In hindsight, Ford better than we thought

President Gerald Ford, who died Dec. 27, is known as the man who pardoned Richard Nixon. Unfortunately, we’ve forgotten a lot of other things about the man.

I say “unfortunately” because, in hindsight, we can see qualities in Ford that politicians as a whole would do well to mimic. One simple rule seemed to govern his actions: Do the right thing and don’t worry about what people think. On some big decisions he didn’t operate with his finger in the wind.

When he was selected to replace Spiro Agnew as vice president as the Watergate Scandal began heating up, Ford seemed a somewhat unlikely choice by the tightly controlled and conspiratorial Nixon. Ford, a veteran congressman from Michigan, was by contrast, straightforward and open.

He assumed the office of the president minutes after Nixon resigned in disgrace, declaring: “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works. Our great republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule.”

He added: “I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your president by your ballots. So I ask you to confirm me with your prayers.”

Ford had to have been well aware that he was taking a great political risk by pardoning Nixon, but he determined that he must do so to preserve the nation and the office of the presidency, which had been greatly weakened by the revelations of Watergate. Many doubted his decision then and still do, but other than the fact that we didn’t get the satisfaction of seeing Nixon go to the pen, in hindsight, the pardon probably did smooth the road to recovery from Watergate.

Ford was not particularly popular with his former colleagues in the Democratic-controlled Congress, as he vetoed 66 bills in two years. But it is clear that they respected his integrity, because when he appeared before a congressional committee in October 1974 to respond to suggestions that his pardon of Nixon was a set-up arranged before the president resigned, Ford bluntly stated: “There was no deal, period, under no circumstances.” That was it. Investigation over.

It wasn’t over in the minds of the voters, though, who gave Jimmy (The Grin Will Win) Carter 297 electoral votes to Ford’s 240 in 1976, the first election Ford had ever lost.

He wasn’t perfect. Though very athletic, he tripped several times while president, which always made the headlines. He once teed off on a golf course and hit a female spectator in the head. He escaped two assassination attempts. He made some erroneous statements in debates with Carter that are still considered among the most shocking gaffes in presidential debates. In that election Ford focused mainly on his own achievements as president, opting not to attack Carter for his performance as governor of Georgia.

Ford did accomplish some significant things as president. He signed the Helsinki Accords, with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, in 1975. Though the accords recognized post-war Soviet domination in Eastern Europe (legitimized them in the minds of many Americans), they also established more liberalized human rights and border restrictions. Twenty years later, the results of that softening became evident in the collapse and overthrow of the Soviet and other Eastern European Communist regimes.

Suddenly, except in the minds of some hawks, Ford didn’t look quite so foolish after all.

Ford tried to boost military aid to South Vietnam one last time in 1975, but Congress rejected it and he ended America’s involvement in the war.

Ford was unassuming, yet remarkable throughout his life.

He was an Eagle Scout and played center on two national champion University of Michigan football teams. He nearly died in a typhoon as a Navy lieutenant in the Philippines in World War II aboard the aircraft carrier USS Monterey. After nearly being swept overboard, he led his men into the burning innards of the ship to put out a raging fire caused by planes slamming together during the storm. His actions saved the ship, while others sank around them.

He worked his way through law school at Yale University, and by the late 1940s, was a successful lawyer in Grand Rapids. He was first elected to Congress in 1949 and was re-elected 12 times, never getting less than 60 percent of the vote.

He was named to the Warren Commission, which investigated the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and after becoming part of the Republican leadership in Congress in the mid-1960s, Ford fought against President Lyndon B. Johnson’s social welfare legislation and opposed the gradual escalation of American military involvement in Vietnam.

Ford wasn’t perfect, by a long shot, but he wasn’t the klutz he was made out to be by many critics during his term as president and afterwards. Doing what is right, or what you think is right, doesn’t always make you popular. But if leadership is about doing what’s best for others, maybe Ford was better at it than we thought.