Late last night it was announced that Gerald R. Ford, the 38th President of the United States, died at his home in California at the age of 93. The former president had battled many health problems in his later years, including pneumonia earlier this year.
I believe that history will judge Gerald Ford kindly. He was a congressman from Michigan, and well-liked by politicians on both sides of the political aisle. He was about to retire from the Congress when Richard Nixon nominated him to become vice-president in October 1973. When Nixon resigned in August 1974, Ford ascended to the highest office in the US without being elected either president or vice-president.
One of his first orders of business was to grant Nixon a pardon, and I remember the firestorm that created. Ford's thinking was to put Watergate behind us and move forward. It may have cost Ford the chance to be re-elected in 1976, but 20/20 hindsight proved it was the right thing to do.
I have to admit that my early memories of President Ford were not good ones. In mid-1975, New York City was in the middle of financial bankruptcy, mostly due to the mess left by Mayor John Lindsay in the 60s and 70s. Ford would not agree to a complete bailout of the city, and it angered most New Yorkers (including myself). It spawned the Daily News headline of October 30, 1975, featured above. But Ford was correct not to do it, as the city had to make major financial cuts before the Feds offered any assistance. They did, and New York took the first steps out of financial ruin. But his original snub of New York City would end up costing him votes in 1976.
Many people will also remember President Ford for all the stumbling he did in public, like getting off Air Force One, or shanking golf balls into crowds. Chevy Chase immortalized him in the first season on Saturday Night Live (even though he looked nothing like the President), with all the falling down he did on the show. It was very funny, and President Ford took it all in with good humor, even meeting the Saturday Night Live stars at the White House.
President Ford also was the longest-lived president, passing away at age 93. He was also a star center at Michigan, and they won two NCAA football titles in 1932 and 1933. He had offers to play in the NFL, but rejected them to go to Yale Law School. (And he made much more money as a lawyer than he would have in the NFL back then.)
I will also never forget the really classy compliment that Jimmy Carter gave to President Ford on the day of the Carter inauguration in 1977. He called Mr. Ford "a good and decent man" who helped heal America after "the long national nightmare" of Watergate. Just about everyone who knew Mr. Ford, no matter where they stood on the political spectrum, liked him as a politician, but more as a man.
President Ford had no hidden agendas, and was usually self-effacing about his legacy. He once said, "I'm a Ford, not a Lincoln." But he came along at a time when America needed a healer, and he'll always be remembered for that.
Godspeed Mr. President.