Although Gerald Ford is most remembered for his tenure as president, his legacy does not stop there. The only president to hail from this state and to be a University alum, Ford was a star football player who was voted most valuable player by his teammates in his final year.
Following his service in World War II, he overcame impossible odds to win his first House election. He soon became the right’s voice of reason, and he gained influence on both sides of the aisle as House Minority Leader. His congressional record was defined not by bills written but by compromises made. His appointment to the vice presidency was a testament to the immense respect Ford had from his colleagues; no one else could have won a speedy confirmation in that bitterly divided Congress.
Nevertheless, in his few years in the White House, no action stands out more than his pardon of Richard Nixon. Although history has looked on the decision more kindly than the nation did in 1974, the pardon remains a mistake that denied Americans closure on Watergate while setting the unfortunate precedent of arbitrary presidential pardons. Government should always be held accountable, and Ford miscalculated the full scope of his well-intentioned action.
Even in pardoning Nixon, however, Ford exuded the one quality that defined his political career – acting independently to do what he thought was right. That Ford’s intentions in granting the pardon were honorable was proven by his willingness to testify before Congress under oath about the pardon. He became the only sitting president ever to do so, living up to his promise of bringing about a more open presidency.
Ford was president in an especially difficult era in American history. Civil rights legislation was still violently contested in much of the country, the nightmare of Vietnam left citizens disillusioned with their government and the Watergate scandal had done seemingly irreparable damage to the nation’s highest office. In the harshest of times, Ford promoted unity and reconciliation. He granted conditional pardons to Vietnam-era draft dodgers, laying the foundation for an unconditional pardon from President Jimmy Carter.
A liberal on issues of race and a member of the NAACP, Ford was an outspoken supporter of affirmative action. In a New York Times op-ed article published in 1999, Ford supported the University’s quest to maintain its affirmative action policies and build a diverse student body: “I don’t want future college students to suffer the cultural and social impoverishment that afflicted my generation,” he wrote.
Later in his life, Ford advocated full rights for gays, becoming the highest ranking Republican before or since to do so. However, the one contribution liberals should most remember him for is his nomination of Justice John Paul Stevens to the U.S. Supreme Court based on his qualifications rather than his ideological leanings. Today, Stevens is the anchor of the dwindling liberal wing of the court, and we can only imagine what the court – not to mention the country – would be without him
Ford’s legacy, both in Congress and in the White House, was of checking government power and trying to mediate disputes. Despite his mistakes in handling the aftermath of Watergate, Ford’s service to his country in politics and in war is commendable. He was one of the few true moderates who could draw support from both sides of the aisle when he voiced his opinions. For being his own man in politics, his legacy will be one of respect.