Coming of Age with Gerald Ford

I was going into my junior year of high school the summer that Gerald Ford became President. I remember calling everyone I knew on that hot August day to gloat over Nixon's resignation. I was a few weeks away from turning 15 but I knew that it was a terribly historic moment. I had become addicted to the endless Watergate Hearings the previous summer which I watched on TV with a religious fervor and even though I couldn't follow all the intricacies of the scandal, I can remember the calming words that Ford uttered when he took office.

Mr. Chief Justice, my dear friends, my fellow Americans:

The oath that I have taken is the same oath that was taken by George Washington and by every President under the Constitution. But I assume the Presidency under extraordinary circumstances never before experienced by Americans. This is an hour of history that troubles our minds and hurts our hearts.

Therefore, I feel it is my first duty to make an unprecedented compact with my countrymen. Not an inaugural address, not a fireside chat, not a campaign speech--just a little straight talk among friends. And I intend it to be the first of many.

I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your President by your ballots, and so I ask you to confirm me as your President with your prayers. And I hope that such prayers will also be the first of many.

If you have not chosen me by secret ballot, neither have I gained office by any secret promises. I have not campaigned either for the Presidency or the Vice Presidency. I have not subscribed to any partisan platform. I am indebted to no man, and only to one woman--my dear wife--as I begin this very difficult job.

I have not sought this enormous responsibility, but I will not shirk it. Those who nominated and confirmed me as Vice President were my friends and are my friends. They were of both parties, elected by all the people and acting under the Constitution in their name. It is only fitting then that I should pledge to them and to you that I will be the President of all the people...

I believe that truth is the glue that holds government together, not only our Government but civilization itself. That bond, though strained, is unbroken at home and abroad.

In all my public and private acts as your President, I expect to follow my instincts of openness and candor with full confidence that honesty is always the best policy in the end.

My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.

Powerful, well chosen words. He went on to call the internal wounds of Watergate "more painful and more poisonous than those of foreign wars" and urged Americans to "restore the golden rule to our political process, and let brotherly love purge our hearts of suspicion and of hate."

As an already cynical teenager, the Watergate scandal made me reluctant to ever again trust any politician, especially one hand-picked by Richard Nixon, but there was something so self-effacing about Gerald Ford and his unpolished awkwardness and I truly think his words on that day marked an important turning point in this country.

We were all outraged by his unconditional pardon of Nixon the following month and assumed it was the result of some backroom deal that was struck before he took office, but I think with the passage of time it became clear that his decision made a lot of sense. In one of the many bizarre twists of fate that marked Gerald Ford's long life, he was presented with the 2001 Profiles in Courage Award because of his pardon by none other than Senator Ted Kennedy who vehemently criticized him for it in 1974. "I was one of those who spoke out against his action then," Kennedy said at the presentation, "but time has a way of clarifying past events, and now we see that President Ford was right. His courage and dedication to our country made it possible for us to begin the process of healing and put the tragedy of Watergate behind us." Among Ford's major achievements in his life was getting a Kennedy to publicly apologize.

I can't say I followed Gerald Ford's presidency with any kind of astute political awareness. Hey, it was hard enough trying to sludge through my last two years of high school. But I sure remember the two frightening attempts on his life in September 1975. The first one took place the day after my 16th birthday and reintroduced the world to one of the lunatic followers of Charles Manson. Squeaky Fromme pointed a Colt .45 handgun directly at the President from a fairly close range but she hadn't pulled the slide to allow the gun to fire. Seventeen days later Sara Jane Moore again tried to kill Ford while he was visiting San Francisco. She managed to fire her gun, injuring someone standing close to the President, but was stopped by a bystander named Oliver Sipple. Fromme and Moore are serving life sentences for the attempted assassinations. Poor Oliver Sipple did not have a great time of it after he saved Ford's life. The press found out that he was gay and publicized this fact even though Sipple had not yet come out to his family. While lauded as a hero among gay organizations, Sipple's mother disowned him and he filed a $15 million dollar invasion-of-privacy lawsuit against the newspapers that outed him. He became paranoid and suicidal after that and was found in his bed in 1989 with a half-gallon bottle of bourbon at his side. He had been dead for two weeks. President Ford sent a note of condolence to the family.

Another memory I have of Ford's presidency was the misfortune he had to stumble twice on television just as Lorne Michaels was creating a ground-breaking new show called "Saturday Night Live." One of the bits that helped Chevy Chase break out of the pack that year was his funny if wholly inaccurate portrayal of Gerald Ford as a bumbling idiot who could barely walk across a room without a major pratfall. Though Ford was good-natured about it at the time, it hardly did his public image any good and might have even been a factor in his failure the following year to get elected to the presidency.

Jimmy Carter won the 1976 election, of course, and the campaign between the two had been contentious. During their second debate, Ford was roundly ridiculed for a whopper of a gaffe that was worthy of our current leader. Asked about U.S.-Soviet relations, he responded by saying, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration." Ouch. Remember that this was long before the fall of the Iron Curtain. Ford tried to explain his comment away by saying that he was talking about the "heart, soul, and spirit" of the people of Eastern Europe, not their governments, but the damage was done.

Betty Ford was a refreshing presence in the White House after years of Pat Nixon's pinched demeanor. Betty was a strong advocate of women's rights, was pro-choice, dared to mention on TV that she and her husband slept in the same bed, and even spoke in favor of decriminalizing marijuana. Weeks after becoming First Lady, she underwent a mastectomy and was one of the first public figures to talk openly about her breast cancer and the need for early detection, probably saving many lives in the process. How could you not love a First Lady who appeared as herself on an episode of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show?" Of course her problems with alcoholism and the creation of the Betty Ford Center in 1982 led to her helping thousands of people who suffer from chemical dependencies.

I always admired the close friendship that developed between Gerald Ford and his former rival Jimmy Carter. Despite their differences, you could tell how much they loved and respected each other. How rare is that in American politics? Their friendship was not a publicity stunt and the two former Presidents spent a lot of time together over the past 25 years. Today Carter called Ford "an outstanding statesmen who wisely chose the path of healing during a deeply divisive time in America's history." Carter added that Ford often rose above politics by emphasizing the need for bipartisanship on critical issues.

Gerald Ford was a good man who became the President of the United States under the most bizarre circumstances. As of last month, the 93-year-old Ford surpassed Ronald Reagan and became the longest-living President in our history.

I do wonder on days like today what people will say about George W. Bush when he finally kicks the bucket. I wonder if my own feelings about him will soften over time as they have with Gerald Ford and to some extent Ronald Reagan.

I doubt it.