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.
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
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
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