I think another reason Ford didn't divide Americans the way every president since LBJ has is that he represented a consensus figurehead, unthreatening to both sides. The left saw him as the sort of Republican they could roll. Former Illinois Rep. Robert Michel, who would himself hold the position of minority leader, told GOP freshmen in the 1970s: "Every day I wake up and look in the mirror and say to myself, 'Today, you're going to be a loser.'" He continued: "And after you're here a while, you'll start to feel the same way. But don't let it bother you. You'll get used to it." Ford was in this mold, and what Democrat couldn't love a Republican like that? Ford seemed to epitomize liberal fantasies of an era of Republican pushovers as he fought the Democratic effort to cut off American support for the South Vietnamese.
Conservatives, meanwhile, saw Ford as a bookend. They understood that their ascendancy in the GOP was assured after the Nixon immolation. Indeed, Ford presided over two transitions. The first was the end of the Vietnam and Watergate eras. The second and more significant transition was away from the New Deal consensus and "me-too" Republicanism. The left didn't understand that after Ford came the Reagans and Gingriches, not the Rockefellers and Lindsays.
But Ford's legacy is more important than the maneuvering of ideological partisans. Politics is about moments. The American people in 1974 yearned for a respite from the ideological clamor of the previous decade. Ford, by the sheer force of his own character, turned the Oval Office into the calm eye of a storm the American people had grown all too weary of.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan said Ford was the most decent man in politics he'd ever met. Ford's "luminous affability," in the words of the National Review, "enabled him to unite the country instantly, magically, in a way that would have been impossible for the (men) who had been lining up for the job. ... This accidental President was exactly - for the moment - the right man."
Considering the ideological clamor of the current moment, it's tempting to ask who the right man, or woman, today might be.
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