I used to joke that when Gerald Ford died, it would probably appear in the obituary section of the paper under "Briefly Noted," with the headline, "Gerald Ford, was former President of the United States." And in truth, having heard the news before leaving for work yesterday, I admit that by the time I had gotten to the office I'd already forgotten it had happened - it was only seeing the bold headlines in the paper that reminded me. But he was president, after all, no matter how unusual the circumstances of his having gotten there, and he deserves all the trappings that go with the title, even in death.
For me, Gerald Ford exists primarily as the man who made us wait four more years for Ronald Reagan. It is telling that 1976 was the last year in which the identity of the presidential nominee was still unknown when the convention started. The idea that a challenger might deny the nomination to an incumbent - even an accidental incumbent such as Ford - was almost absurd, and yet Ronald Reagan almost pulled it off. In the end Ford may have won the delegates' votes, but as became apparent on the final night of the convention it was Reagan who won their hearts. The rap against Reagan was that he was too extremist, too conservative, too unelectable. Not only was Ford the safe choice, he also represented what was then the mainstream of the Republican Party (pro-choice, pro-Equal Rights Amendment) - the party whose grass roots still resembled the putting green at the country club.
And perhaps they were right - maybe it took four years of the most incompetent presidency in the 20th Century for Americans to understand that they were ready for Ronald Reagan. It is possible that Jimmy Carter would still have won that election, delegating Reagan to the historical dustbin along with so many other losing candidates of the past and future. Possible, perhaps, and I guess we'll have to leave it at that.
But we must remember that Carter barely won against an incumbent who hadn't been elected either president or vice president, representing a party that had just gone through the biggest political scandal in history, and having pardoned the man most Americans held responsible for the whole thing. Under those circumstances, is it really too much to believe that Ronald Reagan would have somehow won?
And what would have been the result of that? Would the Shah of Iran have fallen, would Khomeini have risen to power? Would the Iran-Iraq war have happened, would Saddam have remained in charge? Would the Soviets have invaded Afghanistan, would the Taliban have received American weapons? It's tempting to say that some of it, or none of it, would have happened - that the Shah would have remained in power, that the Wall would have fallen sooner, that things somehow would have changed for the better. Unprovable, but tempting.
The right thing would have been for Ford to step aside, to recognize that he was too closely tied to the problems the Republicans faced, that it was time for someone from outside the Beltway to lead the party in a new direction. Ronald Reagan was that man, and four years later the rest of the nation realized it as well.
I suppored Ford, staunchly if unenthusiastically, in his race against Jimmy Carter. Even though I wasn't yet old enough to vote - that would have to wait another four years, when my first presidential vote went to the Gipper - I was already in the thick of my political life. I sat next to Rudy Boschwitz (who in two years would be elected to the U.S. Senate) at a Republican meeting the night of the first Ford-Carter debate, and we watched the power outage that knocked out the audio feed of the debate. (Never again would presidential debates be quite as appealing to us as they were for those few minutes when nobody could hear the candidates.) I defended Ford, even in the aftermath of his seemingly absurd misstatement in which he declared emphatically that Eastern Europe was not under the domination of the Soviet Union. I displayed the proper amount of regret the morning after the election when I found that Carter had pulled it out. And four years later, when rumors swept the convention hall in Detroit that Reagan was going to choose Ford as his running mate, creating a sort of co-presidency, I gnashed my teeth and nearly rent my garment, wondering if this man was never going to go away.
Eventually he did fade from the public spotlight, appearing mostly at celebrity pro-am golf tournaments and in his ceremonial role at the funerals of former presidents. He became the nation's oldest former president, and lived for almost thirty years after leaving office - time enough to become, if not a legend, a sort of elder statesman. If we look at Ford and find him lacking in comparison to Reagan, we also have to compare him to Carter and Clinton, and admit that those comparisons are to his credit.
Gerald Ford didn't really make history, but in a way he made it possible for history to happen. He was, probably, the right man for the nation in the wake of the Watergate scandal. I always agreed with his pardon of Nixon - aside from the humanitarian gesture, it was time for the nation to get on with it. And although he'd never be aware of it, he played a role in my history as well, for in politics everyone needs someone not only to campaign for, but to campaign against. I campaigned for Reagan against Ford, and for Ford against Carter. By the time that election year of 1976 was over, I was hooked.
Perhaps most important, he was a good and decent man serving his country as best he could. And while it's true that goodness and decency do not excuse incompetency, they do count for something. This week the nation will recognize that, in a fitting and appropriate way. And so we bury our disagreements, we honor the office, and in doing so we recognize the man who held it, however briefly, but with dignity.