Gerald Ford died today. He was 93, the longest-surviving ex-president.
When a president dies, newspapers and news magazines pull out the stops to make their coverage of the person’s life exhaustive. You’ll see a lot about Gerald Ford in the next few days.
My college internship* with the U.S. Senate took me to Washington in 1974, just after Ford had assumed the Vice Presidency under the new rules of the 25th Amendment. Ford was selected as Vice President after Spiro T. Agnew had resigned in lieu of being prosecuted for taking kickbacks from his days as governor of Maryland. Within a few months he was elevated to the presidency when Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974.
But for a few months he was President of the Senate. Starting with Spiro Agnew, vice presidents no longer spend a lot of time on Capitol Hill fulfilling their Constitutional duties as Senate leader. Hubert Humphrey had been quite active as vice president, carrying key messages from the White House to the Congress, and from Congress to the President, and pushing legislation with Lyndon Johnson, in what was surely one of the most effective legislative teams in the history of the world.
And when he was acting as President of the Senate, I first ran into Gerald Ford — literally.
I interned with the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, in the office of the late Secretary of the Senate Frank Valeo. Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) signed my credentials (we didn’t have photo I.D.s in those days), and since Mansfield had so few interns, or staffers, we, and I had the run of the Capitol (and Washington, too — with Mansfield’s signature I could get into the White House press room, which was a great place to hang out then. I also had Senate floor privileges, the value of which became clear to me only years later when I staffed for another senator. As an intern I could walk on the floor at any time, and sometimes did to watch debates. Staffers generally cannot do that at will.)
There was a vote scheduled that was expected to be close. The Vice President would be brought in if there was a chance for a tie, so he could cast the tie-breaker. I forget what the issue was — it was of no particular interest to me. I went to lunch.
Coming back from lunch, I noticed security was a bit tighter. The Vice President’s car was under the Senate steps, so I knew he was there — but the guard waved me in, and I walked on the first floor toward the west side of the building to get the elevator to our offices on the third floor. I was reading a newspaper as I walked, not exactly expecting what would happen.
Gerald Ford was a big man, and he moved fast. Always athletic, he constantly challenged the Secret Service detail to keep up. When he wanted to go, he went. The vote was over, and Ford was striding to his car, with business in his eye, as Mark Twain would have said. Ford was out front of the Secret Service guys, and he and I met at a corner where neither of us could see the other.
I’m not a big guy. I bounced off of Gerald Ford like a rubber ball, and skidded sitting down across the polished Italian tile in the hallway of the Capitol. Two Secret Service men picked me up, checked to see whether I was injured (no), and then ran to catch up with Ford. About that fast, they were gone.
I didn’t even get an autograph.
Those were golden times in Washington. There were no magnetometer metal detectors at the doors (they were a couple years away). When debates ran late, the building stayed open and the public galleries were generally empty — a great place for an intern to spend an evening watching government work.
Gerald Ford took over the presidency in the middle of a great crisis. He acted to heal the nation, even taking the unpopular but probably correct action of pardoning Nixon to get the Watergate affair behind us. After the missteps of Johnson and the deception of Nixon, Vietnam fell to the North Vietnamese on Ford’s watch, and he took the blame, though again he probably did the right thing in not pushing to support a corrupt government in South Vietnam at the last minute.
Ford’s great strength was his decency, his nice guy attitude and reputation — a reputation well-earned. The nation needed an Eagle Scout, a guy who wouldn’t say bad things about people. Ford, of course, was also an Eagle Scout. After a president who, some say, could not tell the truth even when it was to his benefit, it was good to have a president who some said probably couldn’t tell a lie.
We could use a good man like that right now.
History teachers, save the newspapers and magazines from this week — you’ll find good use for them in the near future, with their coverage of the life of Gerald Ford.
- The portrait is Ford’s official White House portrait, from Whitehouse.gov.
- * My internship was arranged through the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah — still one of the finest political education programs anywhere.