Gerald Ford has been unflatteringly called “the accidental president,” but the only American president never to be elected on the presidential ticket probably wouldn’t mind that label. In what American politics has become – dominated by money, campaign tricks, empty promises and personal attacks – an accident is the only way an honest and moderate man like Ford could ever have become president. And our nation is immensely indebted to that swift turn of providence that put the plain, loyal and brave man from Grand Rapids in the White House in its most trying time.
Perhaps the University’s most accomplished alum ever, Ford had a modest Midwest upbringing. Abandoned by his abusive biological father, he was raised by his mother and stepfather, whose name he took for his own. By the time he came to Ann Arbor, Ford was already a respected athlete, and he would go on to be a part of two straight national championships. But his greatest achievement would come in his senior season.
The lone star of the disastrous 1934 season, Ford was named most valuable player by his teammates, who recognized him as “the one guy who could stand and fight in a losing cause.” When others became disillusioned by the enormity of the challenge they faced, Gerald Ford went to work. He would have occasion to do that again.
After college, Yale Law School and a tour in the Navy during World War II, Ford returned to Grand Rapids to practice law. Unsatisfied with the policies of his Congressman, Ford didn’t just whine, he took the action that is our democracy in a nutshell: he stood up as an alternative.
In the days when politics in western Michigan were dominated by Republicans of the mighty McKay political machine, Ford did what was first foolhardy, then admirable and finally successful. He challenged the Republican party establishment and defeated the machine in the primary, later winning election to the House of Representatives.
And it was in the House that Ford became what America’s leaders were intended to be, but rarely are – an open-minded mediator. He refused to be tied down by partisanship, saying that his party “simply had no right to shout ‘no, no, no’ ” to Democratic legislation unless they had better alternatives. In the indelible tradition of George Washington, John Marshall and Henry Clay, Ford set aside personal ambition for the good of the country, becoming a leader first, politician second.
As the Democrats and Republicans dueled ferociously in the turbulence of the 1960s, Ford, then House Minority Leader, soon became the one voice above the unscrupulous congressional fray we know all too well today.
When Richard Nixon began his 1968 presidential campaign, Ford was the obvious choice for vice president, but, sensing that his duty in the House was unfinished, he refused Nixon’s offer. He would, however, disapprove of Nixon’s ultimate nomination – Spiro Agnew of Maryland – and for good reason, as the nation would later find out.
With Agnew forced out under charges of tax evasion in 1973 and with the furor over Watergate mounting, the Democratic Congress knew it would soon have Nixon, too. In that divisive atmosphere, there was only one man who could win confirmation in the House and Senate, and it wasn’t John Connally, Nelson Rockefeller or Ronald Reagan – all of whom Nixon considered.
Instead, it was simple, reliable, righteous old Jerry Ford who alone could save the Executive Branch from further embarrassment and demise at the hands of Congress. Nixon picked Ford, who was easily confirmed; a governmental crisis was prevented.
As Watergate exploded and Nixon hesitantly resigned, the man who was too fair, open-minded and nice to ever be elected president found his way into the Oval Office anyway. The demise of the presidency was minimized. A corrupt, imperial administration was replaced with perhaps the most upstanding president of the 20th century.
And then came the pardon that cost Ford reelection, but he always believed it was the right thing to do. As newspapers nationwide decried the act as corrupt and unjust while implying a secret bargain between Ford and Nixon, Ford never lost sight of why it was necessary.
We as a nation laughed when he said the pardon was necessary for national healing, but time has proven Ford right. We Americans have been fortunate enough to never face the possibility of our government falling apart, but we came dangerously close in the furor surrounding the Nixon resignation. The presidency was robbed of all its prestige, splendor and influence. An indictment of Nixon would have been an indictment upon the presidency, one which threatened to permanently jar the delicate system of checks and balances this government was built upon.
Ford sacrificed his political future to do what had to be done and unconditionally pardon an already disgraced man. He also maintained till his death that in accordance with Burdick v. United States, accepting a pardon involves admitting guilt and that is what Nixon did.
Few recognized the necessity of what had to be done and none but Ford had the conviction, courage and moral capital to do it. Luckily for America, he was the one in charge.
As they say, eulogies are not given under oath, and it sounds pompous and opportunistic for critics and politicians on all sides to glorify Ford at his death. But as once staunch opponents like Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) come around on the pardon decision, it is impossible to deny the integrity with which Gerald Ford shaped his decisions and by which his legacy will endure. Undeniably, Ford was among the best men ever to become president: It’s no accident that he was the only one never elected.
Imran Syed is a Daily associate editorial page editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.