Ford Retrospective

If it hadn't been for Chevy Chase, Gerald Ford would have been elected President in his own right in 1976.

That's what I believe. I was an NBC News correspondent at the time, and I covered some of that campaign. And I believe it was Chase's portrayal of Ford on Saturday Night Live as a bumbling, fumbling clown that had as much to do with his defeat as anything else.

Sure, there was the pardon of Nixon. Despite the uproar, there were a lot of people who understood it was the right thing to do. It was, in fact, one of the reasons I voted for Ford, along with amnesty for Vietnam War draft evaders. That, too, was the right thing to do.

Sure, there was the gaffe in the foreign policy debate with Carter over liberating Poland. I was one of the panelists in that debate, and I was as astonished as everyone else when he said the Soviets didn't run Poland (there were complicated reasons for saying what he said the way he did). But Jimmy Carter was surely no foreign policy genius, and I came away from that debate with a very negative view of him. That experience and others during the campaign persuaded me that he would not make a good President. Unfortunately, I was more than right about him.

Sure, there was the appointment of Nelson Rockefeller as Vice President, which infuriated conservatives, and then the dumping of Rockefeller for Bob Dole in the 1976 campaign, which alienated moderates.

But in such a close election, I think he could have overcome those setbacks were it not for the image of Ford created in voters' minds by Chase.

Even though he lost the election, Ford could be considered the most successful of our Presidents since Eisenhower. John Kennedy's term was cut short by assassination, of course, but he didn't really accomplish much. Lyndon Johnson was haunted by Vietnam. Richard M. Nixon turned out to be Richard M. Nixon after all. Jimmy Carter gave peanut farmers a bad name. Ronald Reagan was indeed an "amiable dunce" whose term in office was marred by the Iran-Contra scandal and by what now appears to have been the onset of Alzheimer's. George W. Bush got one term for a reason. Bill Clinton might have been viewed as a superior President had it not been for his zipper problem. And George W. Bush has turned out to be one of our worst Presidents ever.

Historians will not be influenced by re-runs of SNL, and I think they'll regard Ford as a great transitional figure in American history.