Goodbye President Everyman

The Thinker by Rodin

I am still on my annual two-week sabbatical from real life. I have spent it doing many of the usual things I do during the holidays: eating too much food, putting up and taking down Christmas decorations and doing time-consuming chores you cannot finish in a weekend. Currently I am in the midst of a bathroom repainting project. This involves a lot of tedium (for I had to remove a lot of wallpaper). To keep myself awake I am spending a lot of time listening to the National Public Radio. Today, I was listening to the funeral services held at Washington’s National Cathedral for former President Gerald Ford. I was getting a bit misty eyed.

It was not so much the eulogies or even the glorious singing of the National Cathedral Choir that got me teary, but simple nostalgia for Gerald R. Ford. He is one of a handful of Republicans for whom I ever voted. I was a newly minted voter in 1976, barely nineteen. At the time, I viewed Jimmy Carter as something of a horror. I lived in Florida then, a state dominated by wacky, in your face Southern Baptists. Jimmy Carter struck me as someone straight out of that weird and dangerous Jesus-Land. Gerald Ford may have been Republican, he may have pardoned our most crooked president, but at least he was mainstream. As with all but a handful of my presidential votes I, of course, voted for the loser. Jerry Ford retired to play golf somewhere, Chevy Chase had to find someone else to parody, and I had to finish college.

Although Ford served for less than three years, I always felt very comfortable with him as president. It was not until he was out of office that I figured out why: he was Ward Cleaver in the Oval Office, right down to the pipe and the sweater. Some call Ford the accidental president. This was, of course, nonsense. He was the only president to serve who was not elected to either the office of president or vice president, but his presidency was hardly accidental. President Nixon nominated him following the resignation of his scandal-plagued vice president, Spiro Agnew. Congress got a chance to try out the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which had been ratified only seven years earlier. The amendment allowed Congress to approve the nomination of a new vice president in the event of the death or resignation of the vice president.

President Nixon by that time was up to his eyeballs in Watergate, and needed to find a vice president to whom no one could object. Gerald Ford, the House Minority Leader at the time, fit his criteria to a tee. Even Democrats liked the man. There was nothing to dislike about Jerry: he exuded the ordinary mainstream American. It was as if Ward Cleaver had been elevated into the Oval Office.

For a baby boomer like me, Gerald Ford was a breath of fresh air. It was not just because he put the Watergate and Vietnam era behind us, but it was because in the era of the Un-Cola (7 Up, in case you forgot) he was the un-President. He was the man who should never have been president. He was the type of man who simply lacked the ambition to even try to run for Senator, let alone the Presidency. He was not entirely bereft of ego, but he certainly was well grounded. He was the sort of congressman who seemed genuinely surprised to be House Minority Leader, and was even more surprised to be nominated for Vice President.

If you grew up in the Baby Boom era, as I did, Gerald Ford was a very different kind of president. I was born in 1957, but have no memory of President Eisenhower. President Kennedy was an inspiring president. President Johnson was a somber president. President Nixon was an evil president. What they all had in common though was ambition and ego. They were determined to remake the world grounded in their values.

Not Jerry. He was content to think of the presidency as another 9-5 job. You gave the job earnest attention, did your best for the American people and let the rest of it go. His presidency never soared but except for his very unpopular pardon of President Nixon, it never dived either. He was our cleanup president. He hauled out the trash left by the last four occupants. By the time he assumed office, our loss in Vietnam was inevitable. Nixon’s pardon was simply a part of the process of moving the country forward. Instead of dealing with a bloody war, he was deeply concerned about inflation and swine flu. Those of us at a certain age cannot think about Ford without thinking of his absurd WIN (Whip Inflation Now) buttons and his rolling up his sleeve to get a swine flu shot. That pandemic never occurred, but he felt it was better to be prepared. For the most part, America preferred to take the chance on catching swine flu.

His greatest gift was simply healing a nation torn asunder by Vietnam and Watergate. He let us move on and for the most part, we did. We happily went back into 1950s mode, but without the rabid anticommunism and with even worse taste in clothes. Inflation though refused to yield much to government trickery. It would help him lose a bid at election, as it would in his successor’s attempt at reelection. In retrospect, it is clear that America just had to readjust to a new global reality, and inflation was the price we had to pay. It was manifested in lives, jobs, houses and cars that were downsized.

Still, like everyone in America, I liked Jerry Ford. I still do. I admired his simple Midwestern values, his candor, his transparency and his basic decency. We may never see his likes in the Oval Office again. However, having seen a man who did not really aspire to be president as president, and seeing how well it worked out, has left me with feeling that maybe there is a better way to choose our presidents. I often wonder if we would be better off if instead of a president we had a Prime Minister selected by Congress instead. At least we could quickly get rid of them when they failed to meet our expectations.

Therefore, as I painted and heard the heartfelt eulogies, I got teary-eyed. Like some obscure pope, Gerald Ford will forever be listed in the pantheon of American presidents, but mostly we will skip over his presidency, because not much happened during it. Gerald Ford did not inspire. He did not do great things. Yet he governed with humility and decency. His mettle was never fully tested. We will never know, of course, but I suspect that had his mettle been tested, he would have risen to the occasion.

I do know one thing: of all the presidents who I will live under during my lifetime, I will never identify more closely with any president than I will with Jerry Ford. President Bush claims the ability to read a person’s soul. The nation could read Gerald Ford’s soul, and it was obvious that he was an honest and decent man. In that sense, perhaps he was singularly unique among our modern presidents.

So Jerry, in a way you will always be my president. So rest in peace, Mr. President.