The Legacy of Gerald Ford

Having gone to Congress in 1971, I had the high honor and pleasure of serving with Jerry Ford for the 2 1/2 years he was House minority leader before he became vice president in 1973 and president in 1974, but we were friends for life.

These last several days of watching television, reading the newspapers and attending the visitation in Palm Desert with Betty Ford, the Ford family and friends, I was reminded of the many personal and political experiences I shared with President Ford. I couldn’t help but think of the historical lessons associated with his remarkable life.

It’s been said many times what a terrific football star he was at the University of Michigan in 1932 and 1933. He was the most valuable player of the national championship Wolverine team of 1933, and I don’t recall another center being named MVP. It is significant that Ford, as the center of the Michigan football team, would be named most valuable.

I loved President Bush’s comments at the funeral on Tuesday about Ford’s character and leadership as he came face to face with racial prejudice when Georgia Tech came to Ann Arbor for a game. As Bush told the story, Ford’s teammate was an African-American named Willis Ward. Georgia Tech said they would not take the field if a black man were allowed to play.

Ford was furious at Georgia Tech for making the demand and at the University of Michigan for caving in. He agreed to play only after Ward personally asked him to. The stand Ford took that day was never forgotten by his friend, and Ford never forgot that day, either. Three decades later, he proudly supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Ford’s values were conservative, but his politics were centrist. While his lodestar was to the center right, his ability to work for consensus and compromise was the hallmark of all he did in Congress, the White House and as our senior statesman in his golden years.

Ford believed, as did Mr. Lincoln, that "you serve your party best by serving our nation first." Ford proved the effectiveness of our Constitution by helping cleanse the country of the stains, deceptions and crimes of the Watergate years. I believed then, as I do now, that pardoning President Nixon helped avoid a second (and prolonged) constitutional crisis that would have paralyzed America at a critical moment in the Cold War with the old Soviet Union.

Ford’s only ambition was to be speaker of the House of Representatives because he was quintessentially a man of the House. His word was his bond, and his integrity made him friends with everyone from Tip O’Neill in Congress to President Jimmy Carter.

Once when I had given a firebrand speech against the political position of then-House Majority Leader Tip O’Neill, Ford said to me: "Jack, you might have been a quarterback of the San Diego Chargers and the Buffalo Bills, but I’m the quarterback here and you’re a blocking guard, not the quarterback." Ford was working out a compromise with O’Neill and the Democrats, and he was telling me not to jeopardize his delicate negotiations.

I never forgot that lesson of principled compromise that Ford believed was in the best interest of our nation’s foreign policy.

I had my disagreements with Ford on taxes, the Jackson-Vanik Amendment on Soviet Jewry and not inviting Alexander Solzehnitzen to the White House, but I never doubted his honor, integrity or his love of country.

At the visitation in Palm Desert, I had the wonderful opportunity to tell Betty Ford that her husband gave all of us in the political arena a great example of effective leadership and principled conservatism. Then I told her that he also gave me one of the best pieces of advice I ever received.

I was a freshman congressman from upstate New York when one Friday afternoon during football season he noticed how nervous and fidgety I was in the back benches of the House. He said, "Jack, what’s wrong?" and I told him that I was anxious to get out to watch my son quarterback a big football game. "You know Jack," he said, "one of my biggest disappointments was not being able to watch my son play football. Don’t miss your son’s game."

In "Pirkei Avot – The Ethics of the Fathers," Rabbi Shimon Ben Elazar writes that there are three crowns to a man’s life: "The crown of learning, the crown of the priesthood and the crown of royalty. But the crown of a good name exceeds them all."

Ford wears the highest crown of a successful life, the crown of a good name. What a great legacy.