WASHINGTON -- Gerald R. Ford was a professional politician who tempered the practice of his trade's deceits with innate decency. That was demonstrated to me on April 1, 1971, in an incident unique in my half-century as a Washington reporter.
I had been tipped that House Republican Leader Ford was performing a confidential mission at President Richard Nixon's request: to ask Republican members of Congress how they would react to presidential clemency or even a pardon for Lt. William Calley, sentenced a day earlier for the murder of 22 Vietnamese civilians. I called Ford to ask whether Nixon had met with him to pursue that endeavor. Ford replied that was incorrect. I had covered Ford for 14 years, and I accepted his word.
Thirty minutes later, Ford called me back. "Bob, you asked me the wrong question," he said. He had not met with Nixon, but the president had phoned him from San Clemente to make the improper request. No news source ever bailed me out the way Ford did that day. But why did he not give me a straight answer in the first place?
The incident foretold ambivalence in Ford's two-year presidency. Declaring after succeeding Nixon that "our long national nightmare is over," Ford soothed his troubled fellow citizens. The accidental president seemed on the brink of great achievements. In fact, his tenure was plagued by blunders and occasional pettiness.
Jerry Ford never would have been considered for the White House had it not been for successive forced resignations of a vice president and a president. He was not in the front line of Republican notables, and Nixon's choice of him surprised even Ford's closest House associates.
Calculating that Watergate never would bring him down, Nixon did not think he was picking a successor when he replaced the disgraced Spiro T. Agnew as vice president. Consequently, he passed over towering figures from opposite wings of the Republican Party, Nelson Rockefeller and Ronald Reagan. Nixon would have preferred John Connally, but his old congressional sidekick, Melvin Laird, convinced him that the Democratic turncoat could not be confirmed by Congress. Nixon picked Ford as somebody he could trust.
Ford, who never aspired to be president, was a man of the House concerned about arrogation of power by the executive branch at the expense of the legislative. He was the only president in my experience who entered the Oval Office wanting to shrink rather than expand powers of the office. In a conversation with him as vice president, Ford recommended to me "The Twilight of the Presidency" by George Reedy -- an indictment of monarchial pretensions. Ford told me all recent presidents, including his hero Dwight D. Eisenhower, were guilty.
So, Ford tried to depict himself as an ordinary guy in the White House who toasted his own muffins for breakfast. His public support soared, but a weak president cannot maintain his popularity for long. He often seemed feckless (as in his WIN campaign to Whip Inflation Now) or powerless (as when Congress ended the Vietnam War with a Communist victory by cutting off funds to South Vietnam).
Ford's years in power were turbulent and discordant. After his pardon of Nixon saved the nation the tribulation of a former president in the criminal dock, the country repudiated Ford in midterm elections where Democrats stretched their lead in the House to 145 seats. That guaranteed the Republican challenge by Ronald Reagan that nearly succeeded and gave Jimmy Carter a huge lead in the general election campaign.
Ford as president was burdened by a White House divided into feuding factions and by bad advice. He seemed more like Nixon than Ford in snubbing Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn because Henry Kissinger contended that the great Russian novelist threatened U.S.-Soviet detente. Ford never connected with the anti-communist, tax-cutting and religious conservative ideology that soon would make Republicans the majority party for a generation.
A president whose reputation exceeded his record, Ford was more comfortable and popular during 30 years of retirement than in his 895 days in the Oval Office. He is fondly remembered not for his failed presidency, but for not becoming another Nixon as Nixon's appointed successor.
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