Gerald R. Ford 1913-2006
He was called the accidental president, a straight arrow from Michigan who served for only 29 months. Gerald R. Ford wasn't a politician consumed by ambition. In fact, he never campaigned for the presidency or vice presidency and once said that all he ever wanted to be was speaker of the House.
He accomplished a little more than that. When he died last week in Rancho Mirage, Calif., Ford was remembered with almost universal respect and admiration as the man who did much to calm the nation after Watergate and the Vietnam War and to restore honesty and stability to the White House. He set in motion some important changes in dealing with the Soviet Union and in reforming a troubled economydecisions that three decades later were applauded. Even his most controversial calla pre-emptive pardon of Richard Nixonwas viewed in hindsight as the right thing to do.
On Oct. 12, 1973, Richard Nixon picked him as vice president, a confirmable choice, when Spiro Agnew had to step down because of a corruption investigation. At his swearing-in, Ford tried to keep expectations low when he famously joked: "I am a Ford, not a Lincoln."
Ford was center stage for some of the most dramatic moments in American history. On Aug. 8, 1974, Ford met with Nixon at 11 a.m., and the president told him: "I have made the decision to resign. It's in the best interest of the country." He said quietly, "Jerry, I know you'll do a good job." Nixon later wrote that "Ford's eyes filled with tearsand mine did as wellas we lingered for a moment at the door."
Straight talk. The rushed inauguration was to be in the East Room, and Ford sent an Air Force jet to bring Chief Justice Warren Burger home from a conference in the Netherlands. On the morning of August 9, Nixon emotionally said farewell to his staff. Ford and his wife, Betty, stayed one floor below, waiting to walk the Nixons to the waiting helicopter. "The moment was terribly painful for all of us," Ford wrote in his autobiography, A Time to Heal. "We were trying to put up the bravest, strongest front. Standing by the helicopter's door, we wished the Nixons happiness and good health. The president grabbed my elbow and held it for a split second longer than necessary, as if to say, 'Good luck.' The moment had come. Then, he uttered the words. 'Goodbye, Mr. President,' he said, and put out his hand." After he was sworn in, Ford gave what he called "not an inaugural address, not a fireside chat, not a campaign speech, just a little straight talk among friends."
He noted that he did not gain the office by any "secret promises." He said: "I am indebted to no man and only to one woman." He also said: "I believe that truth is the glue that holds government together, not only our government but civilization itself. That bond, though strained, is unbroken at home and abroad." He is most famously remembered for saying, "My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works. Our great republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here, the people rule."
The honeymoon lasted a month.
On Sept. 8, 1974, Ford pardoned Nixon before the former president was charged with a crime, a decision Ford would have to defend for the rest of his life. His own press secretary resigned in protest. Ford went on television at 11 a.m. to announce his decision, saying, "Serious allegations and accusations hang like a sword over our former president's head, threatening his health as he tries to reshape his life." It was widely believed that the pardon led to Ford's narrow defeat in the 1976 presidential race against Jimmy Carter.
Ford's was the classic American story of a small-town boy who made good. He was born in Omaha on July 14, 1913, and christened Leslie L. King Jr., after his father. But his parents fought constantly and divorced when he was 2. His mother moved to Grand Rapids, Mich., where she met and married Gerald Rudolf Ford, a paint salesman for the Grand Rapids Wood Finishing Co. Ford eventually formally adopted the boy and renamed him Gerald R. Ford Jr. They had three rules for Ford and his three half-brothers: tell the truth, work hard, and come to dinner on time. In his autobiography, Ford wrote that his parents weren't very secure economically, "but emotionally both were very secure, and if I retain that characteristic today, I owe it to them."
So, apparently, does the rest of the country. Though his presidency was brief, Ford presided over difficult times: an oil shortage, inflation, and declining productivity. When Cambodian pirates seized a U.S. merchant ship, the Mayagüez, he ordered the Marines to retaliate. He reluctantly presided over the U.S. evacuation of Vietnam. Facing an aggressive Soviet Union, he managed to broker the Helsinki Accords, which guaranteed civil liberties in Soviet bloc countries and helped in their eventual liberation.
But as Ford's legacy was assessed last week, what seemed to matter most was simply the man himself. At a time when the country needed it, Ford projected an authentic decency coupled with a deep respect for the American system of government. He was the right man at the right time.
This story appears in the January 8, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.