Gerald R. Ford: A Healer of Wounds

By Edward Walsh
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 27, 2006; 3:12 PM

Gerald R. Ford was the most accidental of American presidents, but when he unexpectedly appeared at the crossroads of history, he seemed to have been placed there by a deliberate act of providence.

In one important respect, Ford was different from most of his predecessors and all of his successors: He did not seek the presidency. He was a product of a small Midwest city and the House of Representatives. His political ambition--seemingly hopeless in a time of Democratic domination of Congress--was to become the first Republican speaker in a generation.

Ford became the 38th president because of the shortcomings of others and because he had earned the trust of both Democrats and Republicans in Congress. When the corrupt Spiro T. Agnew was forced to resign as vice president, it was Ford's congressional colleagues who virtually forced President Richard M. Nixon to accept him as Agnew's successor.

And when the embattled Nixon was finally engulfed by the Watergate scandal and forced to resign himself, it was the unimposing "gentleman from Michigan" who inherited the leadership of a deeply troubled nation.

"More than any other president of this century, Ford was chosen for his integrity and trustworthiness: his peers in Congress put him in the White House because he told the truth and kept his word," wrote James Cannon, a White House aide to Ford, in an essay recalling that tumultuous time.

In many ways, Ford seemed ill equipped to be president. He had never held an executive position in government, he had limited experience in foreign policy and national security affairs, and he was an uninspiring, sometimes awkward public speaker.

But offsetting those weaknesses was Ford's one great strength: He was not Nixon.

He was, in fact, the anti-Nixon, so different from his darkly brooding predecessor that the country seemed to heave a collective sigh of relief when he took office. It was news that, on the first full day of his presidency, the new chief executive toasted English muffins in the kitchen of his Alexandria home.

Nothing better exemplified the change in tone that Ford brought to the White House and the country as a whole than the relationship that developed between him and the White House press corps. The Nixon White House had been at war with the press for months, even years, and the constant sniping had already begun to sour national politics.

Ford was different. Behind his back, the reporters made fun of him for his sometimes fractured language and the occasional slip while descending the stairs from Air Force One. But especially during the grueling 1976 presidential campaign, when Ford closed a 30-point gap in the polls and almost overtook his Democratic challenger, Jimmy Carter, they developed an abiding respect and affection for the man.

One day late in that campaign, Ford appeared at a rally in San Diego. Among those in the audience was a young man who was just starting out in a role that would make him semi-famous as "the San Diego chicken," the unofficial mascot for that city's professional sports team.

Ford spotted the man dressed as a chicken and had a typically human response. "And the chicken," he bellowed in a voice grown hoarse from the campaign, "I love it."

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