dim. He may have been our last president who was uncomfortable with the scripted messages and carefully crafted images of a modern White House.
He was, as it is said, a man of the House, the longtime Republican leader, comfortable with the arcane ways and personal connections of Congress. The 1974 elections gave the Democrats huge majorities and the so-called “Watergate babies” had no time for Ford or traditional niceties. But Ford didn’t back down from confrontation, and vetoed 66 bills.
A pillar of the Republican Party, Ford suffered the indignity for a sitting president of a significant challenge from within his own party. When he should have been acting presidential, he was out scrapping for delegate votes against Ronald Reagan.
In 1976 he lost narrowly to Jimmy Carter. But the progress he made in hauling the Republican Party back from the debacle of Watergate laid the groundwork for 12 years of Republican control of the White House.
To paraphrase Carter’s gracious acknowledgement of Ford at his own inauguration, let us thank and remember this man who did so much to heal this nation. Such thoughts certainly were on the mind of U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who on Wednesday issued a statement about Ford, which said in part:
“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.”