Ford an 'Underrated' President, Bob Dole Says

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Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole was President Ford's running mate in the 1976 presidential election. Melissa Block talks with Sen. Dole about President Ford, who he says was an underrated president.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Former President Jimmy Carter is calling him an outstanding statesman. The first President Bush describes him as one of the most decent and capable men I ever met. Former First Lady Nancy Reagan says his accomplishments and devotion to our country are vast. Those are just a few of the many tributes today to the late President Gerald Ford, who died last night in California at age 93.

Here's what the current president, George W. Bush, said this morning from his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

GEORGE W: The American people came to know President Ford as a man of complete integrity, who led our country with common sense and kind instincts. Americans will always admire Gerald Ford's unflinching performance of duty and the honorable conduct of his administration, and the great rectitude of the man himself. We mourn the loss of such a leader.

SIEGEL: Gerald Ford served as president for just two and a half years. He took office moments after President Nixon resigned. Prior to that, Ford was Nixon's vice president. He also served 25 years in the House of Representatives, including time as minority leader.

Coming up, perspective from a political writer who has changed his assessment of Ford's pardon of Nixon. Also, analysis from Daniel Schorr. First, to a man who campaigned with Ford.

BLOCK: We are joined by retired Senator Bob Dole, who was Gerald Ford's running mate in the 1976 presidential campaign. Thanks for being with us.

BOB DOLE: Thank you.

BLOCK: I wonder if you could talk about the climate during that campaign and what it was like to be on the Republican ticket so soon after Watergate.

DOLE: Well, the climate wasn't very good for Republicans. We had about a 30 point deficit in the polls. The economy was terrible and the Nixon pardon, which was, the combination of the economy and the pardon, primarily the pardon, was a pretty high hurdle to jump in the '76 election, but it turned out to be a very close race, even though, as I said, at one time polls indicated a big, big, big gap.

BLOCK: You mentioned the pardon of President Nixon. Do you consider that to be a really devastating blow in what turned out to be a close race?

DOLE: Oh, no doubt about it. I remember going around rallies and things. People would be there with Nixon masks holding up signs Pardon Me, Pardon Me. It was a big factor, but I think President Ford in doing it put the interests of the country ahead of his own personal interests. But had he not pardoned Nixon, I don't know what the climate might have been like four or five or six years.

BLOCK: You joined the ticket after what had been a pretty bitter primary campaign, a challenge by Ronald Reagan. And, when Gerald Ford announced you as his running mate, he said Bob Dole will help to heal any divisiveness within the party. Did you see that as your role?

DOLE: Well, I think if you look back at the records, the president ran sort of a Rose Garden campaign and sent me out into the briar patch. But in any event, we came close after a big, big gap, but if I had to boil it down into two things, it'd be the pardon, number one, and the economy, a close second.

BLOCK: There was a key moment in the campaign that couldn't have helped. There was a televised debate with Jimmy Carter in October of 1976 and Gerald Ford said this.

GERALD FORD: There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.

BLOCK: Now, when he said that it clearly flabbergasted his questioner and there was some back and forth, and Jimmy Carter had a pretty quick repose. Do you remember your reaction watching at that moment?

DOLE: I don't remember right now, but I remember there was, I think within an hour, a statement issued, you know, trying to clarify what had been said. But once it's out, it's out.

BLOCK: And he later, I believe, admitted he had made a mistake. It was a goof.

DOLE: Yeah. I think that's the thing about President Ford. If he made a mistake, he would say so. He wouldn't duck and dodge like some in politics do. But that, I think was what endeared him particularly to the people who worked with him in the Congress, Democrats and Republicans. They might not agree, they might have a lot of disagreements, but he and former Speaker Tip O'Neill were great buddies, and Ford had these qualities that people respected.

BLOCK: That statement in that debate, though, must have cemented his reputation in many people's minds as someone who just didn't know what was going on.

DOLE: Well, he knew what was going on. I think President Ford's one of the most underrated presidents. I think I served with nine or ten. He'd been ranking Republican on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, then he was a Republican leader. He also vetoed 51 spending bills, which we haven't seen the likes of since, trying to hold down federal spending because we were in a real economic - I guess you could say a crisis at the time. So he'll have a spot in history. History will judge President Ford as a man of courage and decency and a good man.

BLOCK: Senator Dole, thanks very much for talking with us.

DOLE: Okay, thank you.

BLOCK: That's retired Senator Bob Dole remembering his former running mate, Gerald Ford.

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