Ford: A Breath of Fresh Air

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When President Richard Nixon was hunkering down in the White House during the gloomy days of the Watergate scandal, he once said in a disdainful tone: "Can you imagine Jerry Ford sitting in this chair?"

Yes, Mr. Nixon, the country could. And the more decent individual sat there for 29 months.

As a White House reporter for U.S.News & World Report during the Ford term, I can attest that he was a rare politician who was comfortable in his own skin. He never pretended to be an intellectual or even a heavy thinker. He was a pragmatist who was steady–even dull–as a public figure.

His brief tenure made little history other than that he turned out to be a fitting replacement for the Nixon team's many misdeeds.

Ford was a soft touch with aides and friends. He rarely displayed anger. The firing of incompetents was left to Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, his chiefs of staff. Ford couldn't do it. In one case, an old but faulty friend from Michigan was sent into the Oval Office, and aides reported hearing laughter. Ford forgot to fire him.

Ford reacted to criticism with class. He never scolded reporters for negative stories, and there were many. He never wavered from the belief that it was right to pardon Nixon even though many historians think it cost him in the narrow defeat to Jimmy Carter in 1976.

I can report now that he blamed Ronald Reagan as a large factor in that loss. Reagan challenged him for the GOP nomination, costing his campaign time and money. When Reagan finally campaigned for him, he seemed to forget Ford's name. When he left office, Ford talked about Reagan, but only off the record. Both principals are gone now, so those emotions about Reagan can be revealed.

Ford was one of the nation's most athletic presidents. Yet he had a poor sense of timing when photographers were around. His celebrated tumble on the slopes in Vail, Colo., his pratfall on the airplane steps in Salzburg, Austria, and his errant shots into fleeing galleries on the golf course were captured on film.

However, Ford was a great center and captain of the football team at Michigan. In later years, he played golf and tennis, swam, and skied. Lyndon Johnson once wisecracked that Ford played too much football "without his helmet." Of course, LBJ never played the game beyond a tiny high school and was uncoordinated to boot.

All of Ford's miscues were fodder for late-night comedians. But I never heard Ford complain about it. He even shared a laugh with me when I was a pool reporter and his fall in Vail was aired over and over on the networks.

"Wouldn't you know that the only day the cameras were on the slopes that I would take a tumble?" Ford said while making a circle of New Year's Eve parties in Vail.

Ford genuinely liked reporters. He knew them by name and recognized they had a job to do. That was true in the House as well as the Oval Office.

Ford was unusual, too, in his willingness to admit mistakes. His biggest was to take orders from the Nixon White House and, as GOP leader in the House, try to impeach Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. The effort never made any headway.

And he felt remorse for the way Vice President Nelson Rockefeller was dumped from the GOP ticket before that 1976 election. A more caustic Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas was the replacement, and he didn't help Ford by losing a vice presidential debate with Democrat Walter Mondale.

Ultimately, historians will treat Ford with respect, if not a high grade. After the horrific crimes of Nixon and his cohorts, Ford was a breath of fresh air for a nation that needed it.