Paul Greenberg

Good ol' Gerald Ford, people would say. The way Southerners say, "Bless your heart" - as an expression of both affection and dismissal.

It seemed the man could scarcely get out of Air Force One without bumping his head or stumbling down the stairs; he was a kind of walking sight gag. Once, campaigning in San Antone, a Midwestern stranger in a strange land, he bit into a tamale corn shuck and all.

There was a happy absence of malice in the man - an easy-going, go-along-to-get-along quality about him that put him in the Washington picture at almost every crucial moment during the 1970s. But he was always in the background even when he was in the foreground. When he appeared with Dr. Kissinger, you always looked at Kissinger.

Naturally he was the man Richard Nixon would turn to when he needed a vice president to succeed the Spurious Spiro as vice president. Now there was a guy who stood out, all right, but in all the wrong ways. Spiro Agnew was the un-Jerry Ford; he set off an automatic shudder among some of us even before he was exposed as a small-time grafter - unlike good ol' Jerry Ford. By then We the People were hungry for an honest man in that office - the way you crave an anti-acid after too much bad chili. Back then relief was spelled F-O-R-D.

Do you remember Woody Allen's Zelig? The Hon. and honorable Gerald R. Ford was the Zelig of national politics, the unidentified man in the background who - it was always a surprise when one realized it - had been present at an impressive number of creations in the country's mid- to late 20th century history. Even if he went unnoticed.

In a Shakespearean drama, Jerry Ford would have been in a barely supporting role, a character who might feed a line or two at most to the Prince Henrys and Iagos, not rising even to a Falstaff or Macduff. In that sense he was the perfect member of the repertory company that is American politics, his own man but not showy about it, someone to keep in reserve. Like a vice president.

Who after all would object to good ol' Jerry Ford? Certainly not his colleagues in Congress, who were as comfortable with him as they were with the columns and cornices they walked by every day. He was the center on the football team you wouldn't notice once the plays began. He actually was the center on Michigan's national championship teams of 1932 and '33. Perfect.

Jerry Ford would go on to become a congressman from Michigan in the bland Willkie-Vandenberg, bipartisan Republican style back in the '40s, when the party was comfortable with Dewey and defeat. He was the mild-mannered good fella who was best after a crisis, when the country needed somebody who could calm it down.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.