Gerald Ford: One of History's Bravest Leaders?

Nothing in today's climate of hostility, distrust, partisanship and dissembling in Washington compares with the sheer electric theater a generation ago, when Gerald Ford, after 25 years in Congress and a nine-month walk-on as vice president, assumed the presidency.

Vietnam continued to take American lives. Half the country believed we were headed for another Great Depression. The first oil shocks resounded from the Middle East. Cold war tensions were rising—"a fast-moving train," Brent Scowcroft, who briefed Ford as vice president on world affairs, called it. And then there was Richard Nixon, disgraced, exiled in California, and facing certain indictment for his role in covering up Watergate.

Ford, who never sought national office and never got a single vote for president or vice president, stepped onto the world stage just as his government was sundering, which alone must qualify him for a place among history's bravest, if most untested and lightly regarded leaders. Pressed into service without his own staff or any time to prepare, Gerry Ford was affable and regular, an energetic former college football star and World War II veteran—a Midwestern Republican "Greatest Generation" everyman.

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Barry Werth is the author of "31 Days: The Crisis That Gave Us the Government We Have Today," an account of the tumultuous days following President Nixon's resignation and the swearing-in of America's "accidental president," Gerald Ford. false He grew quickly in the job. For a month, he moved hard toward the center, choosing Nelson Rockefeller as vice president, meeting with blacks and women, proposing partial amnesty for draft resisters and hewing to Nixon's realism in foreign affairs. He was determined, he said, to "leave the right sputtering." He let cameras into the White House to film him toasting his own English muffin. With the complicity of a Washington press corps that found him, after Nixon, refreshingly open, honest and easy to extend the benefit of the doubt, his approval ratings soared—literally, from nowhere to 70 percent.

Then, on a Sunday morning, Sept. 8, 1974, he pardoned Nixon before Nixon was indicted, and with a pen stroke a different Ford presidency emerged. He said he was forgiving Nixon because the televised spectacle of a former president in the criminal dock would stir up "ugly passions." It would keep Ford from attending to the nation's business and restoring "domestic tranquility." Yet with more than a dozen of Nixon's men already in prison and his three closest aides about to go to trial for covering up the Watergate break-in, the pardon instantly and inevitably looked like the last cynical act of the White House conspiracy—Nixon's hand-chosen successor giving him a free pass.

When it was soon learned that retired General Alexander Haig, Nixon's chief of staff, went to Ford before the resignation with just such a proposal, it looked as if a deal had been made: Nixon's freedom for the Oval Office. "There was no deal, period, under no circumstances," Ford swore in testimony to Congress, but the suspicion has long outlasted his term. (As it would turn out, Ford's decision to forgive rather than punish had a personal logic: his alcoholic, abusive biological father, Leslie King, never paid his mother child support. It was a 25-year legal nightmare that haunted Ford until, as a Yale law student, he brokered a settlement that kept King out of jail.)

The pardon was a political disaster for Ford. His popularity plummeted, inviting attacks from both the Democratic Congress and the Republican right, which galvanized overnight around Ronald Reagan. Two weeks later, Ford appointed Donald Rumsfeld to replace Haig, and Rumsfeld chose Dick Cheney, then 33, as his deputy. The next year, he fired Defense Secretary James Schlesinger and replaced him at the Pentagon with Rumsfeld. He put George H.W. Bush in charge of the CIA, forced Nelson Rockefeller off the 1976 ticket and promoted Cheney to chief of staff. In that role, he instituted a more centralized, secretive, Nixonian approach to presidential power. He and Rumsfeld moved to end Ford's restraint and realism, and replace it with a more swaggering, messianic view of American might. If it all sounds familiar, it is.

Ford accepted accountability and showed uncommon political and personal courage. When he announced his amnesty plan, he took it before the VFW annual convention—the toughest audience he could find—saying it would be "a little cowardice" to disclose it before a hand-picked crowd. He presided over the fall of South Vietnam, vetoed more spending bills than any president in history, supported the Equal Rights Amendment, stared down New York City over budget problems that almost bankrupted it and midwived the Middle East peace process that climaxed, five years later, with the Israelis and Egyptians shaking hands at Camp David. He cheerfully endured two assassination attempts and the bad fortune of having taken office during the first season of "Saturday Night Live." Chevy Chase lampooned him as a stumbler, a parody that Ford, the most athletic president in history, reinforced by falling down the stairs of Air Force One in June 1975. On the tarmac, he picked himself up and kept going as if nothing had occurred.

Ford narrowly defeated a challenge from Reagan for the Republican nomination in 1976. But he was so weakened by the intra-party warfare that he lost the general election to Jimmy Carter, a little-known, former one-term governor of Georgia. There was genuine, albeit brief, talk of a Reagan-Ford unity ticket in 1980, but Reagan chose Bush instead.

And when that was all over, Ford did what he had planned to do before he became an accidental president. He retired to a life of skiing and golf and celebrity appearances. Unlike Carter and Bill Clinton, he left the arena behind, yet in time his standing rose and public affection grew. Many of those people who originally deplored the pardon for short-circuiting history and eroding the notion that no one, not even the president, is above the law, came around to agree that it was best for the country. Though, not everyone has been converted: because Ford didn't throw Haig out of his office when Haig proposed the pardon, it remains "shadowed by ambiguity," as newsman Daniel Schorr puts it. In his last years, Ford's resilience became iconic as he underwent heart surgery twice in two weeks at age 93.

Ford's belief that by pardoning Nixon he was putting Watergate and the Imperial Presidency in the past is a lesson in the law of unintended consequences. By sacrificing his popularity, he also lost his mandate to address Watergate and Vietnam with moderation, bipartisanship and humility. Forced to the right by neoconservative critics, his administration spawned many of the core attitudes and key players of the George W. Bush White House.

Ford hadn't struggled for the presidency, hadn't won it, but it was hard not to admire his faith and determination not to fail at it. And for that, a saddened country remains deeply in his debt.

Barry Werth is the author of "31 Days: The Crisis That Gave Us the Government We Have Today," an account of the tumultuous days following President Nixon's resignation and the swearing-in of America's "accidental president," Gerald Ford.