Thursday, December 7, 2006

President Gerald Ford Was One of Us

I am grieving as if one of my own family members had died. Gerald R. Ford was my personal political hero, and I believe that history will judge him better than he was ever given credit for. If a Hollywood movie were to be made of his life in the 1970s no one would have believed it.

How could this man Gerald R. Ford Jr. ever become President of the United States on purpose? Gerald Ford wasn’t even his real name! He was born in Omaha Nebraska in 1913 as Leslie Lynch King Jr. He was the son of divorced parents. Businessman Gerald R. Ford in Grand Rapids Michigan adopted him after marrying his mother. Everyone knew him, as a straight shooter and honest young man who spoke what he thought blemishes and all, looked you in the eye when he talked and always told the unvarnished truth. He married a divorced woman named Betty Warren in 1948.

Many of his friends considered him too honest of a man to run a local school board, much less become President of the United States!

So how did he do it? He was simply one of us and went out and earned it.

The “accidental president” up until fate had called him was never more than a Congressman from Michigan. Ford wasn’t a man who came from money, he fought and clawed his way through his life. He parlayed a stellar high school football performance into a full athletic scholarship at the University of Michigan. Not only was he a great player who was the center on a Big Ten varsity team, he had a brain to match his brawn, majoring in economics. A twist of fate must’ve kept him from turning down pro offers from the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions.

Instead he moved toward academics at Yale where he studied law while coaching boxing and football. He graduated Yale Law School near the top of his class, but another twist of fate diverted him; the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. He gave up a promising fledgling law practice to sign up with the Navy and he served four years in World War II.

With his hitch up in the military, he returned to law but was bitten by the political bug and decided to try multi-tasking by marrying a pretty divorcé named Betty whom he adored, and at the same time defeating a local G.O.P. Representative.

For 25 years, Ford was your above average politician, depending on his quiet dependability and love of his career and country to keep him in office. In 1964 he was elected the House Minority Leader and became known for butting heads with President Lyndon B. Johnson at every opportunity. Later Johnson would be quoted joking in frustration that Ford must have played his entire football career without a helmet. Ford was present when the 25th amendment to the Constitution was ratified. Little did he know he’d be its first test case?

One of Ford’s biggest frustrations in his congressional career was that the Republicans were never in a congressional majority, which meant he couldn’t get important things done without the title of House Speaker. Fate took his hand again when Spiro Agnew resigned as Vice President and Richard Nixon wisely made a politically savvy and safe choice that he was sure that Congress couldn’t possibly oppose. At the time, Ford was seriously considering retirement from politics but jokingly told his friends that becoming vice president might be a nicer way to round out his career.

Gerald Ford became the first man ever to hold the office of Vice President without being elected to the job.

As The Watergate scandal wroght political havoc on the United States, the Cold War with the U.S.S.R. was heating up. In 1973 OPEC dropped a political bomb on the nation by creating the artificial Oil Crisis. Little did newly appointed Vice President Ford know it, but fate was about to take his hand again.

On October 8th Richard M. Nixon became the first man ever to resign the office of President of the United States. Gerald Ford stepped in with little preparation the very next day and became the first man to hold office as President without ever being elected by the people.

It seemed as if all Hell began breaking loose. The Soviet Union supported an Arab attack on Israel. The Vietnam War was a decade-old disaster with seemingly no end in sight as Nixon was too distracted with his own scandals to manage the military withdrawal from Southeast Asia. The American public was turning swiftly against its own government as repeated political revelations compounded political scandals that rocked the nation.

In the midst of all this chaos with little preparation for taking the reigns of State stood an unlikely superhero with a Midwestern accent and a giant “D” for “Dependable!” scrawled in magic marker across his chest. It seemed that the only way out of the mess and to start over was to effectively commit political suicide for the good of the country. Unhesitatingly, he pardoned Richard Nixon. It’s my personal belief that had he not taken that brave step, he could have been known as one of this nation’s greatest presidents and been reelected twice more. He made the politically stupid mistake of putting the nation before himself instead.

And that’s why he’s my hero.

In the aftermath all Hell really did break loose. The well-liked “everyman” was now a scheming political crony who must’ve made a deal with Nixon to become President in return for that pardon. While the shutdown of the Watergate trials brought the long political nightmare for the nation to and end, his own was only beginning.

For many in this nation, the pardoning of Nixon will never be forgiven. So many people can’t see past an honest and brave act to save a nation in turmoil from self destruction. Few will give him credit for what he really accomplished. If he hadn’t acted the country would’ve been mired down for decades. Ford’s approval ratings plummeted from 71% to 49%.

Every hero has a heroine that adored him and that was Betty. She turned the Presidential Mansion into a messy suburban house, taking down artwork and putting up family photos. She appalled Washington insiders by becoming an everyday housewife, often chairing private family dinners in curlers. The public noticed and thanks to her the American People began warming to the Fords again. She even did a hilarious guest appearance on the Mary Tyler Moore show, trying to convince a skeptical Mary over the phone that it really was the first lady on the other end of the line.

The president was joyfully unashamed of public shows of affection, often holding hands, laughing, hugging and kissing her in front of cameras, looking more like two highschoolers on a date instead of heads of State.

Through all his accomplishments, President Gerald Ford could very well be remembered for endearing himself as the everyman to the American people. There were assassination attempts, slapstick tumbles down stairs, and he even beaned a bystander with a golf ball while making a tee shot at a charity event. Bob Hope once famously quipped that it was easy to find President Ford on a golf course, just follow the wounded!

If only they had had a little more time in office. He’d resolved to not run for another term as President, but was later convinced that he still had things to do. His failure to be elected could be attributed mostly to his move toward the political center, thus causing the Republican right-wing ultraconservatives to abandon him in the shadow of Roe v Wade. In the end he lost the election by only 56 electoral votes. I gladly handed out bumper stickers and leaflets for his campaign on street corners.

Four years later Ronald Reagan even considered offering him the spot of Vice President on his winning 1980 Republican ticket, but the political right convinced him that Ford had too much baggage.

My heartfelt condolences go out to Betty and the whole Ford family, along with a grateful nation. One of our own died today and we’ll miss him terribly.
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