Gerald Ford, nice guy

Gerald Ford died today. He was 93, the longest-surviving ex-president.

President Gerald R. Ford and Mrs. Betty Ford walk with their daughter, Susan, and family dog, Liberty, at Camp David Aug. 7, 1976.
President Gerald R. Ford and Mrs. Betty Ford walk with their daughter, Susan, and family dog, Liberty, at Camp David Aug. 7, 1976. Photo probably by David Hume Kennerly.

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.

Gerald Ford, White House portrait, by Everett Raymond Kinstler
Official White House portrait of President Gerald R. Ford, by Everett Raymond Kinstler, painted 1977.

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.

8 Responses to Gerald Ford, nice guy

  1. I don’t know much about Texas, but I do know that Hans Blix has unequivocally stated that right up to the invasion of Iraq he was convinced that Saddam had WMD’s. The only U.N. arms inspector who thought Saddam has disposed of his weapons was Scott Ritter, and even he wasn’t sure they were all gone — he thought they were at least 95% gone.

    I would like to know more about Texas if you could point me towards some references. As for now, though, I can only judge President Bush on what I am familiar with. I’m familiar with his presidency, and he has shown himself to be a straight-shooter for the past six years.

    You’re right that President Bush pokes fun. He does it a lot. And do you know whom he pokes fun at the most, more than everyone else combined? Himself.

    I’m sure you’ve noticed his self-deprecating humor. Don’t you find that reassuring? Can you imagine President Nixon or President Carter cracking jokes at his own expense while delievering an imprtant speech or answering questions at a news conference?

    Sometimes President Bush’s ribbing goes astray, such as when he teased the blind reporter. But he had just flown back from Iraq, and was clearly tired and unaware that the reporter was vision-mipaired. And of course he apologized right away in a good -natured way.

    Apparently you have a lot of policy disagreements with President (and Governor) Bush. Maybe on those grounds you are right to judge him incompetent. But that doesn’t mean he is dishonest or doesn’t know how to listen or that he is bluffing about his ignorance. It just means that his goals and agenda are different from yours.

    As I said above, I’d like to know more about how the Bush administration allegedly doesn’t shoot straight. Most of the criticism I do read about President Bush tends to be pretty shallow and silly stuff that doesn’t hold up well under scrutiny. Some substantial criticism would be very interesting to me.


  2. edarrell says:

    I don’t think it’s unfair to ask the governor of the state to pay attention to how the death penalty works. It’s literally a life and death issue, after all.

    I remember that debate, and the moment Ford said what he said. As a debater, I could make a case for what he said. As a speechwriter, though, and as a political active person, I knew right away it was disaster. The gaffe contributed to his loss, but there were a lot of other factors, too.

    Hans Blix was pretty sure there were no WMDs within 60 days of the invasion of Iraq. He asked for more time to finish the search — he should have had it. This is the point in history when we need to worry about self-delusion. Those in the best position to know were specifically ignored. Most of us were certain the weapons were there — and in any case, wasn’t Saddam a bad guy who richly deserved to be replaced?

    I had very little experience with the Ford White House, but what experience I did have showed they were straight shooters. Ford had a due respect for Congress with allowed him to get a fair amount done, and he had a high appreciation for the difference between real policy talks with legislators and statesmen, and talking to the press. The Bush regime in Austin was just weird, with Bob Bullock carrying Bush’s water. It is likely his wishes would have been frustrated but for Bullock. And most of what Bush did as governor has proven disastrous — our schools here in Texas are a mess, attributable to changes Bush initiated. From those I talk to in Washington and others who deal with the Bush administration, I get the idea that they rarely shoot straight. Several people I’ve talked to in industry complain that the Bush administration is incompetent in many areas. Anti-environmentalists are no happier with the Bush Interior and EPA policies than the environmentalists — they’ve made a hash of rule-making procedures, and what actions they have taken are ham-handed and often misdirected. I get a sense of skating by the president. Rather than admit he doesn’t know, he bluffs. He pokes fun, even and especially at inappropriate moments (his going after the blind reporter for wearing shades was particularly embarrassing to me — I don’t want my president doing that).

    I don’t recall that Ford invaded anything but an island in the Indian Ocean trying to free the crew of the U.S.S. Mayaguez. When Ford had an opportunity to make up stuff to shore up the South Vietnamese government, he demurred, letting the facts hit Congress. Congress was surprised, but refused to send money to back a corrupt regime. It was the right decision, if 30 years late. I just don’t see that sort of consideration of the facts in the present White House.

    And that’s ironic, considering that Cheney was chief of staff in the Ford White House.


  3. Thanks for the response, you raise good points.

    You and I have very high standards for accuracy in our blog posts, and presumably for what we talk about generally in daily life. However, I think it’s unfair and unrealistic to hold President Bush to such high standards for every last statement that comes out of his mouth, such as the Texas execution example. The president is not a blogger, after all, he’s a very busy man with a lot of awesome responsibilities and stress.

    In any case, his mistake was not nearly as serious as President Ford’s remarkable gaffe in the 1976 presidential election debates with President Carter. President Ford asserted that, ” There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.” He followed up by saying, “I don’t believe…that the Yugoslavians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don’t believe that the Romanians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don’t believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. Each of these countries is independent, autonomous, it has its own territorial integrity, and the United States does not concede that those countries are under the domination of the Soviet Union.”

    This unforced error on President Ford’s part may have cost him re-election.

    I think President Bush deserves at least as much respect as President Ford in respect to getting his facts straight. After all, in March 2003, even Hans Blix thought Saddam Hussein had WMD’s . In fact, Mr. Blix thinks that Saddam himself probably believed he had stockpiles of WMD’s, and was fooled by his own people on the matter.


  4. elektratig says:

    Putting aside the Bush question, thanks for a nice post on a good and underappreciated man, and some great stories as well.


  5. edarrell says:

    An example on Bush: During his first presidential campaign, Bush said he was certain that Texas had never executed an innocent man. However, in the previous 8 years, Texas had taken to the Supreme Court — twice, as I recall — the issue of whether innocence was good enough reason to violate the federally-mandated three-appeals-and-out rule. In short, there was a fellow on death row who had exhausted his appeals without getting his sentence changed, or without getting a new trial. Then the actual killer confessed. Texas argued that the condemned man had a fair trial, was convicted, and had exhausted his appeals. In the end, the man was executed, and the confessing man was not tried.

    It would seem odd, then, to claim that Texas had never executed an innocent man after having fought for years for the right to exactly that and, having won the right, then executing the man.

    Was Bush lying, or was he just oblivious?


  6. edarrell says:

    It has seemed to me that Bush has difficulty sorting out evidence. At crucial times, such as deciding what to do about Iraq after 9/11, he has been deceptive — intentionally? I’m not sure. If he believed what he said — and he may have — then his ability to be confident in information that does not deserve such confidence has no less effect than the intent to mislead.

    Which is a long way of saying I don’t think we can trust what the president says. Does he believe what he says to be true? I don’t know. But that would be an essential thing to know before making a judgment on whether he is honest.

    Ford was generally up front about what he did not know. He didn’t pretend to have all the answers. It’s a different mindset. I trust a guy who says “I don’t know.” At least there’s a chance he’ll get it right.


  7. Good morning, Ed. Thanks for the interesting tribute to President Ford.

    I saw him once a few years ago at a semi-public event, but I never “ran into” him.

    I have a question for you:

    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.

    What do you think of President Bush — is he an honest man in your opinion?


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