Wednesday, December 27, 2006

"A Ford, not a Lincoln:" Remembering the 38th President

I awoke this morning to the news that former President Gerald Ford had passed away at age 93. One commentator on the Fox News Channel compared the nation's 38th Chief Executive to Harry Truman, and I noted that Mr. Ford had passed away on the 34th anniversary of Mr. Truman's death, which somehow seemed appropriate. Both were seemingly ordinary men who came into office under extraordinary circumstances; both were plainspoken Midwesterners; both were misunderstood and often derided by their contemporaries; and both lived long enough after leaving office to see some measure of luster added to their historical reputations. And not coincidentally, Ford was known to be an admirer of Truman.

Oddly enough, I had been thinking of Mr. Ford only a day or two earlier, while musing about the upcoming Presidential race. I remembered Ford addressing Congress for the last time, after losing the White House to Jimmy Carter in the 1976 election, and noting for the record that this would be his final State of the Union message -- and then, after a brief pause and to the accompaniment of laughter, adding the word "maybe," in reference to the fact that he was still constitutionally eligible for one more term as President. Thus he remained theoretically eligible as a candidate right up to the very end, and I thought often about how much the country could use his steadiness, decency, and civility today. As one commentator noted after Ford succeeded the disgraced Richard Nixon, he might not be the man for all seasons, but he assuredly was the man for that season.

We remember him most of all for his ordinariness, for lack of a better term. He started his first full day as President of the United States by appearing at his doorstep in a bathrobe and slippers to retrieve the newspaper, after which he prepared his own breakfast. By his own admission, he was "a Ford, not a Lincoln." He was not colorful or charismatic by any stretch of the imagination, and soon became a popular subject for late-night TV comedians, who poked fun at his alleged clumsiness, which was far more exaggerated than real. He had a flat, reedy voice and could not pronounce the word "judgment" correctly. But he never whined or pouted, and never pretended to be anything other than what he was; and by so doing, he did so much to restore dignity and grace to the Presidency.

His passing affects me in a more personal way. I have seen several past, current, and future Chief Executives in person, but Gerald Ford has the distinction of being the only one I have ever actually met. The occasion was a two-day visit he made to Provo, Utah, in December of 1978, while I was living there as a student attending Brigham Young University. I have always had a strong sense of history -- heck, I even named my pet parakeet Elbie Jaye, in honor of one of Mr. Ford's predecessors -- and this impelled me, in effect, to shadow the former President throughout his visit. That would almost surely be impossible today, in the post-9/11 world; but that calamity still lay well into the future on that Sunday afternoon in 1978, when I started my brief but memorable parallel journey with a former President. I made a special trip to the local airport in order to be present when Mr. Ford arrived in a private jet. Only a handful of people were there to greet him, as I recall, but he waved to us from the tarmac, perhaps 100 feet away from where we were standing. I figured that was as close as I would get to him during his visit.

I was wrong. The following morning I learned that he was speaking to a group in a room at the Wilkinson Center, so I went there and observed the goings-on through a window on the door, where I remained for perhaps 15 or 20 minutes. Ford was standing up amid the gathering and addressing it informally, and although I could not hear anything he said, I noted the familiar hand gesture I had seen on television so many times, in which he appeared to be shaping an invisible ball. I thought also of the history of which he had been part: the Nixon pardon, the collapse of South Vietnam, the meetings with Mao and Brezhnev, the two assassination attempts, the vetoes.

When Mr. Ford left the room, accompanied by his Secret Service entourage, I followed him all the way downstairs, and at one point raised my voice and thanked him for coming. Much to my surprise, he stopped, turned around, walked over to where I was standing -- perhaps 15 feet away from him -- and shook my hand. He looked me directly in the eye, said it was good to see me, and made me feel as if he knew me personally. I wrote about this encounter that night in my journal, to which I am not referring as I compose this entry today; but after 28 years, I still remember that brief encounter as if it had taken place only yesterday. I do recall noting in that journal entry that apart from the fringe of gray hair, he looked exactly like he did on television, and remarkably well for a man 65 years of age. (He spoke the following morning at the Marriott Center, to a much larger crowd, and I was present for that, too -- although it was anticlimactic, as far as I was concerned.)

For the second time in 2-1/2 years, I will be spending much of the next several days absorbed in the pomp and ceremony of a televised state funeral, and doing my part to give Gerald Ford the affectionate farewell he deserves. Requiescat in pace.

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