George Will

In 1976 Ford might have won a full term if he had been less statesmanlike: His pardon of Richard Nixon unquestionably hurt him politically, but unquestionably helped with national healing. Ford also might have won if he had stepped out of character and been more adventurous -- if in selecting a running mate he had chosen, as he considered doing, Ambassador Anne Armstrong, a Texan, to be the first woman on a national ticket. Instead he chose a Midwesterner, Kansan Bob Dole, thereby giving a boost to a distinguished career that would produce the party's presidential nominee 20 years later. Ford also might have won if some unsettling economic numbers had not come out a few days before Election Day. Or if in one of the debates he had not become lost in the labyrinth of peculiar thinking and rhetoric that went with detente. He insisted that Poland was not dominated by the Soviet Union.

He almost won anyway. A change of 12,791 votes in Ohio and Mississippi would have sufficed. The 1976 presidential election was the only one the Republicans lost between 1964 and 1992. Ford was punished for Nixon's sins: Jimmy Carter won by running as the non-Nixon.

Henry Kissinger, who continued as secretary of state through the Ford years, wrote in 1999 a tribute to Ford, the ``uncomplicated man'' who came to the presidency in perhaps the most complicated context since the Civil War -- in the aftermath of a disastrous war and as a result of a resignation. Kissinger understood that Ford, with his small-town, Midwestern aversion to histrionics, had perfect pitch for the needs of ``a nation surfeited with upheavals.''

Kissinger noted a ``curious paradox of contemporary democracy,'' that as political leaders become more abject in trying to conform to the public's preferences, respect for the political class plummets. Ford was different: He ``was immune to the modern politician's chameleon-like search for ever-new identities, and to the emotional roller coaster this search creates.''

Surely subsequent presidential history has deepened the nation's appreciation of what it had for 29 months.

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
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