By Bob Shrum
Gerald Ford was, above all, a decent man. Ironically, his very decency undid him barely a month into his term as the 38th President. After restoring a measure of public faith when he succeeded a disgraced Richard Nixon, forced from office for complicity in a “third-rate burglary” and more profound abuses of power, the unelected Ford let Alexander Haig talk him into suddenly and unexpectedly pardoning his predecessor. The new president had won the nation’s confidence in ways large and small—his inaugural words proclaiming that “our long national nightmare is over” to photos of him preparing his own toast for breakfast. Now he angered and alienated Americans by yielding prematurely to the argument that a criminal investigation of an allegedly suicidal Nixon would be inhumane and “bad for the country.” Ford might have gotten away with a pardon—his decision might have been seen as the decent but misguided act it probably was—if he had waited. He could have given Nixon his get-out-of-jail-free card after an indictment and before a trial. But he would have had to prepare public opinion and let the idea emerge, instead of announcing it like a thunder-clap before Nixon had faced the special prosecutor. The Ford presidency was instantly under water because people rejected the notion that presidents were that far above the law.
But the indelible contribution remains: Ford will hold an honorable place in history for his directness after years of deviousness in the Oval Office, for draining the partisan bitterness of the Nixon era, for his plain sense of rectitude and patriotism. You could disagree with him as a leader, but never dislike him as human being.
He was also more than what he is commonly dismissed as—a brief parenthesis between political eras. He was not a great president, but he was a consequential one—in ways he never foresaw or intended.
During the 1976 presidential campaign, he was recovering from the fallout of the pardon and the nation’s economic woes, rapidly closing the gap with Jimmy Carter, when he rhetorically freed a Soviet-dominated Poland in the second presidential debate. If he hadn’t tripped on his own tongue—as he had tripped coming down the steps of Air Force One—he probably would have been reelected. Then the energy crisis and the stagflation of the late 1970s would have been blamed on Republicans. It is likely that in 1980 a country desperate for change would have moved left, not right—to someone like Edward Kennedy, not Ronald Reagan.
In the Ford presidency, the bell also tolled for moderate Republicans. He dared to negotiate arms control, appoint Nelson Rockefeller as his vice president, support the equal rights amendment, and a woman’s right to choose. He barely overcame Reagan’s challenge for the ’76 Republican nomination—and in the process the conservative’s champion just missed a majority of the delegates, captured the party’s heart, and seeded the ground for his victory next time. The struggle and the defeat that led on to Reagan’s later success signaled the ascendancy of a more ideological politics, which has now left Republicans with just one member of the House of Representatives in all of New England, once a moderate GOP stronghold.
So Gerald Ford was at the crossroads of history in more than one sense. But when all is said and done, he should be seen as an authentic American, tolerant and inclusive, when the nation needed just that, a good man in a bad time, who, on a steamy August afternoon, as Richard Nixon’s helicopter took its final flight from the White House lawn, repaired America’s faith in democracy. He was, as well, an unintentionally transformative president. Let us see him whole, not as a benign stick figure. Let us now praise a decent man.