NEAL CONAN, host:
This is Special Coverage from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Gerald Ford, the 38th president of the United States, died yesterday evening at his home in Rancho Mirage, California, at the age of 93. The cause of death has not been announced but the former president had been in poor health for much of the past year after a bout with pneumonia and heart problems.
He took office, to the great relief of the nation, as Richard Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974. And Gerald Ford pronounced an end to the constitutional crisis of Watergate, our long national nightmare, is over.
The contrast with his predecessor could not have been greater -straightforward, open, modest and funny, often at his own expense. He inherited a lost war in Vietnam that ended ignominiously on his watch, an economy that was in deep difficulty and a presidency shaken by scandal.
After just a month in office, he pardoned Richard Nixon, a decision bitterly denounced by many, but he lived long enough to see many of his critics change their minds, and most historians believe, he did the right thing. Nevertheless, the pardon cost him public support and contributed heavily to his defeat when he ran for election in 1976.
Over the course of the next hour, we'll talk with people who knew Gerald Ford, worked with him, covered his career and wrote about his life. And we want to hear from you. If you have questions about the life and legacy of Gerald Ford, if you have stories about the former president, our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. And you can also get in touch with us by e-mail, the address is email@example.com.
And we begin with NPR news analyst Cokie Roberts who knew Gerry Ford her entire life as a family friend. She also covered politics during his presidency and spoke with him many times.
Welcome, Cokie, and we're sorry for your loss.
COKIE ROBERTS: Thank you. Neal, it's always good to be with you.
CONAN: Asked about his accomplishments at the end of his presidency, Gerald Ford said we've restored public confidence in the White House and in the executive branch of government. Asked then about his failings, he said, I'll leave that to my opponents; I don't think there have been many.
Is that a fair assessment?
ROBERTS: Well, you have to love it. I mean, you know, why should he be the person to go through his failures? And there are plenty of other people ready to do that.
But I think that you certainly can make the case that the pardon was his downfall and yet, it was the action that he certainly felt strongly. And a lot, as you've said earlier, a lot of historians have to agree with him. It was absolutely necessary for the country to move on.
And he said, you know, I had a press conference three weeks after I became president, he told me. And he said I expected the reporters to ask about the economy, my trip to the Soviet Union. And he said, two-thirds of the questions were about Mr. Nixon, and I went back to the Rose Room and said is this is going to be the routine from now on. And he said I asked if I had he right to pardon the president.
So he was very conflicted about it, but at the time, but he certainly wasn't, in retrospect. He really did feel that he had done the right thing, and that otherwise, the nation would still be at it, still be at each other's throat on the subject of Richard Nixon.
So I think that that was his most important moment in his own mind - this moment of trying desperately to heal the nation.
CONAN: You knew him well. Tell us a little bit about what he was like, and tell us was he changed by the presidency?
ROBERTS: Well, he joked a lot about the differences of having been in Congress for 25 years, and then having moved to the presidency. And he was minority leader of Congress when my father, Hale Boggs, was majority leader of Congress.
And I have a picture of the two of them sitting at the breakfast table with Richard Nixon. And he would - he, President Ford, would tell me that they'd go home from those meetings, and both of them just grousing about the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
And then he told me in an interview a couple of years ago, he said, you know, but then, when I moved to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, I stopped thinking that those people down there, the president and the vice president, were dictators, and started thinking that the Congress was irresponsible. Why are those 535 people acting that way?
So your perspective changes. He always had a totally down-to-earth sense of humor about himself. He also was just down-to-earth in every kind of way, especially about his family.
The fact that many of those elected president or not elected when he came to the presidency, his children openly disagreed with him. He joked about how he was absolutely beaten down by his wife on the subject of the Equal Rights Amendment and got a lot of hate for it outside of the household from politicians, but nothing like as much as he would have gotten inside the House if he had not supported the Equal Rights Amendment.
He was very proud of Betty Ford. She had a tough time, and you have to remember that when she talked about her breast cancer was at a time when people barely mentioned the word cancer in public, and then, to talk about her addiction, really, unheard of. And then, to do something about it for thousands of people, in founding the Betty Ford Center in which she was very involved and her daughter Susan now is, President Ford was so proud of her, and proud of his family.
I mean, all the things that you think of in a husband, a dad, a granddad, in the most down-to-earth, average sort of way - that was Gerry Ford.
CONAN: Joining us today, also, is Bob Greene, a presidential historian at Cazenovia College, and a biographer of Gerald Ford. He's with us by phone from Syracuse, New York, and it's nice to speak with you today.
Professor BOB GREENE (Cazenovia College): Neal, thank you for having me.
CONAN: And Cokie talking about how grounded Gerald Ford was, well, he was a man very much, of Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Prof. GREENE: Absolutely. He was Midwestern through and through. And that was part of what Cokie was talking about in terms of how genuine an individual he was. Of the presidents who I've interviewed in my work, this man came across as being the most grounded of any of them, and sense of humor - his sense of humor was very well known to his staff, as was his wife's, you know pushing him into the pool fully-clothed in front of the Washington Press Corps. But - and he genuinely enjoyed the job.
One of the things that, in terms of - you asked Cokie about his growth in the job, he came in with a legislative mindset - very open, very open-door, to his detriment, with a spokes-to-a-wheel(ph) policy. And yet, as we grew into the job, he also grew with an affection for the job, I believe.
I asked him, at one point in time, whether at the end, he liked it and he didn't answer. He just sat and smiled at me. I fully believe that he enjoyed being president and it showed. There was no chest-pounding, chest-beating malaise about him.
CONAN: Gerald Ford was elected 13 times to the House of Representatives by the voters in and around Grand Rapids. He declined opportunities to run for the United States Senate. He declined opportunities to run for governor of Michigan. When the crisis came up, Spiro Agnew resigned the office of vice president after pleading, nolo contendere, famously. Why did Richard Nixon pick Gerald Ford, and why did Gerald Ford take the job?
Prof. GREENE: The one overriding reason for Nixon choosing him was his confirmability. Gerry Ford was liked and respected on both sides of the aisle, and in the first test of the 25th Amendment, Nixon was reasonably well-assured that he would be confirmed. He was going to go through a difficult confirmation process.
And the questions were pointed, at one point in time, in the questioning, Ford was asked about visits that he made to the psychotherapist, and that made for a mild flap at the moment.
But he was confirmed easily. He was not Nixon's first choice. Nixon wanted John Connelly, former governor of Texas, to be his Vice President. It's a good thing he didn't get him because almost immediately after Ford was confirmed, John Connelly was embroiled in a scandal of his own, with milk problems down in Texas.
Why did Gerry Ford take it? Duty was huge. And it was duty to party and to nation almost in equal measures. When he was asked by members of both sides of the aisle - Tip O'Neill, Barry Goldwater and others - to do the job, he didn't feel that he could say no.
He also had in his mind, I think he compartmentalized himself in the early days and maybe Cokie would know whether or not this speculation is actually true. I think he convinced himself that it was going to be over, that Nixon was going to somehow make it before the Smoking Gun conversation came out and that he wasn't going to have to be president. He could put it in his time and retire because he told Betty he was going to retire in 1976, and that he would be done with this and he wouldn't have to be president. So I think it was maybe less of a risk than he thought it was going to be.
CONAN: Does that sound right, Cokie?
ROBERTS: I think - well, I certainly think that question of duty is paramount, that anybody who has given as much of his life to the public as Gerry Ford did does not deny a call to service particularly in such a difficult time. And he was keenly aware of how difficult the time was. And the truth is, the job he really wanted was to be speaker of the House.
Prof. GREENE: Speaker of the House, you know.
ROBERTS: And which is why he didn't run for the Senate and didn't run for governor. And there was no obvious prospect of the Republicans taking over control of the House, particularly with Watergate having happened. So - and boy, did that turn out to be true. I mean the election of '74 was a Democratic landslide. So I think that all of those calculations were going on, but I think absolutely paramount is that call to service. And he felt it, I'm sure, until last night.
CONAN: Let me ask you, Bob Greene - as you look back on the life of Gerald Ford, a lot of what he accomplished, he accomplished after he left the presidency.
Prof. GREENE: I think that there is some truth to that, but I also think that that kind of sells sort his presidency, which has become marginalized in the history textbooks - both he and President Carter's - to a page and a half in between Nixon and Reagan.
There was a great deal accomplished during his presidency as well. He was an extraordinarily, vital former president in an age where former presidents were now taking more of a front-page role in American life. It was not just sitting back and going to the farm at Gettysburg, for example, as Eisenhower did; or going back to Texas as Johnson did.
Ford was out in front. He's a major player in the 1980 presidential election. He almost gets nominated vice president. And he also, I think, drifted a little bit to the left in terms of his beliefs. Cokie was talking about the influence of Betty Ford certainly paramount in any story of Gerald Ford.
And after her time at the Long Beach Naval Hospital and she came out, and was public about her addictions, Ford became more public about his view of his wife. And I think the socialization process there was huge.
CONAN: Bob Greene, thanks very much for being with us.
Prof. GREENE: It was my pleasure. Thank you.
CONAN: Bob Greene, a presidential historian at Cazenovia College, and a biographer of Gerald Ford. He joined us today by phone from Syracuse, New York.
800-989-8255, if you'd like to join us. This is special coverage from NPR News.
From NPR News, this is special coverage of the death of former President Gerald Ford. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Gerald Ford may be the only president of the United States who never achieved his greatest political ambition. As we heard, he'd hoped to serve as speaker of the House of Representatives. In his first speech to Congress as president, he addressed the joint meeting as my former colleagues but - then ended up using the veto pen of the president 66 times.
He was a fine athlete, the center on two national champion football teams at Michigan, and found himself lampooned by Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live as a klutz and a dimwit.
(Soundbite of TV show, “Saturday Night Live”)
Mr. CHEVY CHASE (Comedian): (As President Ford) Now Ron, tell me about these rumors that I'm going to fire you. What is that all about?
Unidentified Man #1: Well, I have heard those rumors, sir.
Mr. CHASE: Are they true?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Unidentified Man #1: I don't know, sir. That will be your decision.
Mr. CHASE: Well, I guess we'll find out sooner or later then, won't we?
Unidentified Man #1: Perhaps, Mr. President, I better brief you now on the press conference.
Mr. CHASE: Oh, don't be silly, Ron, you take your time.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Unidentified Man #1: Thank you, sir.
CONAN: From “Saturday Night Live.” We're talking today about the life and legacy of the accidental president. If you have stories about Gerald Ford or questions about his presidency, our number is 800-989-8255 or you can contact us by email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
With us, NPR news analyst Cokie Roberts. And let's see if we can get a caller on the line. This is Jonathan(ph), Jonathan with us from Lafayette, California.
JONATHAN (Caller): Yes. I'm right here. Thanks, Neal. I just wanted to say that I think the transfer of power from Nixon to Ford was a great moment in our history. And I don't say that in any partisan sense because of Nixon's downfall. But it was really an unprecedented moment, nothing like it had ever happened before or since.
And I actually don't think that we as a nation teach it and really pass it along to kids for whom it's ancient history now. But it's really an opportunity to explain to them how, as Ford said that day, when he took over that, you know, we're a nation of laws and the great constitutional system works.
And I hope that over this next week or so, while we're sort of all pausing and reflecting on the year past, that we use it as an opportunity to really communicate, especially to younger people, what happens in times of great crisis and how really ordinary people can rise to the occasion to do extraordinary things.
ROBERTS: I think, Neal, that that is such a good point. What - President Ford talked to me about that moment. He said there was no rebellion. There was no problem about the succession. It was done properly. Our Constitution is a magnificent document. And, you know, I think the caller could not be more correct.
I was living in Athens, Greece at the time and the member of Congress, Ben Rosenthal, who was a Democrat from New York, who had not gone to Greece during the period that the colonels or the junta were in power.
And he came - and he was a great supporter of democracy in Greece - he came to Greece after the junta fell. And he talked to the people of Greece about what had happened in America with the succession of Gerald Ford. And he said, if you have any doubt about the strength of democracy in the United States, consider this: the president of the United States, the commander in chief of the military, was forced to leave office and not one soldier left his barracks to defend him.
Now, it never occurred to us that such a thing might happen because we are so used to this constitutional balance of powers. And we so completely expect the system to work in an orderly fashion that we don't have any real appreciation of how extraordinary that is.
And the fact that it did work is quite remarkable, but it is also true that part of the reason it worked was because Gerry Ford was the man who was there at the time.
CONAN: Jonathan, thanks very much for the call.
JONATHAN: Thank you.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get Sandy(ph) on the line, Sandy with us from Rockford, Michigan.
SANDY (Caller): Hi, Neal. How are you?
CONAN: I'm good.
SANDY: Good. I grew up in a rural farming community north of Grand Rapids, where Gerald Ford was from. And in 1957, he met with my grandfather, Harry Chase(ph), who was a founding fruit farmer of the apple - of an apple packing house.
And I have a lovely photo of Gerald Ford holding this large, red, delicious apple, looking at it with a big smile and looking over at my grandfather admiring this apple. And, as you know, growing up, and then with him becoming the president, I took such pride in having a president from our local area but also having some kind of a relationship, if you will, because of my grandfather.
ROBERTS: That's lovely.
CONAN: Sandy, thanks very much.
SANDY: Thank you.
Joining us now is Barry Werth. He's the author of “31 Days: The Crisis That Gave Us the Government We Have Today.”
He joins us from the studios of member station WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts. And it's good of you to be with us today, Barry Werth.
Mr. BARRY WERTH (Author): Hello, Neal. Good to be here.
CONAN: The “31 Days: That Gave Us the Government We Have Today,” how come?
Mr. WERTH: I think if we look at the first month of the Ford presidency, we see that there was a pivot going on. Let me explain. And this really had to do with the changing complexion of the Republican Party. Ford was a centrist and he followed Nixon, a centrist, into office. And he had a number of decisions to make right away. The first really was what to do about America's global posture and he kept Henry Kissinger, who was, as we all know, a realist in foreign policy.
He had another very significant decision to make, which was who to make his own vice president, as he had been made vice president under Nixon. And he chose the most centrist of the Republicans who were available, Nelson Rockefeller.
It's interesting to note that Donald Rumsfeld was a dark horse in that race and that George H. W. Bush campaigned very aggressively.
The first trip that he took outside of Washington was to Chicago to speak with the veterans of foreign wars. And he said to them that he thought that draft resistors and draft deserters needed to be welcomed home somehow. And he asked for a kind of a limited amnesty. I think this was an act of extraordinary political courage. He told reporters afterwards that he thought it would have been cowardly for him to go to a handpicked audience.
He reached out to African-Americans. He reached out to women. He was determined, I think, to take the country towards the center, the healing center. And in the process, he was then called on to deal with Nixon, who left him really with an, you know, the thankless task of deciding what to do.
And when he pardoned Nixon, he was suddenly confronted with something that a sitting president - certainly a Republican sitting president - had never been confronted with at all, which was an intra-party challenge. The right wing of the Republican Party galvanized around Ronald Reagan, who was then the lame duck governor of California.
And suddenly, all of the moves towards the center that Ford had attempted were left behind as he tried to fend off this challenge from the Republican right. Of course, he brought in Rumsfeld as his chief of staff two weeks after the pardon.
And Rumsfeld brought in his then 33-year-old former deputy from his White House days, Dick Cheney. And the rest of the Ford presidency was - it can be seen, I think, at this point as an effort by Ford to try to fend off a challenge from the right wing of the Republican Party.
Now - and there was also the question of America's position in the world in the wake of Vietnam. There was a tremendous fear about the Vietnam syndrome, that the United States would be reluctant in the future to get involved in a war in a distant country. And so finally, you know, 30 years later in the presidency of George W. Bush, we find Rumsfeld and Cheney still very much at the center of our strategic decision-making and leading us into a war that looks in many ways like Vietnam.
So it's - I think as we take stock of where we are now, it's important to go back to that moment in history and see what Ford was trying to do and then what his administration eventually did do in respect to both presidential power and the assertion of American might around the world.
CONAN: And when we now read those comments of Gerald Ford, talking about reestablishing confidence in the White House and the executive after the disasters of Vietnam and Watergate, that again is a theme that we've heard from more recent days.
Mr. WERTH: Well, it comes back again, sure.
CONAN: Yeah. Cokie? I'm sorry.
ROBERTS: Well, he's interesting about that though. First of all, I would argue that Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney were different people then than they are now. Donald Rumsfeld was this attractive young congressman from Michigan who was very much seen as a centrist. And Dick Cheney, when he was - even when he was in Congress from Wyoming, even though his voting record was very conservative, he was considered a great pragmatist in the caucus of the Republican Party.
And so, you know, they have evolved as well. But Ford in my last interview with him was very interesting about how, you know, power does shift back and forth between the presidency and the Congress. That the balance of powers in the Constitution is not equal at any given time or perfect. And he talked about how during World War II, the president was all powerful whereas during the civil war the Congress held much more of the power.
And he was somewhat sympathetic to President Bush about the world situation today. He said when I was in the White House we faced one enemy - the USSR. It was a formidable enemy but we knew their capabilities and they pretty well knew ours. So that when I met with Brezhnev, we both knew that it would be catastrophic - these are his words - catastrophic to engage in military conflicts. So we never did.
He said President Bush has a multifaceted enemy. President Bush and any president who comes after him, will have no single enemy that you can sit down with and resolve the problem. So he says they have - this president and his successors have a much more dangerous challenge.
Mr. WERTH: I think Cokie is right about that. But I also think that the difference between the Ford administration and the axis between Rumsfeld, and Cheney, and the Bush administration, and that axis now is that besides circumstances and the geopolitical shape of the world being different then, Rumsfeld and Cheney were novices. They - neither one of them was extremely well prepared for the position that he would hold in that administration. They - it was, sort of, a dry run for them and that when they returned, I think, both were determined to use the instruments of power that were granted to them in a way that they weren't able to use them back in 1974 to 1976.
ROBERTS: I actually think that they're, I mean, this is - we're not here to talk about Rumsfeld and Cheney - but I do think the big difference was their time in the private sector and that that really reshaped their thinking in all kinds of ways and that that never affected Gerry Ford.
CONAN: Barry Werth, thanks very much for being with us. We appreciate your time.
Mr. WERTH: You're quite welcome.
CONAN: Barry Werth, the author of “31 Days: The Crisis That Gave Us The Government We Have Today.” He joined us today from the studios of WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts.
We're talking today about the late president, Gerald R. Ford, who died last night at the age of 93 in Rancho Mirage, California, at his home.
You're listening to Special Coverage coming to you from NPR News.
Roger Porter is the IBM professor of business in government at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, an adviser to President Ford. He joins us now by phone from Los Angeles. Thanks very much for being with us.
Professor ROGER PORTER (Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University): It's my pleasure.
CONAN: You came to work in Washington as a White House fellow in 1974. And I understand you started work on the first day of the Ford presidency.
Prof. PORTER: Well, quite ironically, I was selected to serve Vice President Ford as his White House fellow. And I arrived the morning of August 9th, and three and half hours later saw my principle being sworn in as 38th president of the United States.
CONAN: Pretty amazing moment to be a witness to.
Prof. PORTER: It certainly was.
CONAN: We've just been talking about the transition from Nixon to Ford. You were there, what was it like?
Prof. PORTER: Well, it was a transition that happened very rapidly. President - Vice President Ford was only told definitively the day before by President Nixon that he was resigning. So, unlike most of his predecessors, he had very little time in which to prepare.
A little work had been done by Philip Buchan, his former law partner and who was then serving in the vice president's office as his general counsel. But for the most part it was an effort that was put together very quickly. And my first assignment, ironically enough, was to service as the secretary to that transition team.
So I spent my first 16 days in government helping to write the report that the transition team submitted to then President Ford as to how he got to organize his White House staff.
CONAN: Well, obviously, you were there in a - at fairly junior capacity. I wonder though, what was it like to work for Gerald Ford?
Mr. PORTER: He was an enormously attractive human being and very pleasant to be around. As you point out, I was 20 years - so years younger than everybody in the room. And yet when he would come into the room he would often make a beeline for me and shake my hand and thanked me very much. And I was always grateful that he remembered my name and showed a considerable amount of attention to me.
And he was not someone who was self-absorbed in any way. He was very comfortable around people and liked the given thrust of debate. Some people assumed that presidents are principally surrounded by people who think very much like they do and are very much like they are, since, after all, they get to select them.
But in Gerald Ford's case, he love to hear the cut and thrust of debate in front of him and he encouraged a good deal of this by the questions that he posed and that he asked. So he was intellectually a very interesting and exciting place to be, in terms of serving as a witness to fascinating set of events.
CONAN: Cokie Roberts, we continually hear the phrase these days about politicians wondering if they're comfortable within their own skin. That seems to be a phrase that should have been designed for Gerald Ford.
ROBERTS: Absolutely. Not only comfortable within his own skin, comfortable with his family, able to let his wife and children disagree with him in public and take it in good humor, and incredibly kind, as Roger's just said, you know, making a beeline for a kid in the room. That's a lovely thing to do.
I tell you, my father and he had become very close friends. So when he was - they were in Congress together for what would have been - it would have been more than 20 years and they - for 25 years. And they had gone to China together on this historic trip.
The President Nixon had gone to China, as you know, to make the opening to China and then the majority and minority leaders of the Senate went. Both having been, ironically, born in China as children of missionaries and there's a House of Representatives got its nose out of joint. So organized a mission for the House majority and minority leaders. And so the majority leader at that time was my father, Hale Boggs, and the minority leader, Gerald Ford, and they went with their wives and became even closer friends and that was in the spring of 1972.
In that fall, my father's plane disappeared and Gerry Ford was the first person on the doorstep and just stayed there throughout the search and always just there being kind to the family and especially to my mother.
CONAN: Roger Porter, thanks very much for being with us today. We appreciate your time. Your calls about Gerald Ford when we return.
This is NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
This is special coverage from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Today, we're remembering President Gerald Ford, who died at his home last night in California, being remembered today as a man of integrity and candor. With us NPR's news analyst Cokie Roberts a family friend to President Ford, who also covered politics with him and spoke with him many times.
And we're taking your calls. What do you remember about Gerald Ford? Our number 800-989-8255, 800-989-talk, e-mail is email@example.com.
Former President George Herbert Walker Bush remembered President Ford earlier today. Here he is speaking from the Gasparilla Inn in Boca Grande, Florida.
(Soundbite of a speech by Former President George Herbert Walker Bush)
Former President GEORGE BUSH: I owe much of my life in politics to Gerry Ford because having lost an election in '64, he campaigned for me in '66 and I won. Then he gave me the great assignment of being equivalent of ambassador in China and then through that - before that he was our leader in the House of Representatives and one of the most decent, honorable man I've ever met in my life. We're all familiar with his healing the wounds of the United States after Watergate but he was typically Gerry Ford. It never went to his head that he was president. And a truly remarkable man and we send Betty…
CONAN: And some of President Ford's critics later came to change their mind about him. Here's Senator Ted Kennedy, a critic of the pardon of Richard Nixon at that time, speaking here on NPR's DAY TO DAY with Noah Adams.
Sen. TED KENNEDY (Democrat, Massachusetts): Gerry Ford understood that you can work with your opposition, you can stay true to your principles and you can get something done and the country wins and the people who are involved in it win. That isn't something that we have seen in recent times. That's why many of us who were fortunate enough to have worked with the President Ford have a high regard, respect for him.
CONAN: Senator Kennedy at one time presented Gerald Ford with a Profile in Courage award for his decision to pardon Richard Nixon, a decision that cost Gerald Ford, as we mentioned, politically, Cokie Roberts, and personally, too.
ROBERTS: Yes, I think that's right because I asked him if he had any idea the firestorm that it was going to create. And he said I anticipated a lot of it but then I got a lot more criticism than I did anticipate. And the idea that he had struck a deal with Richard Nixon really struck at him. He considered himself so aboveboard and just ready to tell, you know, the truth at any time that the idea that he had a secret deal offended him.
He did go up to the Capitol, of course, against the advice of his staff to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on the question of whether there had been a deal. And he said I'm going to go testify because I have nothing to hide. And he felt that that did help considerably in tamping down the criticism in Congress but certainly not in the public as a whole. And, of course, as you heard earlier he was getting it from (unintelligible), he was getting it from both sides.
The Democrats were terribly opposed to the pardon as were the majority of the American people. And inside the Republican Party there was a lot of upset that he was not more friendly to President Nixon. So he got this challenge from future president, Ronald Reagan, and we now know that in looking back that anytime a sitting president is challenged in a primary he loses in the general election.
And so I think that all of that was something of a surprise to him. But to his credit, he continued to say, right up until the very end, that it was the right thing to do. I think that if he wants to be remembered for something it is as a healer. And, of course, at that time, it did not seem like a healing gesture. But in the long run it certainly does.
CONAN: Let's get some listeners on the line. Let's turn to John(ph). John with us from Dubois in Wyoming.
JOHN (caller): Yes. Hello. Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
JOHN: I was wondering what the panel, if they did hypotheticals, what they may think would have been the difference if Ford would've been elected in the Iran contra or the Iran hostage situation, the whole Middle East thing?
CONAN: Well, there was an intervening presidency that of James Earl Carter of Georgia. But, I wonder, did you ever ask, Cokie, President Ford what he might have done had he stayed in office?
ROBERTS: No, and I think if I had he would have just laughed. The Times would have dictated that and that is the truth.
I mean he was a very practical politician who would've said, you know, I would've liked to have gotten the economy in shape and make America safe and keep us from getting embroiled in another Vietnam and try to keep the balance between the presidency and the Congress more normal.
The imperial presidency of Richard Nixon certainly had affected - as it was called - certainly had affected the Congress and the body politic. And two major pieces of legislation were passed during Ford's presidency on the congressional attempt to wrest back power to that end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
And one was the Budget Empowerment Act giving Congress more power over the federal budget, and the other was the War Powers Act. And they were definitely intended to make the presidency more accountable. And I think that Ford would've chafed against those. He talked about chafing against those as other presidents have as well. But it would be impossible to know what would've happened in the situation in Iran and whether hostages would've been taken, and what he would've done about those hostages.
CONAN: Let's get Chuck on the line, Chuck with us from Rimrock, Arizona.
CHUCK (Caller): Hi. I'm actually from Alaska. I'm visiting down here in Rimrock and the Alaskan connection -
Ms. ROBERTS: A little warmer.
CHUCK: I'm sorry?
CONAN: It's a little -
Ms. ROBERTS: A little warmer.
CHUCK: It is quite a bit warmer, actually. In fact I was painting lawn furniture just before I called you. The late or mid ‘70s, about the same time that Ford assumed the presidency, we had a new governor who - Jay Hammond - who I think fit kind of that same paradigm. I call them the Milquetoast Republicans. They're kind of like the non-activist versions of the Republican Party we see today.
And on that line, both of them came in dealing with a great deal of economic turmoil. I know Gerald Ford's famous line, aside from his pardoning of Nixon, I think the greatest legacy - at least the thing I remember the most - is his Whip Inflation Now campaign.
CONAN: Oh, remember the WIN buttons campaign.
CHUCK: Remember? I have one.
Ms. ROBERTS: You have one? Bravo. Well, of course that got a lot of ridicule because again, some of his critics felt strongly that he should've put in wage and price controls. And so he didn't get a lot of credit for it at the time, but of course what happened after him in the Carter administration was the spiraling out of control of inflation. And so maybe the WIN strategy was better than nothing.
I do want to say though, in talking about him and Carter - because the question came up, you know, how would he be different - and one of the reasons I think that he wouldn't answer that question were it put to him was that I don't he would want to in anyway denigrate President Carter. They became such good friends in later years, and have worked on so many projects together and have really felt strongly that their combined efforts could make a tremendous difference.
And I think that that again was part of Gerry Ford's just fundamental decency that he did not hold it against Jimmy Carter that he was beaten, that he just saw that as part of the process. And of course he was disappointed. Of course he licked his wounds for a while. But they came together to work for the country and for the world in all kinds of ways.
CHUCK: Actually, filled a critical need at a very critical time, so -
Ms. ROBERTS: That's right. And they also set an example of for future presidents. I remember interviewing President H.W. Bush, and he was saying, you know, that he didn't think that he and Clinton could ever form the kind of friendship that Carter and Ford had. And in fact now they have, because they have found that they could come together on critical issues and really be a force in the world.
And I think that that was really something that President Ford did, because the loser is the person who has to do it -
CONAN: Reach out -
Ms. ROBERTS: - and he reached out to President Carter and it worked.
CONAN: Enjoy the weather.
CHUCK: The turmoil that the country was in at that time, do you think, contributed to his eventual loss in reelection?
Ms. ROBERTS: Oh sure. Absolutely. The country was as split as it had ever been, up until maybe the 2000 election. And I mean - with the notable exception of the Civil War - but he I think was certainly someone who was vilified for trying to bring it back together in the way he saw fit.
CONAN: Chuck -
CHUCK: Thanks for your comments, Cokie.
CONAN: Thanks very much. Enjoy the weather.
Let's see if we can go now to - this is Carol, Carol with us from San Mateo in California.
CAROL (Caller): Hi. I grew up in Lake Odessa, Michigan, which was part of Gerry Ford's 5th Congressional District. And I have a wonderful recollection of meeting him on various occasions over many years, including one time just about three years ago. He always had a lovely response whenever he met anyone from one of the small villages in Michigan, which was “ah, a thriving metropolis.” So when I went to introduce myself over the years, I would say, you know, I'm Carol Ericson from Lake Odessa. His reply was always ah, Lake Odessa, a thriving metropolis.
Ms. ROBERTS: That's great.
CONAN: Carol, we have now from the thriving metropolis of San Mateo, California.
CAROL: That's right.
CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the call. I appreciate it.
Let's talk now with Eileen, Eileen with us from Jamestown, New York.
EILEEN (Caller): Yes, hello. I've been remembering two things that happened just in the first day or so of the presidency. The press seemed to be impressed with the fact that he toasted his own English muffin the first morning in the White House. And I remember them remarking on the fact that a king-sized bed was moved into the White House as opposed to the separate bedrooms of the previous residents.
Ms. ROBERTS: Well that was - that's really true because I remember as a child seeing pictures of the layout of the White House and - from various presidents - and being so surprised that they always had the president's bedroom, the first lady's bedroom, because that wasn't the way most Americans lived. And suddenly, with the Fords, it was the bedroom, or the master bedroom, or something normal. And I think that was symbolic.
EILEEN: Yes, yeah, and it just fit with what people have been saying all the day about how he was just a common man.
EILEEN: He wasn't the imperial president anymore.
CONAN: And padded out to get the newspaper from the White House front stoop that first morning.
EILEEN: That's right, yeah. And I was wondering, without violating the family's privacy, if you might be able to say something about what he was like the last few years. We never heard anything. I assume at 93, he was physically frail, but was he still the same mental and intellectual person that he was when he was president?
Ms. ROBERTS: The last time I saw him, which was a couple of years ago now, but he was sharp as a tack. And he was able to engage in very esoteric conversations about the nature of the Constitution, which is what we were talking about.
EILEEN: Oh, that's wonderful.
Ms. ROBERTS: And he also made a point of bringing me back to the house to see Mrs. Ford because he is so devoted to her, and knew that that would be very meaningful to me. And really, it was just wonderful, seeing him be so well.
EILEEN: That's good.
Ms. ROBERTS: And I have talked a lot to his family since then, Susan Ford. And she has said that her father has been with it wonderfully right up to the end.
EILEEN: Oh, that's good to know.
Ms. ROBERTS: Isn't that good to know?
EILEEN: It makes it easier on the family, I think.
Ms. ROBERTS: Right.
EILEEN: All right, well, thank you very much.
CONAN: Thanks, Eileen.
CONAN: We're talking today about the late President Gerald R. Ford, who died last night at his home in Rancho Mirage, California. You're listening to a special coverage from NPR News.
And many people speaking today about Gerald Ford as a modest man, but also a man of great candor. Here's an excerpt from his State Of The Union Address in 1975.
President GERALD FORD: And I must say to you that the state of union is not good. Millions of Americans are out of work, recession and inflation are eroding the money of millions more. Prices are too high and sales are too slow.
CONAN: Cokie Roberts, a new president at that time, but hard to imagine any president making that kind of statement today.
Ms. ROBERTS: Well, you know, you didn't know this when you just brought that up, but I researched that once. So I went through State of the Union message after State of the Union message. And they all said at some point the state of our union is grand.
CONAN: Is strong.
Ms. ROBERTS: Strong, is healthy, is whatever. You know? Some muscular word. And that would be the applause line. And I didn't remember that Gerald Ford had said that. And when I got to his, I thought wow. Here's an honest man. So he is the only one I could ever find to just lay it out.
CONAN: Let's talk with Scott, Scott with us from LaGrange in Indiana.
SCOTT: Hi. One of my best memories of President Ford is that he was president during the nation's bicentennial.
Ms. ROBERTS: Right.
SCOTT: And, like, it was just having a great time to celebrate being an American. And I remember specifically the bicentennial minutes that Mrs. Ford gave - two of them - and that he gave the last one. I just wonder if anybody can bring more light on that.
Ms. ROBERTS: Do you remember what it was?
SCOTT: No, I don't. I've been trying to find a transcript of it, and I can't find it.
CONAN: Well, more fodder for researchers in the future, Scott.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.
Ms. ROBERTS: I think that partly because of the bicentennial, he really did start reflecting a lot on the country and on the Constitution. And he said to me, you know, the Constitution has had a remarkable career - I loved that description of the document - working on a day-to-day basis, this 200-year-old document. And he was not in favor of amending it readily. He said, you know, that it would start to look like the by-laws of the garden club, but that he did appreciate the fact that the amendment process allowed it to be updated and to expand right.
He was awfully glad that a couple of things hadn't happened, though. One of them was term limits, which he was adamantly against. And another was a balanced budget amendment, which he thought would constrict the president and the Congress too much and would be quote, unquote, “impractical.” He was always practical.
CONAN: Cokie Roberts, thanks so much for being with us today to remember your friend, Gerald Ford.
Ms. ROBERTS: Thank you for having me, Neal.
CONAN: And while this is a sad occasion, I guess, we have to remember to say happy birthday to you, too.
Ms. ROBERTS: Thank you very much. I'm getting up there.
CONAN: Gerald Ford died last night at his home in Rancho Mirage in California at the age of 93.
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