Gerald Ford's Perfect Pitch
Those who believe that a kindly Providence keeps a watchful eye on America's welfare can cite the fact of Gerald Ford. On Aug. 9, 1974, at a moment when the nation was putting aside an unhappy, tormented president, and was aching for serenity in high places, to the center of national life strode an abnormality -- a happy, normal man as president.
Watergate and a presidential resignation were only two of the nation's problems that August. The mid-'70s were years when everyday things could no longer be counted on -- inflation was undermining the currency as a store of value, and lines at gasoline pumps testified to the power of foreigners to get between Americans and their best friends, their automobiles. Ford was a political sedative for a nation with jangled nerves.
He was one of five presidents who never got elected to the office. (The others were John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson and Chester Arthur.) He was the only person to be president without receiving any popular or electoral votes for president or vice president. He was about as exotic as . . . well, as he was fond of saying, he was "a Ford, not a Lincoln."
He was born in Omaha and represented a western Michigan district, and much was made, rightly, of his Midwesternness. In the years before the Southern ascendancy in the Republican Party, the party spoke in the flat Midwestern cadences of the senator who had been Mr. Republican when Ford went to the House in 1949 -- Robert Taft of Ohio. When Ford became minority leader in 1965 -- replacing an Indianan, Charles Halleck -- the second-ranking Republican was Leslie Arends and the Senate minority leader was Everett Dirksen, both of Illinois.
Ford was an "accidental president," but there are reasons accidents happen as they do. Call it the cunning of history or an irony of American life, but this underestimated graduate of Yale Law School served a purpose Richard Nixon did not have in mind when he nominated him to replace the disgraced Vice President Spiro Agnew. Nixon probably hoped Ford's popularity in the House would enable him to rally House Republicans against impeachment. Instead, Ford's presence in the vice presidency probably made his former House colleagues less afraid of impeachment.
There is a photograph of the House chamber when President Harry Truman was delivering one of his State of the Union addresses. Scattered through the chamber in front of Truman were four future presidents -- Rep. John F. Kennedy, Sen. Lyndon Johnson, Rep. Nixon, Rep. Ford. Never before or since have four consecutive presidents gone directly from the legislative branch to national elective office.
In 1976 Ford might have won a full term if he had been less statesmanlike: His pardon of Richard Nixon unquestionably hurt him politically, but unquestionably helped with national healing. Ford also might have won if he had stepped out of character and been more adventurous -- if in selecting a running mate he had chosen, as he considered doing, Ambassador Anne Armstrong, a Texan, to be the first woman on a national ticket. Instead he chose a Midwesterner, Kansan Bob Dole, thereby giving a boost to a distinguished career that was to produce the party's presidential nominee 20 years later. Ford also might have won if some unsettling economic numbers had not come out a few days before Election Day. Or if in one of the debates he had not become lost in the labyrinth of peculiar thinking and rhetoric that went with detente. He insisted that Poland was not dominated by the Soviet Union.
He almost won anyway. A change of 12,791 votes in Ohio and Mississippi would have sufficed. The 1976 presidential election was the only one the Republicans lost between 1964 and 1992. Ford was punished for Nixon's sins: Jimmy Carter won by running as the non-Nixon.
Henry Kissinger, who continued as secretary of state through the Ford years, in 1999 wrote a tribute to Ford, the "uncomplicated man" who came to the presidency in perhaps the most complicated context since the Civil War -- in the aftermath of a disastrous war and as a result of a resignation. Kissinger understood that Ford, with his small-town, Midwestern aversion to histrionics, had perfect pitch for the needs of "a nation surfeited with upheavals."
Kissinger noted a "curious paradox of contemporary democracy," that as political leaders become more abject in trying to conform to the public's preferences, respect for the political class plummets. Ford was different: He "was immune to the modern politician's chameleon-like search for ever-new identities, and to the emotional roller coaster this search creates."
Surely subsequent presidential history has deepened the nation's appreciation of what it had for 29 months.