Late Tuesday night, when Gerald R. Ford, the longest living U.S. president, died at age 93, America lost one of the more under appreciated figures in modern history. He was more fortunate than most, in particular the man he followed into the Oval Office, in that he lived to see history treat him more kindly than his contemporaries.
Ford was an unlikely and reluctant president. When appointed vice president in 1973, he had served as House minority leader for 10 years. By all accounts, his highest ambition was to serve as speaker of the House, but fate intervened when Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced to resign. President Nixon, beleaguered by the Watergate scandal, needed a non-controversial candidate who would gain speedy confirmation. Ford, well-liked on both sides of the aisle, was his man.
Ten months later, Nixon resigned, and Ford became the only man in American history to serve as Vice President and President without being elected to either office. On September 8, 1974, Gerald Ford faced the defining moment of his career, choosing to grant Richard Nixon a full and unconditional pardon.
Elites in the media, desperately disappointed that they had been deprived of the opportunity to see a Republican president indicted, tried and sent to prison, went berserk. Aided by Democrats in Congress, they hurled accusations that a corrupt deal had been made, elevating Ford to the presidency in exchange for a pardon.
The pardon undoubtedly was a major factor in Ford’s loss to Jimmy Carter in 1976. But Ford maintained for the rest of his life that it had been the right thing to do. Even partisan Democrats came around to begrudgingly admit that the pardon had probably saved Americans years of unnecessary grief. When Ford received the Profiles in Courage Award in 2001, none other than Ted Kennedy praised the act, saying, “I was one of those who spoke out against his action then. But time has a way of clarifying past events, and now we see that President Ford was right.”
To be sure, on other levels, Ford’s presidency was less than stellar. He presided over a rocky economy, largely a result of Nixon’s disastrous implementation of wage and price controls. Americans watched the embarrassing evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Saigon on television as North Vietnam overran the South in 1975. No more helpful was the impression of Ford—an athlete who had turned down contracts with two pro football teams—as a klutz, lampooned in endless skits on Saturday Night Live.
Perhaps less known was Ford’s personal history. Originally named Leslie Lynch King, Jr. at birth, Ford was the son of an abusive, alcoholic father, whom Ford’s mother fled when he was just five months old. She later married Gerald Ford, Sr., who adopted the future president. Gerald Ford, Jr. would not know that he was adopted until he was 15 years old, when his biological father briefly resurfaced. He would spend his entire life as a vocal proponent of adoption.
Early in his vice presidency, Ford described himself as “a Ford, not a Lincoln,” and indeed, it is unlikely historians will ever rank Ford alongside Honest Abe or any of the other greats. But let the record show that Ford governed as he lived: as a man thrust into tragic circumstances beyond his control, who rose to the occasion and did the right thing when it counted.