The year was 1980 and Gerald Ford was on a mission. The last two weeks of October, the 38th President of the United States was fulfilling a promise he made during the tumultuous Republican Convention to the GOP standard bearer Ronald Reagan; that he would campaign his heart out for Republican candidates running for the House and Senate. He would help “extend Reagan’s coattails” to bring as many GOP lawmakers to Washington as he could.
The Republican party had placed a jet at Ford’s disposal and he criss crossed the country, speaking at 3 or 4 events (sometimes more) everyday. It was a killer schedule, designed to maximize Ford’s appeal to traditional “Main Street” conservatives as well as moderate members of the party. The Thursday before the election, the former President landed at Washington National Airport (now Reagan National) at 7:00 AM, coming in from California where he had been campaigning until late in the evening. He was to speak to the faithful at a breakfast fund raiser for candidate Frank Wolf, making his third effort to unseat Democrat Joe Fisher in Virginia’s 10th district.
As a volunteer for the Wolf campaign, I was working the registration table that morning, handing out name tags and accepting late donations to the event. Taking a short break, I wandered out into the hallway behind the hotel’s ballroom for a smoke when I saw a lone man walking toward me. There was something familiar about him that I couldn’t quite place. He was striding purposefully but the rest of his body language denoted utter exhaustion. His shoulders drooped. His face, sagged so that the wrinkles came out in bas relief. His eyes were half closed, the circles under them pronounced.
With a shock I realized it was the former President. There were no Secret Service Agents. No clutch of sycophantic aides trailing in his wake. It was just me and the former President of the United States. I was thinking that he might not make it through the speech, so tired and careworn he looked. And then, magic.
He didn’t notice me until he was almost even with where I was standing against the wall. But when he saw me there with what must have been a dumbfounded look of disbelief on my face, he grinned and extended his hand. At that exact moment, his face lit up, the wrinkles disappeared, the eyes snapped open, and he drew himself up to his full height. It was like someone had thrown a switch. He clasped my hand firmly while all I could do was stutter out some meaningless platitude. I think I murmured “Thanks for coming” or some such nonsense that he probably didn’t hear anyway. And then he was gone, striding down the hallway toward the front of the room where he was to be introduced.
Making my way back to the ballroom, I stood along the wall opposite the podium and saw him in the doorway. His body and face had resumed their exhausted demeanor. But after the introduction, someone threw the switch again and he strode confidently to the lectern to deliver a barnburner of a political speech. Ford may not have been noted for his speaking ability. But I can attest to the fact that the wild applause and standing ovation he received was fully deserved. He skewered Carter and the Democrats for defeatism. He praised Reagan to the skies (despite his long standing anger at him for what Ford believed was the unnecessary challenge Reagan made for the nomination in 1976). And he talked about America as only a Midwestern politician can; with a hushed and reverent tone and a catch in the throat.
I always admired Gerald Ford for what he did during that campaign. The results speak for themselves. The GOP won back the Senate for the first time since 1958 winning 12 seats while the party picked up 35 seats in the House. To extend himself physically and emotionally the way he did was an act of selflessness that seemed to be the hallmark of his political career.
No great monuments will be built to honor Gerald Ford, dead yesterday at age 93. Nor will there will be any post mortem scandals that will tarnish his name or sully his image. His quiet retirement, in contrast to other ex-Presidents, assures him a measure of anonymity with most younger Americans today. To the extent that he lives on in popular culture, it is in the hilarious but unfair cheap shots taken by the Saturday Night Live crew who always portrayed the All-Star athlete as a bumbling klutz in their skits. It can fairly be said that Gerald Ford made Chevy Chase and to a large extent, put SNL on the map. And it is to his eternal credit that Ford was always fairly good natured about the spoofs which almost certainly helped defeat him in the close election of 1976:
Question: Really, what DID you think of Chevy Chase’s impersonations of you? Did you ever meet him?—Mrs. Arlene Gaudioso’s Fifth Grade, Rohrerstown Elementary School, Lancaster, PA.
President Ford: I enjoyed, up to a point, Chevy Chase’s impersonations. Yes, my wife and I have met and had an opportunity to get acquainted with Chevy Chase. He is a very skillful entertainer who had a sharp and penetrating sense of humor. I have learned over the years in the political arena that you cannot be thin-skinned. You have to take the good with the bad.
Simple, common, decency.
His political career was a testament to his sunny disposition and good natured, inoffensive personality. In 1959, he was named “The Congressman’s Congressman,” an accolade he relished. Serving as long as he did (1947-73), Ford rose to the post of Minority Leader if not quite by default then certainly as a result of his durability. He served during a time when the Republicans in Congress were not only on the outs but also usually on the wrong side of history as well. Opposing many of LBJ’s wildly popular domestic programs, House GOP members were disorganized and dispirited.
When Vice President Agnew was revealed to be a common criminal, Nixon reached out for the most non-controversial choice possible. Most observers believed that Nixon would have no choice but to name Nelson Rockefeller Vice President, seeing that he was the only nationally known Republican who possessed what Beltway Insiders considered the “heft” or “gravitas” to be President if worse came to worst. But in 1973, Rockefeller’s divorce was still an issue and rather than risk problems, the President reached out to Ford both because he was popular in Congress and because his reputation as an honest and decent man assured his confirmation.
I reject the notion that Ford was in over his head as President. I think history has shown that ordinary Joe’s like Ford have risen to great occasions in the past when the times demanded it. All you have to do is look at Ford’s decisions when he was tested by history to see he performed more than adequately. The Nixon pardon -controversial as it was and still is – nevertheless was perfectly in keeping with Ford’s character as well as his belief that it was of paramount importance that Watergate be put behind the country so that the business of the United States government could continue. People tend to forget that for more than a year the Presidency was an empty shell of an office with Nixon consumed by his defense. Ford rightly thought that the times were too dangerous not to have a presidency free from the ghosts of scandal that would have been resurrected during any trial of the former President.
It is unfair but historically accurate to say that the Ford Presidency (and Carter’s) was an interregnum between the Johnson-Nixon imperium and the Reagan revolution. The nation almost seemed to catch its breath following the devastating shocks of assassinations, race riots, war, protests, and minority agitation for full participation in American life. It was less than a decade between the race riots that began in the “long, hot, summer” of 1964 to the Nixon resignation in August of 1974 – 10 short years that saw dramatic changes in American life, American politics, and American mores. If Ford is to be known as a “caretaker” president, he did indeed, take good care of the country while he was in office. For that reason alone, he should be remembered with fondness by all.
I will always remember him; the only President I ever met. He was a good and decent man who served our country in war and peace the best he knew how. And considering some who succeeded him, I daresay his stellar character stands the test of time much better than some who believe themselves his better.