I was in my early 20's when Gerald Ford was president. In those days, I hated the Republican Party, despised politics in general, and paid as little attention to either as I could. But I used to laugh at Chevy Chase's merciless mockery of Ford on Saturday Night Live, and I didn't approve of Ford's pardoning of Richard Nixon. Yet, I never felt the animosity if not hatred toward him that I later did for Ronald Reagan and George Bush Jr. Gerald Ford was a man you just couldn't hate.
I never thought much about why at the time. But in the wake of his recent death and with what I would like to think is at least a little more maturity than I had over three decades ago, I've thought about it quite a lot. I've come to the conclusion that Gerald Ford was one of the most unassuming, genial, straightforward, commonsensical, and just plain decent men to serve in high political office during my lifetime. As Dick Cheney pointed out in his eulogy, Ford was no philosopher-statesman, but he was exactly what our nation needed when circumstances forced him into a position he hadn't anticipated and probably never really wanted. And if he didn't perform his duties with dazzling oratory and brilliance, at least he did so with genuine modesty and integrity and without the Machiavellian artifice so characteristic of politicians. He did what he thought was right. Not "right" in terms of political ideology, but right in terms of solid moral sensibilities.
In retrospect, I believe that he not only thought he was but also that he actually WAS morally right to pardon Nixon rather than allow this country, already bruised and demoralized by the Vietnam War, Watergate, and a faltering economy, to glumly wallow in a protracted trial that would, at best, have proven what we already knew and what the pardon itself implied. Ironically, doing the right thing may well have cost Ford victory in the 1976 election, and cynical politicians would no doubt cite this as good reason to elevate personal expediency over selfless rectitude in one's political acts. But am I naive to think that if we had more politicians at every level who are more intent on doing right than on getting re-elected, we and our children and they and their children might inhabit a better nation and world than we all do? And isn't it likely that Gerald Ford was able to look back on his life when he came to its end and feel a sense of glowing satisfaction and pride over the essential integrity and goodness with which he conducted his private and publicly political life that few politicians will ever know?
I don't mourn the death of Gerald Ford. He lived a remarkably full life of 93 years as high-school and college football star, Yale Law School graduate, valiant naval officer during World War II, distinguished congressman and House Minority Leader, Vice President, President, elder statesman, and loving and devoted family man. But I have great admiration and respect for the kind of man he was, and I believe that the world of politics and the world at large is diminished by his passing. He may have been a "Ford, not a Lincoln," but what a rugged, reliable, and quietly capable old Ford he was.