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."
James M. Naughton, the White House correspondent for the New York Times, decided on the spot that he had to obtain the chicken head. A gifted and serial practical joker, Naughton enlisted White House aides and Secret Service agents to track down the chicken and purchase the chicken head. (He put the $100 cost on his expense account.)
That night in Portland, Ore., in the glow of television lights at an airport news conference, two colleagues hoisted Naughton, wearing the chicken head, onto their shoulders as he rose at the rear of the assembled reporters, apparently poised to ask a question of the president of the United States. Ford laughed at the sight.
It's hard to imagine such a surreal scene unfolding today but it was part of Ford's character to encourage a kind of informal intimacy among those around him. "His presidency was notable for being humane, being real," Naughton recently recalled.
He was by nature and the habits he developed as a member of the minority in Congress a conciliator and healer of wounds. It was probably those instincts that led Ford to make the single most controversial and courageous decision of his presidency--his pardon of Nixon for any crimes the disgraced former president committed while in office.
The Nixon pardon caused a national uproar and it may have cost Ford the 1976 election. Ford was not Nixon, but the dark shadow of Nixon still hung over the country. With the pardon, Ford made sure that Nixon would never again occupy the center of the national political stage.
There was much debate at the time over what caused Ford to take such a politically risky step, but one man seemed to understand instantly. At noon on a cold January day in 1977, Jimmy Carter began his Inaugural address with these words:
"For myself and for our nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land."
Walsh was a White House correspondent for The Post during the Ford administration.