Revered leader leaves legacy of quiet integrity
Published: Wednesday, December 27th, 2006
Gerald R. Ford, who died Tuesday evening at 93 at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., may have been the most fundamentally decent person to serve as president of the United States during the 20th century. An “accidental” president in that he had not been elected nationally either as president or vice president, he turned out to be as good a person as could have been found to begin healing the wounds of Watergate, Vietnam and a decade of protest that brought on profound political and cultural changes. President Bush said it well Tuesday: “With his quiet integrity, common sense and kind instincts, President Ford helped heal our land and restore public confidence in the presidency.” He did so in large part by being uncommonly candid. There were no dark secrets or unacknowledged activities in the Ford White House. President Ford may not have possessed the eloquence or vision some politicians have, but his plainspoken common sense seemed to be what the country needed after Watergate. The action that soured his presidency in public opinion — issuing an unconditional pardon to former President Nixon — has been treated more kindly in retrospect, even by those most critical of it at the time, notably Sen. Ted Kennedy. As president, Gerald Ford survived two assassination attempts and presided over the final U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, oversaw peace negotiations in the Middle East, and signed the Helsinki Accords with the Soviet Union, which were widely criticized by hardliners at the time but set in motion forces that contributed to the eventual Soviet collapse. Trying to control the federal spending he believed was contributing to the inflation of the time, he vetoed 66 bills during 2 1/2 years in office. To say he didn’t grasp the root causes of inflation is only to say what was true of every prominent politician of the time. But he tried valiantly to cope with it with the tools conventional wisdom decreed. Ford was said to have restored public confidence in the presidency as an institution, which can be seen as a mixed blessing in a country founded in liberty. But Ford’s scaling back of the imperial pretensions and unrealistic hopes various occupants of the White House have cultivated turned out to be a brief interlude in the aggrandizement of presidential power as a long-term trend. Whether greater power is desirable for a president or not, common decency surely is, and it almost seems providential that a hardworking, decent Midwesterner who had not had ambitions for national office was the designated successor after President Nixon’s forced resignation. Ford believed that one worked hard to earn honor and esteem, and that is just what he did. Henry Kissinger had President Ford in mind when he made these observations: “The modern politician is less interested in being a hero than a superstar. Heroes walk alone; stars derive their status from approbation. Heroes are defined by their inner values, stars by consensus. When a candidate’s views are forged in focus groups and ratified by television anchorpersons, insecurity and superficiality become congenital.” Hero or not, Gerald R. Ford was a thoroughly decent person who served his country well in a difficult period. He earned the outpouring of affection for him and his beloved wife and family that has attended his passing.
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