Editorial: A calm hand, a clear course

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 28, 2006

While playing golf with hockey star Gordie Howe one day, then-President Gerald Ford putted the ball 2 feet short of the 12th hole. Howe was willing to concede the putt, but Ford insisted on taking the shot, and he missed. “We won’t count that one,” Howe offered, but Ford would have none of that. Pointing toward reporters and Secret Service men around them, Ford said, “Maybe you won’t, but they will.”

That was Gerald Ford — gracious, ethical and ever-aware of how things appeared to the unblinking eyes that watched the president of the United States.

Ford, who died Tuesday, should be remembered as the right man in the right place at the right time for the United States. Comedian Chevy Chase depicted him as an accident-prone buffoon, but Ford proved to be a wise man who stepped into history at a pivotal point. The toxic Watergate scandal had forced Richard Nixon to resign, leaving Ford, his newly appointed vice president, to take over.

“Our long national nightmare is over,” Ford declared when he took office, and the nation sighed in relief.

Ford’s presidency ended a more extended period of national discord than the Watergate era. The assassinations, civil unrest and war protests that rocked the 1960s carried the nation into the 1970s in a spirit of uncertainty and distrust. It was a time when “pig” became shorthand for “police officer,” and soldiers who returned from Vietnam were more likely to meet sneers than smiles. Spiro Agnew blamed the mood on members of the press — “nattering nabobs of negativism,” as he disdained them — but his own resignation after pleading no lo contendere to tax evasion proved there was reason to doubt public officials. Nixon’s botched cover-up of the Watergate break-in virtually set that doubt in stone.

Enter the amiable Gerald Ford. His rise to power was not the type that ambitious politicians dream of — no wave of victory, no spoils to divvy up. Instead, Congressman Ford seemed to get the presidency by default, replacing Agnew first and, 10 months later, Nixon. But it may have been that lack of political baggage that enabled Ford to neutralize the highly charged atmosphere in the nation’s capital.

He pardoned Nixon, sacrificing his longterm political career in order to be more effective in the short-term. Jimmy Carter beat him in 1976 with the promise to bring a breath of fresh air to Washington, but it was Ford who helped the nation catch its breath after Nixon’s meltdown and move on.

Ford’s presidency is not known for great achievement or debacle; it was a period of settling down.

People scoff at Bill Clinton’s “two-for-one” depiction of the president and first lady, but Betty Ford played a key role during her husband’s presidency, too. Her open, honest approach to treatment for breast cancer brought a formerly whispered-about ailment out into the public. After leaving the White House, she took that same approach to her treatment for alcoholism and substance abuse — and with the same effect. There’s no shame in seeking treatment at The Betty Ford Center.

The Fords lifted the veil of secrecy and stiffness that had come between the White House and the American public. Gerald Ford moved the nation beyond its darkest hour. He knew what counted — everything.

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