President Ford: Moral Leadership

Ron Nessen
Ron Nessen Journalist in Residence

December 28, 2006

One reason Gerald R. Ford was a good president was because he never wanted to be president.

After 25 years as a congressman from Grand Rapids, Mich., he told his wife, Betty, that he was going to run for one more term in the House and then retire to spend more time with her and their children. Then, suddenly, he was appointed vice president (after Spiro Agnew’s resignation) and succeeded to the presidency (after Richard Nixon’s resignation).

Unlike politicians who carefully calculate for decades how their every word and deed will sound and look when they eventually run for the White House, Ford moved into the Oval Office without having his persona distorted by lust for the presidency.

And the public sensed this genuineness. What a relief to have a regular person as president, particularly after the imperial presidencies of Nixon and Lyndon B. Johnson. Ford was “the man next door.”

After the resignation, it took the Nixons a few days to move their belongings out of the White House. It took a few more days to freshen up the paint in the second-floor living quarters. So for 10 days after he became president, Gerald Ford, Betty and their children Susan, Steve and Jack continued to live in their modest suburban rambler on Crown View Drive in Alexandria. I always thought: What a perfect symbol for an ordinary-guy president.

One day Ford’s dog, Liberty, made a mess on the rug in the Oval Office. A Navy steward rushed to clean it up. “I’ll do that,” Ford said. “No man should have to clean up after another man’s dog.” As I say, it was nice to have a regular person as president.

Unlike some of his predecessors, Ford didn’t take himself too seriously. He taped short bits making fun of himself for “Saturday Night Live,” then in its first season. He invited Chevy Chase, who made his reputation on the show by spoofing Ford’s foibles, to play tennis on the White House courts. And after Chase had performed his “clumsy Ford” routine at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, the president took the podium and topped the professional comic with a brilliant routine of self-deprecating humor.

One of Ford’s favorite sayings about the political and legislative debates in Washington was that “you can disagree without being disagreeable.” He not only said it, he lived it. How nostalgic that seems in these days of angry, divisive, polarized, downright nasty Washington rhetoric.

But as president, Gerald Ford did more than change the post-Watergate atmosphere in Washington. The Vietnam War ended during his presidency. By what he did and what he said after the last helicopter lifted off the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, Ford headed off a bitter postwar campaign of recrimination about “Who lost Vietnam?”

One day during that dark period, I walked into the Oval Office and showed Ford an Associated Press story reporting that the House had rejected a bill providing funds to help resettle hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees who would probably be targets of imprisonment and execution by the victorious North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. I’d never heard Ford curse before, but he did that day when he read the story.

He undertook a public lobbying campaign, including visits to refugee camps in Arkansas and Florida, which turned around public and congressional opposition to helping the refugees. It was his greatest display of moral leadership.

Ford also had a knack for finding and recruiting talented people to serve in government.

Henry Kissinger, Ford’s secretary of state, gave a talk at the National Archives a few months ago assessing Ford’s presidency. Kissinger noted that judgments about events and leaders made in the heat of the moment often must be modified or reversed when those events and leaders are reassessed from the perspective of 30 years of subsequent history.

President Ford and his presidency are viewed much more favorably today than they were the day he left office. It’s good to know that he lived long enough to enjoy the reassessment.