Ford Remembered for Nixon Pardon

President Gerald Ford's pardon of former President Richard Nixon is seen by many as the defining act of his brief tenure in the White House. But Ford made a series of important decisions, including the appointment of Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Former President Gerald Ford died yesterday at his home here in California. He was 93 years old. Ford's office did not release the cause of his death. His wife Betty said in a statement, his life was filled with love of God, his family and his country.

NPR News analyst Cokie Roberts interviewed President Ford on a number of occasions, and she joins us now. Good morning, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Gerald Ford took office in 1974 after President Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace over the Watergate scandal. Take us back to that moment.

ROBERTS: Well of course it was a searing moment in American history. The country was wracked with upset over the president, all the revelations about the tapes from the White House, the impeachment of Richard Nixon by the House, his resignation before he went to trial in the Senate; and Gerald Ford, the accidental president as he's been called, had been appointed vice president and was suddenly president having never been elected. And I asked him in an interview a couple of years ago how that affected his presidency. Here's his answer.

(Soundbite of previous NPR broadcast)

President GERALD FORD: And I of course had to go through committee hearings in the House, which were extensive. I had to go through Senate committee hearings, which were also very vigorous. So everything that happened to me was appropriate under the Constitution, so I had no reluctance to assume the office and to do my duties.

ROBERTS: Of course, doing his duties turned out to be harder than he expected, I think, because he had hovering over him that specter of Richard Nixon.

MONTAGNE: And of course what he ended up doing was pardoning President Nixon. And if you don't know anything else about Gerald Ford, people know that.

ROBERTS: And, you know, he never regretted it. He always said that he thought it was the right thing to do. He pointed to a press conference that he had soon after he became president where every single question was about Richard Nixon, and he said he could never move on to govern either nationally or internationally if Nixon was always going to be around. That pardon infuriated the American people who wanted Nixon to pay for his sins, and Ford never recovered politically.

MONTAGNE: Now Gerald Ford was president for just about two and a half years, a very short time, but he learned some lessons very quickly, didn't he?

ROBERTS: And he was quite humorous about that. Of course, he had been in Congress for a very long time and then he was at the other end of the avenue. And here's how his viewpoint changed.

(Soundbite of previous NPR broadcast)

President FORD: When I was a member of the House for 25 and a half years, I used to look at the president and the vice president - those dictators at the other end, how can they be so arbitrary and difficult? Then when you shift from the legislating to the executive branch of the government, and you look at the Congress and say, why are all of those House and Senate members so irresponsible?

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: He did have many vetoes, many of which were overridden. So he did have a tough time with the Congress even though he was a creature of the Congress.

MONTAGNE: You know, just listening to that clip of tape there and him laughing - I of course saw him from very far away, just a citizen; he was the president. But he seemed like a nice man and someone who would be willing to poke fun at himself.

ROBERTS: Absolutely, and his humor always shown through. And America was so ready for that after the trials and tribulations of Richard Nixon. Chevy Chase, the comedian, made his career on ridiculing Gerald Ford who would occasionally stumble even though he was probably our most athletic president, played football for Michigan, was drafted to the professional football leagues and decided to go into the law instead.

MONTAGNE: Even though his time in office was quite short, he did make an appointment to the Supreme Court, Justice John Paul Stevens. He is till serving. What did Gerald Ford think about how his appointee turned out?

ROBERTS: So interesting, isn't it, how the Constitution works, that he still has this legacy in the court. And of course Stevens has been the bane of many conservatives, and of course Ford was a Republican. And I asked him about that, and he said, you know, I might not have voted the same way that Stevens has on every case, but I'm very proud of that appointment because he has a great legal mind. And that's that reason I picked him in the first place, and I'm very glad that I did.

MONTAGNE: We're hearing so much now about the president and the Congress working together. You and many close observers are skeptical about that today, but there was civility in Washington at the time that Gerald Ford was in Congress.

ROBERTS: It's true, and a lot of truth in packaging here, Renee. I've known Gerald Ford my whole life, and my father and mother and he served in Congress together. And at one point, my father, H Hale Boggs, was majority leader when Gerald Ford was minority leader. And Ford said to me, he said, you know, we - your father and I would get in a cab at the Capitol and go down to the Press Club or some place; and we'd say in the cab, what are we going to argue about? And then he said, we'd have a real debate; it was genuine. We had true differences of opinion. But then we'd finish the debate, we'd get back in the cab and go back to the Capitol and be best of friends.

And he said, you know, that civility is just gone in Washington today and it's very hard for the government to operate without it. And I think that his Christmas card from this year was really kind of a way of saying to the White House and Congress how to behave. He says: May this 2006 Christmas bring more wisdom to the way we look at the world, and more love to the way we live in it. Signed Betty Ford and Gerry Ford.

MONTAGNE: Cokie, thanks very much. NPR News analyst Cokie Roberts speaking about Gerald Ford, who died yesterday. You can hear Cokie Roberts' extended interview with Gerald Ford at our Web site, npr.org.

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