Wednesday, December 27, 2006

His Long National Life is Over

The man who was President on the day I was born has passed on.

Gerald Ford was a Navy veteran and an exemplary ex-President. I was proud to be his constituent for five days, and hereby forgive his associations with the University of Michigan.


Anonymous said...

Nixon was president when I was born, but Ford is the first president that I remember. I'm sadder than I thought I would be. He was my favorite (in my childish memory.)

Mike Marchand said...

I think you mean you "pardon his associations with the University of Michigan."

When I was in fifth or sixth grade, our class took a field trip to the Gerald Ford Museum in Grand Rapids. Even at that age, I was aware of Ford's reputation as a bumbling goofball, a lucky dunce who blundered his way into the White House. I left the museum with a new respect for Gerald Ford that continues to this day.

It seems something — fate, perhaps even providence — conspires to put the right men in the right place at the right time, and Gerald Ford was such a beneficiary of that unseen hand. Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned before Nixon was held accountable for Watergate (in fact, Agnew always believed Nixon dropped a dime on him to get his own scandal off the front page), and Nixon chose as his VP the House Minority Leader, the person who did most to get his agenda pushed through an opposition Congress: Gerald Ford. Less than a year later, Nixon reisgned rather than face impeachment, and Amendment XXV was again invoked when Ford ascended to the Presidency.

Perhaps no other president has inherited such a tumultuous situation in American history (when the nation was not at war) except for Abraham Lincoln, and the new, unexpected president famously quipped that he was "a Ford, not a Lincoln." But despite setting the bar low for himself, he performed admirably if not always popularly.

It seemed that every action Ford took was wrong. When Ford pardoned Nixon to spare the country the ignominy of its twice-elected president being tried, convicted, and possibly imprisoned, he was criticized as being soft on the man who hired him, even perhaps as a quid pro quo corrupt bargain. His WIN (Whip Inflation Now) initiatives were mocked as being a PR ploy; and when he decided not to use federal money in the midst of a recession to bail New York City out of potential bankruptcy, the New York Daily News blared the headline, "FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD."

And of course, there were the pratfalls. Chevy Chase practically made his career out of being Gerald Ford on "Saturday Night Live" — he didn't even need makeup — and falling down at regular intervals. Even decades after Ford had left the White House, the jokes still continued: in 1996 "SNL" again used Ford as the vehicle for a sketch, about Tom Brokaw pretaping news stories so he could take a vacation but still be on the air. Earlier that year, Ford was parodied at the end of a "Simpsons" episode tripping over his driveway with Homer, where they both shout "D'oh!" simultaneously.

In short, when Richard Nixon finally decided that we wouldn't have him to kick around anymore (a dozen years after he actually said that), we kicked around Gerald Ford instead. It's a shame, because he always seemed to never get the respect due him until it was too late. Despite his association with and pardoning of Nixon and the economic crisis that was unresolved during his term, he very nearly beat Jimmy Carter in the 1976 election after closing a gap that had been as wide as 34 points.

I think the thing that most encapsulated Ford's presidency was a poster-sized expansion of an editorial cartoon I saw in the Ford Museum. In one panel, a hurried Richard Nixon is rushing to hand Ford a scale model of the White House, which is on fire. In the next, Ford is handing Jimmy Carter the model, only the fire's extinguised, and the White House is again clean. If nothing else, accomplishing that was a tremendous achievement.

Gerald Ford served the fifth-shortest presidential administration in American history, but he was the longest-lived American president. It's appropriate.

Anonymous said...

Ah, a man after a history minor's own heart. Thanks for the reflection, Mike.

I have only two things to add to that. First, the press makes what it wants of a man, and then that one dimension becomes a lazy punchline (ask Dan Quayle, who is actually a pretty intelligent guy.) I fail to see how a man who was good enough to be considered by two NFL teams was a total klutz. Ford was one of the most athletic presidents we have ever enjoyed.

Second, I am a HUGE believer in the "God provides the right man at the right time" theory. Ford nearly died during his Navy career when a boat he was on almost sank. He was saved from going overboard by the heels of his service shoes catching on a one-inch ledge at the edge of the ship. God said: "Nope, we need this one for later!"

anne, a reader said...

I voted for Gerald Ford in the first presidential election I was old enough to vote in, and I was living in what had been his House district at the time. He was a good, decent man who was sincere in his faith and his love for his family, his country and what became his home state of Michigan. The country is better for him having become president and poorer that he is gone. I believe that his legacy will be re-examined much as Harry Truman's has been and he will be given his proper place in history.

(Interestingly enough, Truman also died on Dec.26 in 1972.)

anne, a reader said...

Just wanted to add that I think that, if you weren't around and adult enough to be following politics at the time of Agnew's and then Nixon's resignation, you really can't appreciate just what Ford did for the country. There was truly a fear that the government would break down, that the country would NEVER recover from what was happening. The pardon may have cost Ford the election, but it may also have saved the country. It sounds melodramatic, but that's how deep feelings were running in 1974.

Craig said...

The contrast between Ford's short term and his long life is not surprising. Look what the presidency does to a man. Of course, Reagan was previously the oldest president, and he served two terms. But he was already old when he became president.

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