The Homegrown Decency of Gerald Ford

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."

You could make too much of Ford's Midwestern upbringing -- as if someone were predestined by virtue of a Michigan or Ohio or Illinois birth with openness, candor and friendliness. That is a cliche burned into the nation's mind-set, along with notions that most Californians are supposed to be uber-hip and most New Yorkers fancy. What that upbringing might have given Ford was room to grow and little room to cry out. It gave him the cheeriness to do unexpected things, and he did them as simply as walking through someone's front door: He appointed William Coleman, a black man, as transportation secretary. It was not lost on blacks that Ford was the first Republican president to appoint a black as a Cabinet secretary, and it was not lost on blacks that the distinguished Coleman was not given the kind of job blacks usually got -- such as housing or health and human services. Coleman was the best individual Ford could find for the job. Ford presided over the swearing-in ceremony himself; it seemed a grandly decent and quietly historic thing to do.

He stood resolutely beside his wife, Betty, when she endured bouts with alcoholism. He encouraged her to talk about her disease. His family's demons, in time, rolled beyond the window. He blinked not an ounce of shame or embarrassment.

Politics, football, love, family. He warmed the bench at Michigan until he eventually won the job as starting center. There is a beautiful poem by James Wright, a Midwestern poet by way of Ohio. It speaks of things on the gridiron of Ford's life:

In the Shreve High football stadium,

I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,

And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,

And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,

Dreaming of heroes.

All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.

Their women cluck like starved pullets,

Dying for love.

Therefore, their sons grow suicidally beautiful

At the beginning of October.

And gallop terribly against each other's bodies.

The 38th president of the United States had galloped toward decency during his lifetime. Myths seemed to have meant little to him. In his memoirs, he recalled the afternoon he met his birth father during his teen years. It deeply affected him. The man had come through Grand Rapids with a pretty chippy; he idled into the small restaurant where his son was slapping burgers. They went for a ride. The words got in the way. "When I went to bed that night," Gerald Ford would come to write, "I broke down and cried."

A decent thing for a kid to do.

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