Ford was balm to the nation

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The following editorial appeared in The Grand Rapids Press, Dec. 27, 2006

Former President Gerald R. Ford will be remembered for restoring honor and dignity to the highest office in the land. His honesty, principled leadership and fundamental decency – values that reflected the Midwestern city that called him its own – offered a badly needed balm to a bitterly disillusioned nation.

Ford displayed character when the notion of it in high government had become a punch line. He insisted that conviction trump opinion polls. He provided a steady hand through a roiling tempest. For that leadership, the nation owes President Gerald R. Ford its deepest gratitude and an honored place in history.

Ford, who died Tuesday at the age of 93, never aspired to be president. He wanted to lead a Republican majority as speaker of the House of Representatives, where he served for a quarter century. When that majority failed to materialize in the 1972 elections, he seemed bound for retirement after 1976.

Then, a remarkable chain of events: Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in a kickback scandal. President Nixon, who had wanted former Texas Gov. John Connally as Agnew’s replacement, chose Ford as an easily confirmable alternative. The Nixon White House unraveled. Finally, Ford became the only president ever to take the office because a chief executive had resigned.

In light of this unlikely ascent, his was an “accidental” presidency. But not one for which Ford was unprepared and certainly not one for which he was unsuited. He provided the perfect tonic for the nation’s dark mood.

His trustworthiness had everything to do with his upbringing. Ford’s mother had the grit to flee an abusive husband when her young son – born Leslie Lynch King Jr. in Omaha, Neb. – was just two weeks old. She married Gerald R. Ford Sr., a Grand Rapids paint salesman. The elder Ford impressed upon his son the virtues of civic involvement.

His House colleagues counted him a faithful broker as minority leader. People in his congressional district liked and respected him, re-electing him 12 times, never with less than 60 percent of the vote.

That made it possible for people to believe Ford when he declared in his inaugural address, “Our long national nightmare is over.” He didn’t enter the Oval Office with a sweeping vision or a ready plan. He stepped into the job as a matter of duty.

After Watergate, the nation needed a healer. Gerald Ford of Grand Rapids was the right man for the job.

Just a month after taking office, Ford tested public trust by granting a “full, free and absolute” pardon to Richard Nixon. “I do believe that the buck stops here, that I cannot rely upon public opinion polls to tell me what is right,” Ford said at the time.

The act proved that Ford was no finger-in-the-wind politician. He took the risky and unpopular step to spare the country years of recrimination and distraction. The public didn’t see it that way. Opinion polls, overwhelmingly favorable until then, flipped overnight.

Despite these repercussions, Ford never wavered from his conviction that pardoning Nixon was right and necessary. And it was. In hindsight, even political opponents of Ford acknowledged the wisdom and courage of the act. In 2001, he received the Profile in Courage award from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation.

As a congressman and as president, he believed in the power of government to help people but sought to limit government when it unnecessarily burdened taxpayers or restricted personal freedom. He believed strongly in the rights of women and minorities. He was a compassionate conservative before the phrase became a national mantra.

After his presidency, Ford grew into the role of elder statesman, pushing for civility as politics became more savage. Always, he was a citizen before he was a partisan. At the rededication of the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids in 1997, he lamented the coarse nature of public debate. “Politics is a clash of ideas, not a blood sport,” he said. “It is a contest of principles, not a holy war.”

In the way greatness is reckoned, Ford’s presidential accomplishments draw more from his person than his policies.

He did not face down Hitler and Tojo. Nor did he oversee the dismantling of the Soviet state, launch a flurry of government programs or steer the nation through bloody civil war. But he was, without doubt, the right man to help a dispirited nation find its bearings.

In that sense, Ford’s greatness can be found in his goodness. His most lasting agenda item as president is the same one that has occupied the country so much in elections since: character.

Ford will be laid to rest beside the museum that bears his name. That is altogether fitting. Though he hasn’t lived here for many years, this is home, the “strait-laced, highly conservative town,” as he once put it, that shaped him and has been honored to call him native son.

Rest in peace, Gerald R. Ford of Grand Rapids.

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