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"I assume the presidency under extraordinary circumstances...."
Gerald R. Ford took on the office of vice president left vacant by the disgraced Spiro Agnew, stepping into a role that he never aspired to play, but taking it on because he believed it was his duty as a citizen and a statesman. He told his wife, "Betty, don't worry, vice presidents don't do anything. I'll just be there for a couple of years, then we'll go back home, retire…." Ten months later he was sitting in the Oval Office.
Gerald Ford brought to the political arena no demons, no hidden agenda, no hit list or acts of vengeance. He knew who he was and he didn't require consultants or gurus to change him. Moreover, the country knew who he was. And despite occasional differences, large and small, it never lost its affection for this man from Michigan: the football player, the lawyer and the veteran, the congressman and the suburban husband, the champion of Main Street values who brought all of those qualities to the White House.
Once there, he stayed true to form, never believing that he was suddenly wiser and infallible because he drank his morning coffee from a cup with a presidential seal. He didn't seek the office. And yet, as he told his friend, the late, great journalist Hugh Sidey, he was not frightened of the task before him.
As a journalist, I was especially grateful for his appreciation of our role, even when we challenged his policies and taxed his patience with our constant presence and persistence. We could be adversaries but we were never his enemy, and that was a welcome change in status from his predecessor's time.
One of our colleagues, Jim Naughton of The New York Times, personified the spirit that existed in the relationship between Gerald Ford and the press corps. He bought from a San Diego radio station promoter a large mock chicken head that had attracted the president's attention at a GOP rally. And then, giddy from twenty-hour days and endless repetitions of the same campaign speech, Naughton decided to wear that chicken head to a Ford news conference in Oregon, with the enthusiastic encouragement of the president and his chief of staff, Dick Cheney. In the next news cycle, the chicken head was a bigger story than the president. And no one was more pleased than the president himself.
To be a member of the Gerald Ford White House press corps brought other benefits as well. We documented a nation and a world in transition, in turmoil. We accompanied him to audiences with the notorious and the merely powerful. We saw Tito, Franco, Sadat, Marcos, Suharto, the shah of Iran, the emperor of Japan; China with Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and Deng Xiaoping all at once; what was then the Soviet Union and Vladivostok with Leonid Brezhnev; and Helsinki at one of the most remarkable gatherings of leaders in the twentieth century.
We could identify with President Ford—all of us in America—for so many reasons. Among them, we were all trapped in what passed for style in the seventies, with a wardrobe of lapels out to here, white belts, plaid jackets, and trousers so patterned that they could give you a migraine. The rest of us have been able to destroy most of the evidence of our fashion meltdown, but presidents are not so lucky. David Kennerly's photographs are reminders of Ford's endearing qualities, but also of plaids that are best forgotten.
He also brought something else to the White House, of course. He brought the humanity that comes with a family that seemed to be living right next door. He was every parent when he said, "My children have spoken for themselves since they were old enough to speak—and not always with my approval. I expect that to continue in the future." And there wasn't a more supportive husband in America than when his beloved Betty began to speak out on issues that were not politically correct at the time. Together, they put on the front pages and in the leads of the evening newscasts the issues that had been underplayed in America for far too long. My colleague Bob Schieffer called him the nicest man he ever met in politics. To that I would only add the most underestimated.
In many ways I believe football was a metaphor for his life in politics and after. He played in the middle of the line. He was a center, a position that seldom receives much praise. But he had his hands on the ball for every play and no play could start without him. And when the game was over and others received the credit, he didn't whine or whimper.
But then he came from a generation accustomed to difficult missions, shaped by the sacrifices and the depravations of the Great Depression, a generation that gave up its innocence and youth to then win a great war and save the world. And when that generation came home from war, they were mature beyond their years and eager to make the world they had saved a better place. They re-enlisted as citizens and set out to serve their country in new ways, with political differences, but always with the common goal of doing what's best for the nation and all the people.
When he entered the Oval Office, by fate not by design, Citizen Ford knew that he was not perfect, just as he knew he was not perfect when he left. But what president ever was? However, he was prepared—because he had served his country every day of his adult life. And he left the Oval Office a much better place.
The personal rewards of his citizenship and his presidency were far richer than he had anticipated in every sense of the phrase. But the greatest rewards of Jerry Ford's time were reserved for his fellow Americans and the nation he loved.
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