It is with great saness that I learned just a few moments ago of the passing of our nation’s 38th president, Gerald R. Ford. While this good man will, alas, merit little more than a footnote in American history, the only president never elected to nationwide office, he provided steady leadership at a time of national unease and, through his most controversial action, pardoning Richard Nixon, helped the nation move past Watergate.
This steady leader also inspired a young boy in Cincinnati who, after being disappointed with Ford’s predecessor, thought that the former Michigan Congressman helped restore honor to the presidency and helped make us all proud once again to be Americans. That boy took a bus downtown after school to volunteer for his campaign. At age 13, working for Jerry Ford, I got my start in American politics.
I met that good man when he came to Cincinnati in June 1976. I recall he was wearing a gray suit. He signed a paper in my notepad and was delighted that someone so young would volunteer for his campaign. I’ll always remember how his face lit up when he thanked me for my efforts on his behalf. It seemed he was almost laughing.
Yet, as president he was not always laughing. Called by some “an accidental president,” he only became Vice President when Nixon appointed him to the office after Spiro Agnew, the elected Vice President, had to resign for his role in a bribery scandal. Shortly after assuming the presidency himself, Ford found the media more interested in criminal proceedings against his predecessor than in his own plans to move America forward.
He reluctantly agreed to the pardon, telling then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, “we’ve got to put this behind us, and go on with all the other things we have to do.” At the time, many people thought there had been a quid pro quo, that Nixon only tapped Ford to be Vice President so that when he resigned and Ford became President himself, he would pardon the corrupt former Chief Executive. But, there was no quid pro quo. While the decision hurt Ford politically — and probably cost him reelection in 1976 — most historians today agree that Ford made the right decision.
Such concern for the national interest would mark Ford’s short term in office. He stood up to the Democratic Congress, vetoing 66 bills, 12 of which were overturned. He was a level-headed leader at an awkward time in our history.
In the 1976 campaign, he recovered from a nearly 30-point deficit in the polls, to come within a whisker of defeating Jimmy Carter; he ran just 11,000 votes behind Carter in Ohio. After a tough Republican primary battle against Ronald Reagan, he surprised everyone with the energy and intensity of his fall campaign.
While he did not win that election, he conceded gracefully and retired a statesman. Barry Goldwater observed:
Ford was a good President, not a great President but a good President. He restored honor to the White House, and the country could not ask him to do more, or expect more. History should treat him kindly for that.
Historian Edmund Morris said, “Gerald Ford was our most underrated modern President.”
I will always recall my first political campaign — and my first loss. I had worked so hard to reelect the president that I was sure he would prevail. I went to bed on Election Night 1976 not knowing its outcome. When I woke to learn the sad news, I was so upset that I could not go to school.
Today, while sad at the passing of this good man, I am proud that I worked so hard to keep him office. Now that thirty years have passed since his loss, the American people have become better able to recognize Gerald Ford’s accomplishments, his leadership and his courage. He may have served only for a short time, but he did serve us well and gave his very best for the country we all love.
Thank you, Jerry Ford. When you took charge, there really was a feeling come over America that was wonderful to see. You did help make it better than it used to be. Thank you.
B. Daniel Blatt (GayPatriotWest@aol.com)