Gerald Ford's Legacy As a Likable President

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Former President Gerald Ford died Tuesday at his California home at the age of 93. Ford will be remembered as a personable, good-natured president — well liked by his colleagues as well as his political opponents.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

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

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

He served just two and a half years, but they were two and half years that came after a political cataclysm. Gerald Ford became the 38th president of the United States after Richard Nixon was forced to resign by the Watergate scandal. He stepped into the job having never won an election for nationwide political office and with the monumental task of trying to restore public faith in government.

SIEGEL: After his death last night at age 93, tributes to Ford have been offered by the president and former presidents, by senators, congressman and governors of both parties, and even by some of his former critics. They note his service, his dedication and his attempts to unify the country after Watergate.

BLOCK: In the days to come there will be more tributes, including memorial services. We're going to take some time today to hear about Ford's life and his short tenure as president.

Here's NPR's Marcus Rosenbaum.

MARCUS ROSENBAUM: On August 9, 1974, after Gerald Ford had raised his right hand, taken the Constitutional oath of office and become the 38th president of the United States, he stepped forward to deliver what may be the most memorable words of his presidency.

GERALD FORD: My fellow Americans, our long, national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works. Our great republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here, the people rule.

ROSENBAUM: The nightmare, of course, was Watergate, the scandal that had escalated into an uncontrollable crisis for President Richard Nixon. It expelled Mr. Nixon from the White House. It propelled Mr. Ford into it.

Gerald Ford had become president in a way no person has before or since, without winning a single national election. He was appointed vice president by Richard Nixon after Spiro Agnew resigned under the cloud of a bribery scandal.

But Nixon himself was caught up in Watergate, so according to John Robert Greene, a history professor at Cazenovia College in upstate New York who has written a Ford biography, Mr. Nixon had to choose carefully.

JOHN ROBERT GREENE: And so Nixon put out a rather novel call to the leadership of both parties and asked them to fill out a questionnaire and asked them who they would choose were they in his shoes. And in every one of these questionnaires, Gerry Ford came up number one.

ROSENBAUM: That's because Mr. Ford had served for 25 years in the House, representing Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was the minority leader then, personally well liked on both sides of the aisle. He had few enemies. Besides, Republicans felt he would be loyal to the embattled president and Democrats felt that if he did become president, he would be beatable in the next election. The confirmation votes were never in doubt.

On December 6, 1973, there was a vice presidential inauguration of sorts and as was his custom, Mr. Ford spoke with modesty and presence.

FORD: I'm a Ford, not a Lincoln.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)

FORD: My addresses will never be as eloquent as Mr. Lincoln's, but I will do my very best to equal his brevity and his plain speaking.

ROSENBAUM: Just a little over eight months later, Gerald Ford was president of the United States, and on August 28, he held his first news conference. There were many different questions on many different subjects, but what Mr. Ford always remembered were the ones about Richard Nixon.

FORD: When that press conference was over, as I walked back to the Rose Room in the White House, I thought to myself, is this going to be the routine from then on?

ROSENBAUM: Mr. Ford spoke with NPR's Cokie Roberts in 2004. He said he realized that in that first month, he was spending a quarter of his time on Mr. Nixon's problems, his papers, his tapes.

FORD: And I finally decided that as a new president under very difficult circumstances, I had an obligation to spend all of my time - all - on the problems of 200 million Americans and therefore the only way to clear the deck, to get to the substantive problems that I faced, was to pardon Mr. Nixon and get his problems off my desk in the Oval Office.

ROSENBAUM: And on a Sunday morning about a week later, that is exactly what he did. The reaction to the pardon was swift and negative. The president's approval rating dropped 15 points overnight. Even his press secretary resigned. Congress was in such an uproar that Mr. Ford actually appeared before a House subcommittee to answer questions about the pardon.

Ford biographer John Robert Greene.

ROBERT GREENE: He was absolutely clear to me that this was not out of any kind of great affection for Richard Nixon, nor was it out of any conclusion that Nixon was either innocent or guilty. What he decided to do was to try to just simply end the Nixon years. And his attempt to do that was a complete failure.

ROSENBAUM: The honeymoon was over and it was an election year. Two months later, Republicans lost an astounding 43 seats in the House of Representatives.

Meanwhile, though, the new president had to deal with a floundering economy at home and a foundering war in Vietnam. On the economic front, the country was facing double digit inflation and stagnant economic growth. Stagflation, it was called.

In October of 1974, the president went before a joint session of Congress to announce his plan to deal with the problem. While the speech called for a number of governmental actions, most people remembered it for Mr. Ford's attempt to get the public to sign up to fight inflation themselves. To WIN, as he put it, for Whip Inflation Now.

FORD: A very simple enlistment form will appear in many of tomorrow's newspapers along with a symbol of this new mobilization, which I'm wearing on my lapel. It bears the single word WIN. I think that tells it all.

ROGER PORTER: Those of us who were doing the economics stuff thought this was actually goofy.

ROSENBAUM: Harvard economist Roger Porter was a young White House fellow at the time.

PORTER: The origin, interestingly enough, was well intentioned. But coming up with specific things that you want to do often turns out to be more difficult that it appears at first glance.

ROSENBAUM: Nevertheless, in the long run Gerald Ford was able to bring inflation down substantially from its double digit level when he took office. He did this not through the WIN program, which came to be seen as a public relations gimmick, but through an almost constant fight with the Democratic Congress to restrain spending. He vetoed 66 bills and he was overridden only 12 times, a record he defended in his 2004 interview with Cokie Roberts.

FORD: One thing that most people don't realize, a veto by a president is not a negative action. Now, the press generally calls it a negative action, but it's an affirmative action by the president to reflect the views of all the people in the country.

ROSENBAUM: While President Ford grappled with Congress over the economy, he also faced challenges abroad. At the top of the list was Vietnam. Although the United States had withdrawn its troops in 1973, the Ford administration still felt it had a stake in the independence of the South.

So in early 1975, the president asked Congress for a multimillion dollar infusion of military aid. The request went nowhere. Congress and the public were fed up with the war and wanted it over. They got their wish. Running out of funds, the South Vietnamese government quickly collapsed, so quickly that even though it was not Mr. Ford's war, it reflected badly on his presidency.

Two weeks later, Mr. Ford found an opportunity to recoup. The now Communist Cambodian government seized a U.S. merchant ship, the Mayaguez, and took its crew captive. The president sent in the Marines. It was a dangerous mission. More Marines were killed than there had been sailors on the Mayaguez, but the ship and its crew were returned.

ROBERT GREENE: This was an important comeback moment for Ford.

ROSENBAUM: President Ford's biographer, John Robert Greene, says Mr. Ford and his holdover Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, chose to use force deliberately and it paid off politically.

ROBERT GREENE: They discarded every possible avenue except the immediate regaining of these men on the Mayaguez. So they went in with force, lives were lost, but Ford's polls went up. And they skyrocketed after that. It was very brief, but it was the high point of the Ford presidency.

ROSENBAUM: Other foreign policy successes mostly eluded President Ford. And as the 1976 presidential election came into view, the president suddenly faced the challenge from the right wing of his party. It came in the form of former California governor Ronald Reagan. Mr. Ford successfully fought off that challenge at the Republican convention, but he faced other difficulties as the campaign heated up.

For one thing, he once stumbled while coming the rain soaked steps of Air Force One, and the comedian Chevy Chase began to routinely satirize the president on the popular TV show "Saturday Night Live."

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

CHEVY CHASE: (As President Ford) The point is, do I really know what the issue? Relevant, irrelevant, fault, default - these are just hard words. Which brings me to my first point. Let's take a look at the recent popularity polls, shall we?

(SOUNDBITE OF CRASHING)

CHASE: No problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROSENBAUM: In many ways, the satire was unfair. In reality, Mr. Ford was one of the most athletic men ever to hold the office of President. He had been a star football player for the University of Michigan and had almost turned pro. Some of the president's most serious problems in the campaign he caused himself, notably his line in a broadcast debate with his Democratic challenger, former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter.

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

ROSENBAUM: The moderator, Max Frankel of the New York Times, challenged Mr. Ford, but he stuck to his words and was lambasted by Mr. Carter. And while his staff pointed out later that the president had meant to say that the countries of Eastern Europe do not consider themselves part of the Soviet Union, the damage was done.

Ford biographer John Robert Greene.

ROBERT GREENE: The American public really liked this man, and they had come to believe after two and a half years that he was not up to the job.

ROSENBAUM: Greene says the real reason was not the flub in the debate or even the television satire, but Mr. Ford's action one month into his presidency - his pardon of Richard Nixon.

ROBERT GREENE: You know, two famous lines, I'm Jimmy Carter and I will never lie to you - of course, implying that Ford did. And then, the consistent references during the campaign to the Nixon board presidencies, linking them together. Had the pardon not been there, that kind of linkage wouldn't have worked. With the pardon there, both of those strategies stuck.

ROSENBAUM: The 1976 election was surprisingly close, but Gerald Ford lost. He was characteristically magnanimous in defeat, wishing Mr. Carter, as he put it, the very best in all that is good for our country.

In the end, Gerald Ford's legacy may be more in who he was than in what he accomplished in his short two and a half years on the White House. He was genuinely well liked by political opponents as well as political friends, and he liked them too. In that regard, if it was a different time in Washington in those days, Gerald Ford was one of the reasons why.

Marcus Rosenbaum, NPR News, Washington.

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