I liked him. I voted for him, even though I'd voted for George McGovern four years earlier. He had the distinction of being President without ever having been elected President or Vice President, which was one of the things I liked about him. Lacking a national vote had to mean he didn't deserve to be President, especially since the constitutional process by which he became President involved appointment by a man -- Richard Nixon -- who was disgraced into resignation (soon after the Vice President slot opened because Spiro Agnew was disgraced into resignation). What I liked was the fact that he hadn't presumed to seek the presidency. I have always instinctively resented anyone who thinks he should be President, and that has the overwhelming tendency to include everyone who ever runs.
I was all set to vote for Jimmy Carter in 1976. I'd voted for Carter in the New York primary when he was still a face in a crowd of candidates. But the day before the election, I saw a TV interview in which a reporter asked Carter what he would do if he didn't win. He said he'd go back to his peanut farm. This answer -- does it seem innocuous to you? -- gnawed at me overnight, and, as I was walking to my polling place, I sat down to talk about it with someone who was also planning to vote for Carter, and the two of us changed our vote to Ford. It wasn't so much Ford. It was Carter. I'd decided he was a small man. He didn't fit the Presidency. Did Ford? But Ford was already President. In truth, no one deserves to be President. But Ford did not select himself as President. He had only selected himself to represent one legislative district. I found that appealing.
When Ford became President, I was living in New York City. I wanted to be an artist -- I was presumptuous enough to select myself for that -- but I was working at a day job in a market research firm, doing a job that consisted of reading and classifying the articles in magazines. I remember the cover of Newsweek -- or was it Time? -- when Ford came in. It was a cartoon of Ford in the Oval Office with housecleaning implements -- maybe a feather duster and a vacuum cleaner, perhaps with extra hands and even more implements. There was an article inside about how the cartoonists -- so used to Nixon -- were going to draw Ford. Nixon offered the cartoonist such rich material. Now what were they going to do? Ford looked so normal. And he didn't mean anything to anyone yet. Nixon not only looked weird, he had come to mean so much over the past two decades, and the meaning seemed to burst out of those weird features. We had been talking about his weird features in connection with his character traits for so long. Shifty eyes! Five-o-clock shadow! Ski-jump nose! One cartoonist cited a general principle of cartooning: You have to decide on one feature to exaggerate. Trying to decide on the spot, he said -- maybe this is verbatim: It looks like his chin is giving birth to a golf ball.
I remember watching the speech in which President Ford pardoned Nixon, and I remember thinking -- before I heard all the indignant outcry from my friends -- that he was doing the right thing. I believed his asserted reason: Let it be over. Let's not drag ourselves through the further torment of a criminal prosecution of the man. Let's not dwell on the past. Let's look to the future. He was right about that, wasn't he? Did he throw away his chance in 1976 because he pardoned the man who made him President? I knew a lot of people who considered that unforgivable. They needed to get even farther from Nixon than Ford could take them.
Stuart Spencer, his campaign manager, said that polling data about the pardon had made it clear that “it cost him the election.” He said 7 percent of Republicans had either voted for Mr. Carter or stayed home because of the pardon, and it hurt with Democrats and independents, too.The NYT obituary (linked above) has this quote:
"It was an hour in our history that troubled our minds and tore at our hearts," he said. "Anger and hatred had risen to dangerous levels, dividing friends and families. The polarization of our political order had aroused unworthy passions of reprisal and revenge. Our governmental system was closer to stalemate than at any time since Abraham Lincoln took that same oath of office."We might do well to think about that today.
It's a long obituary. There was that Daily News headline: "Ford to City: Drop Dead." I remember seeing that on the stands.
As president, he was quick to assert to Congress, in a play on words that nobody misunderstood, “I am a Ford, not a Lincoln.” If it was true, as was often said, that the Oval Office shaped the occupant, Mr. Ford resisted the temptation of the imperial. On an early trip as president to South Korea, he called American enlisted men “sir.” His prose was so pedestrian and his tongue so unreliable — he referred on one public occasion to the noble American “work ethnic” and on another to the disease of “sickle-cell Armenia” — that he became a favorite target of comedians.(And then Jimmy Carter replaced him and went around saying "nucular" and got terrorized by a swimming rabbit. Everything was terrible but funny in the 70s.)
John Hersey, after spending a week in close observation of [President Ford] wrote in The New York Times Magazine of April 20, 1975: “What is it in him?”"Whip Inflation Now"... how we mocked him for that... for everything. At least the NYT obituary spares him the mention of the name of Chevy Chase, who in the early days of "Saturday Night Live" ridiculed him by doing little that had anything to do with him. Chase just acted like an idiot and took endless pratfalls.
“Is it an inability to extend compassion far beyond the faces directly in view?” Mr. Hersey wrote. “Is it a failure of imagination? Is it something obdurate he was born with, alongside the energy and serenity?”
The answer seemed to be a belief — one Mr. Ford was schooled in if not born with — in the essential dignity of human struggle. “Everything didn’t turn to gold just because I did it,” he remarked. “I had this foundation, and I had been brought up with the training that — and this is an oversimplification, but I think it’s indicative — the harder you work, the luckier you are. And whether it was in such things as the Boy Scouts or athletics or academics, I worked like hell.”
There were those who contended, as did Richard Reeves, the author of a critical biography, that Mr. Ford had a “tragic gap” in his understanding of such crucial matters as the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. More common was the assessment of Mr. Ford as “innately decent.”
Mr. Ford disputed the notion that it required forceful, even harsh, character to meet the tests of the White House. He was asked once if a nice guy should be president, and answered: “Those who allege that you’ve got to be a mean, sinister, devious person to be president are just dead wrong. I don’t see how a president in his conscience could be that.”
He, too, could be forceful. He resented the accident of fate that had made him president as the nation watched South Vietnam and Cambodia — where so much of America’s human and economic treasure had been spent by three predecessors — fall to the Communists in 1975. Rebuffed by Congress when he sought a last-minute $972 million in aid to Saigon, Mr. Ford made it possible for 130,000 or more refugees to come to the United States.
When the Cambodian Communists seized the American merchant ship Mayaqüez in May 1975, Mr. Ford reacted with uncharacteristic emotion, sending United States military forces to recapture the ship.
The order was motivated in part by concern for national image. “We had just pulled out of Vietnam, out of Cambodia,” Mr. Ford said later, “and here the United States was being challenged by a group of leaders who were bandits and outlaws, in my opinion, and I think their subsequent record has pretty well proved it. And it was an emotional decision to tell the Defense Department we had to go in there and do something.”
Mr. Ford’s economic policies were traditional for Republican conservatives. He proclaimed, amid considerable White House ballyhoo, a campaign to “Whip Inflation Now,” complete with “WIN” buttons. Scarcely had it begun than mounting joblessness and the worst recession since the 1930s caused Mr. Ford to abandon the anti-inflation program and propose tax cuts to stimulate the economy instead of tax increases to dampen it.
Congress, meanwhile, reflected its dominance by the Democratic Party in a steadily increasing number of spending programs and expansion of the federal deficit.
We even laughed at the two assassination attempts:
On one of those trips, to Sacramento on Sept. 5, he narrowly escaped an assassination attempt by Lynette (Squeaky) Fromme, who had been a follower of the convicted killer Charles Manson. Mr. Ford was moving through a crowd in Capitol Park, shaking hands and waving, when a Secret Service agent saw Ms. Fromme’s arm and the pistol. She was subdued, and it turned out that while the gun was loaded there was no bullet in the chamber. She was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to life in prison.These were only absurd because they failed. Gerald Ford went on to live to be very old, mostly out of our view. And now he's gone. R.I.P.
The other attempt, by Sara Jane Moore, took place in San Francisco. A former Marine, Oliver W. Sipple, knocked a pistol out of Ms. Moore’s hand as she fired.