- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
For most of his political life Ford, who died on Dec. 26 at age 93, was a steadfast presence in the House of Representatives; elected 13 times, he served 24 years, eight as Republican minority leader. That career more than fulfilled his political ambitions, which had never gone beyond becoming speaker of the House. But a series of events catapulted him to the presidency during a singularly tough period. President Richard Nixon, who had always enjoyed Ford's backing, turned to him in 1973, when Spiro Agnew resigned the vice presidency in disgrace. And then the nation relied on Ford when Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974 in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
As an accidental president, Ford hardly enjoyed a mandate, yet he sorted through the political mess and set a new agenda for the country. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said of Ford, "He was called to heal the nation's wounds after... the Vietnam War and Watergate had produced the most severe divisions since the Civil War." One step toward that healing was his blanket pardon of Nixon. Though it was characterized by some as a political payoff, Ford always insisted that the pardon was necessary to save the country years of trauma.
History has judged him kindly in that regard, even if he was sometimes presented unfairly. America's most athletic president and one of the best football players of his generation was relentlessly portrayed—and will therefore be remembered by too many—as a klutz. Ford had the misfortune of coming along at the same time as Saturday Night Live. All presidents have been fair game, but Ford, whose Midwestern decency might have frustrated lesser satirists, became a favorite target for the show and, in particular, for cast member Chevy Chase. It didn't matter that Ford, in his presidential years, remained a dignified man (even if he did stumble while deplaning); hardly a week passed when "President" Chase didn't walk into a door, fall off a stool or somehow injure innocent bystanders.
Ford was hardly embittered by the skewering. His son Jack says the caricature bothered his family far more than it concerned the president, who probably understood, after all those years spent around athletes, then politicians, that if comedy wasn't a bit cruel, it wouldn't be funny. "It wasn't his personality to take himself so seriously," Jack says.
After losing to Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ford segued into political retirement. He served on corporate boards and golfed near his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. But he never stopped speaking out, whether supporting his wife, whose Betty Ford Center helped revolutionize the rehab movement, or criticizing President George W. Bush and Ford Administration wunderkinds Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney for the war in Iraq.
Visitors to his desert retreat were surprised to discover a man so at peace with himself. But why wouldn't he be? Until the end he remained an athlete—swimming, golfing, challenging his physical self—and he maintained friendships with fellow athletes from several generations. He had the satisfaction of knowing that he had always played hard and by the rules; the wins and the losses were what they were.
ONLY ON SI.COM