December 27, 2006
The man who served as a "bridge over troubled waters" for our country during the Watergate Era has passed away after several months of declining health. Gerald Ford was the only man ever to serve as president without being elected to that office or vice president, and he never sought the highest office. Born in Nebraska under the name "Leslie King," he was adopted by his mother's second husband and grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His career in college football, his law degree at Yale, and his service in the U.S. Navy during World War II marked him as a leader. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1948, and became House Minority Leader in 1965. Through the happenstance of Vice President Spiro Agnew's sudden resignation in October 1973, Ford was designated as vice president by Richard Nixon, and was quickly approved by Congress. It was the first time those provisions of the 25th Amendment were put into practice.
As the Watergate scandal unfolded in 1974, Ford was in a very difficult position, and he acted in a prudent, low-key way. Upon assuming office on August 9, he reassured an anxious nation that the government would go on as usual. He always put his country's interests ahead of his own, and he paid a high political price for it. I always thought his decision to pardon Richard Nixon was appropriate, and it's a shame Ford did not get more credit for that action. Though he was widely mocked by comedians and scorned by those who wanted to see Richard Nixon go to jail, most people agreed in retrospect that he was the right man at the right time.
And what difficult times those were! Young people today cannot imagine the hardships that Middle America endured during the recession and inflation that followed the surge in oil prices in the mid-1970s. That unprecedentedly bleak situation even gave rise to a new word: stagflation. It marked the turn of a historical era, the end of ever-increasing mass affluence and the beginning of the Age of Limits: 55 MPH, President Jimmy Carter, malaise, sweaters, and other pious gestures of austerity. It was in this context that polyester leisure suits and disco music became popular.
Only eight months after he took office, the North Vietnamese Army broke the armistice agreement and conquered South Vietnam, creating an image that will forever haunt America: helicopters plucking desperate evacuees from the U.S. embassy rooftop in Saigon. Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge at about the same time, and the rescue by U.S. forces of the merchant ship Mayaguez from Communist captors was a rare glimmer of triumph at a moment of historical gloom. In several parts of Africa, meanwhile, the Soviet Union and its Cuban proxies gained control of governments, and Marxism seemed unstoppable in the Third World. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger managed the U.S. global retreat as best he could, and the SALT negotiations with the Soviets continued. At the time, there didn't seem to be any alternative course of action.
Ford was a solid Main Street Republican from a bygone era in which traditional family values -- including an openly professed faith in God -- were taken for granted. A firm believer in fiscal responsibility, he vetoed several dozen spending bills passed by the Democratic Congress, only a few of which were overridden. It didn't make him any more popular, but it was the right thing to do for the country as a whole. Notwithstanding his firm dedication to policy principles, he always maintained friendly relations with the Democratic opposition. He also paid heed to the Eastern Establishment of his own party by nominating Nelson Rockefeller to be his vice president. "Rocky's" tenure proved to be rather difficult, however, so Ford chose Kansan Bob Dole to be his running mate in the 1976 campaign.
His wife Betty helped President Ford immensely, speaking out on key issues in a frank but graceful way that caused little if any offense. Thanks to her, millions of American women had breast cancer screening exams for the first time, probably saving hundreds of lives at least. She was a true pioneer in defining a new, more prominent public role for the first lady.
It was during Ford's brief presidency that several future Republican leaders emerged: Dick Cheney became his chief of staff, and Donald Rumsfeld became his Secretary of Defense. Then, during the 1976 primary campaign, Ronald Reagan challenged Ford for the Republican nomination, and came very close to winning a majority of delegates at the convention that summer. The two GOP rivals soon reconciled, however, and put their differences behind them. This made it possible for the Republican Party to unite behind the man from California in the 1980 campaign, and it was soon "morning in America."