Historian Richard Norton Smith
Grace Episcopal Church
Grand Rapids, Michigan
January 3, 2007
No one ever called Gerald Ford an imperial president. Perhaps that was because no figure in memory was so immune to Washington’s besetting disease of self-importance. Case in point: Seven years have passed since Marty Allen and I found ourselves in the Fords’ living room at Rancho Mirage, for what, in any other living room, would have been the most uncomfortable of conversations – a discussion of funeral planning. That it wasn’t the least bit uncomfortable was due entirely to the Fords’ sensitivity, their utter lack of pretense, and, not least of all, a robust sense of humor reminiscent of that other plainspoken Midwesterner, Harry Truman.
After a lengthy review of his plans, the President was called away to the phone. A few minutes later he returned, with a grin on his face and a question on his lips.
“Well,” he asked in a booming voice, “have you got me resurrected yet?”
All this week Americans, many of them too young to recall the strident summer of 1974, have watched grainy images of an East Room inaugural. We have listened once more to the words that calmed a nation at war with itself. Thrust into a place to which he had never aspired, Gerald Ford resolved to make his presidency a time of healing, even as he drew out the poisons released by Vietnam and Watergate.
So he didn’t only pardon Richard Nixon; he opened the door for thousands of Vietnam draft evaders to find their way home. In his first days there, he welcomed to the Oval Office the Congressional Black Caucus, leaders of organized labor, and others who for too long had felt excluded from America’s House. Hail to the Chief gave way to the University of Michigan Fight Song. The Justice Department was purged of politics, the CIA reigned in.
Thirty years later we acknowledge with pride what then we only dimly perceived - Gerald Ford gave us back our government. But there was much more to the Ford presidency than ending our long national nightmare. With the passage of time and the cooling of passions, historians have begun to recast his 895 days in office, not as a coda but as a curtain raiser. He was, after all, the first president to pursue economic deregulation or propose a comprehensive energy policy.
His critics boxed the ideological compass. The Left called him intransigent for his refusal to trade away the cruise missile, a weapons system then in development, in order to obtain an arms agreement with the Soviet Union. The Right denounced him for signing the Helsinki Accords, which allegedly conceded eastern Europe to the men in Moscow.
Today we know better. It is hard to imagine America’s military arsenal without the cruise missile. And thirty years on, Helsinki has come to be seen as an important victory in the age-old struggle for human rights, on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
By 1974 it was rare to hear a president laugh; so it was all the more reassuring to hear our new president laugh at himself. Once, after an enthusiastic campaign crowd cheered him to the rafters, a beaming chief executive asked a group of accompanying reporters what they thought of his speech. There ensued a few moments of awkward silence, finally broken by the president’s frank assessment: “Not worth a damn, was it?”
Gerald Ford could be a surprising man.
I discovered this for myself thirty years ago, when called on to introduce the then Vice-President of the United States to the Harvard Republican Club. It was an eye opening event for everyone concerned. We were surprised that Richard Nixon’s vice president would venture so deep into hostile territory. No doubt he was surprised that there were enough Republicans at Harvard to form a club.
While chatting off-stage, I couldn’t resist showing our guest a less than flattering caricature that had been plastered all over campus by Students for a Democratic Society – the same organization that was, even then, noisily demonstrating its displeasure outside the Harvard Club. Reflecting the tenor of the time, the poster depicted Vice President Ford as a grinning puppet impaled on the arm of a sinister looking Richard Nixon.
Most politicians would have blanched at the sight. Gerald Ford chuckled. Then he asked me if he could have a copy to display in his office.
Years later, trustees of his presidential library foundation were debating whether to obtain for permanent exhibit the staircase that had once stood atop the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, and which had served as a final means of escape for thousands of Americans and South Vietnamese in April, 1975. To those who asked, why on earth remind people of that humiliating experience, President Ford had a ready answer. “It’s part of our history,” he said.
And then he revealed a vision few expected from this laconic Midwesterner. To the President that staircase symbolized, no less than the slab of Berlin Wall already on display, a desire for freedom as old as humanity itself. He knew whereof he spoke – for when Congress tried to pull up the ladder and slam shut the doors to Vietnamese refugees, it was President Ford who went to the country reminding us of our history and of our moral obligation to shelter the oppressed. Eventually he was able to rescue and resettle 130,000 of the war’s most innocent victims.
On a bittersweet day in 2000 he came home to Grand Rapids, where he joined hundreds of members of the Vietnamese community in remembering a painful past, and in renewing a shared commitment to uphold freedom against those who would put the soul itself in bondage.
Gerald Ford could be a surprising man.
As part of the Millennium celebrations, Time Magazine invited prominent Americans to identify the pre-eminent figure of the twentieth century, along with a backup selection in case their first choice had already been taken. I fully expected President Ford to nominate a Winston Churchill or Dwight Eisenhower. He did nothing of the kind. Without hesitation he declared the greatest man of the century to be Mahatma Gandhi. The second greatest, in his opinion, was Anwar Sadat.
Think of it: two peacemakers from the Third World, men of color, defiers of the colonial West, each martyred for his convictions.
By then I shouldn’t have been surprised. To most of us, advancing age means a narrowing of sympathies. Our attitudes harden along with our arteries. But not Gerald Ford. His friendship with President Carter, unlikely as it may seem in this era of scorched earth partisanship, reveals much about a leader who never confused moderation with weakness, nor compromise with surrender, and who in his own estimation had adversaries, but not enemies.
For sixty years he was a patriot before he was a partisan. If he never mastered the art of the soundbite, it is equally true that he never turned to a focus group to locate his convictions. He was better at statesmanship than salesmanship. To be sure, Dorothy Ford’s son put his faith in God before government. But precisely because he revered the individual as a creature of God, he respected individual choices.
In contending for the greatest of all freedoms – the freedom to be oneself – he did not hesitate to dissent from party orthodoxy. This, too, should have come as no surprise - for he had first entered politics as a rebel with a cause, a young veteran of World War II who was unafraid to take on the entrenched isolationism of his own party’s establishment.
Through it all he drew strength and inspiration from the family he loved, like his country, with an old-fashioned intensity. He cherished beyond words Mike, Jack, Steve and Susan; his extended family; his brother Dick, his beloved grandchildren and great–grandchildren. And how much they gave back to him, especially in these last few years, when the roar of the crowd yielded to the infant’s laughter and the mellow kinship of Indian summer.
He often said that his was a life richly blessed. The greatest of his blessings was to share a journey of 58 years with a woman whose courage and candor matched his own. The President famously observed that he was a Ford, not a Lincoln. But in at least one respect he was wrong. For his devotion to Betty Bloomer, of Grand Rapids, recalls nothing so much as the sentiment engraved on a plain wedding band presented by a rising prairie politician to his bride, Miss Mary Todd. “Love Is Eternal” it read.
And so it is. He was so proud of you, Mrs. Ford, proud of your bravery and bigheartedness in teaching us all that what some might mistake for personal weakness is but the gateway to spiritual witness, and that no life is beyond redemption. Naturally you were at his side that morning five and a half years ago when the John F. Kennedy Library presented him with its Profiles in Courage Award.
The award was a lantern, an exact replica of the beacon hung in a Boston church steeple to warn American patriots of an advancing British army in April, 1775.
Though it recalled a time of intensely partisan feelings, the ceremony itself was a ritual of healing – the final act of the Ford presidency, and a fitting climax to a life that wed principle to reconciliation. As the least self-dramatizing of men, President Ford used to joke that he was charismatically challenged. Whatever he may have lacked in charisma, he more than made up for in character.
In accepting the Profiles in Courage Award, he expressed the hope that no future president would ever confront the choice that he faced barely one month into his presidency of healing.
But if he did, or should he be presented with an even greater test of national character, said President Ford, “I hope he will remember that the ultimate test of leadership is not the polls you take, but the risks you take. In the short run, some risks prove overwhelming. Political courage can be self-defeating, but the greatest defeat of all would be to live without courage, for that would hardly be living at all.”
And now he has come home, to the place, emotionally, he never left. Not long before he died, the President remarked, “When I wake up at night and can’t sleep, I remember Grand Rapids.” That Grand Rapids returned his affection many times over was unforgettably demonstrated by the tens of thousand who stood in line for hours outside the Museum, braving the cold to make certain that his last night was anything but lonely.
Soon we will take him to his final place of rest, our grief mingled with gratitude for a life that is its own lantern in the steeple. May the glow it casts remind us of a politics that elevates rather than divides; and of a country as honorable as it is powerful.
Sleep well, old friend. We love you very much.