The Homegrown Decency of Gerald Ford

The 38th president faced some tough challenges growing up in Michigan.
The 38th president faced some tough challenges growing up in Michigan. (Family Photo)
By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 28, 2006

There is something about landscape and upbringing, about how it often seems to come to bear upon the temperament of an individual. Gerald R. Ford Jr., a Michigan boy, grew up to be president. If one were to flip through a sepia-tinted scrapbook, into Ford's 1920s and 1930s Grand Rapids, one might see glistening lakes, football fields, leafy trees. One might hear teakettles whistling atop stoves. And one might imagine a place where boys weren't supposed to cry.

There was indeed that tableau, but there were also other things -- less poetic -- humming in the life of the young Gerald Ford. His mother was a divorcee; his birth father was a smoothie and a ladies' man. There would be financial woes even after his mother remarried. Young Jerry also had a stuttering problem. (By the time he reached high school, however, the stutter was gone, as if he had miraculously laid it in his hand and flung it across a nearby lake.)

There was something of a Hemingwayesque code at play in Ford's upbringing. Grace looked so sweet under pressure. One bore up coatless in wintertime if needed. One suffered quietly, and family demons never rolled beyond the window curtains.

By the time he had emerged onto the national stage, something simple and munificent had bled its way into his being: decency.

Ford was a decent man, and he seemed to admire in others, more than anything else, that trait.

Throughout his life, there were moments when he might have faltered. He might have become self-centered, paranoid about the motives of others, egotistical once entrenched behind a fancy desk on Capitol Hill. He came of age during the Depression, when people starved and homes vanished like feathers blown away by the cold financial winds.

There was indeed a Nixon enemies list, but Ford would have considered such a thing anathema. He seems to have eschewed unattractive tics. He chuckled; he rested; he backslapped. Parodied on those "Saturday Night Live" skits, he took it in stride and even made a cameo appearance on the show. Life needed humor.

Here is Ford in his unadorned autobiography, "A Time to Heal," talking about his freshman year in 1931 at the University of Michigan: "I'd saved one hundred dollars that summer working at the paint factory. For three hours every day, during the lunch period, I waited tables in the interns' dining room at the university hospital, then helped clean up the nurses' cafeteria. A wonderful aunt and uncle, Roy and Ruah La Forge, sent me a two-dollar check every week. And once every two or three months, I received twenty-five dollars for donating blood at the university hospital."

There's decency in remembrance of that aunt and uncle; they're not just aunt and uncle, they're "wonderful."

He wore plaid and made it look, well, plaid. He smoked a pipe and he talked like a man who had no time to waste on words. He thought candor decent, slipperiness indecent.

The human dramas found him sure enough, and the sword he bore against them was decency.

In his mind it was decent to pardon Richard Nixon. Here are some of the words Ford uttered upon accepting the presidency: "In the beginning I asked you to pray for me. Before closing, I ask again your prayers for Richard Nixon and for his family. May our former president who brought peace to millions find it for himself."

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