The serendipitous president

With the passing of Gerald R. Ford, I find myself reflecting on his presidency — and realizing that I don’t really remember too much about it. I was only nine when he left office; he’s always been a historic figure rather than an actual memory.

Others are doing a far better job of eulogizing the man than I, so I’ll just touch on a few things that they might overlook.

First off, I recall mentioning President Ford three times in my blogging. Once, after the death of President Reagan, I did bullet-points highlighting the careers of all then-living presidents. (I’ll expand on them later.) Next, I lamented the naming of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier after him. Finally, I discovered a photo of him that I used as what I thought was a killer “who is this guy?” contest — that lasted all of nine minutes. I figured no one would reconcile the jowly, balding old man with the fair-haired, buffed, shirtless sailor — but “ironman” nailed it right out of the box.

(An aside: six of our last ten presidents — every president from Kennedy to the first Bush, with the exception of Reagan — all served in the United States Navy.)

Second, I remember Ford as being the second man to ascend to the presidency under a name other than his birth name. Ford was born “Leslie Lynch King, Jr.,” but after a divorce and remarriage, his mother changed his name to reflect his stepfather. Similar circumstances also changed W. J. Blythe III into William Jefferson Clinton.

Now, for the obligatory kind words about the recently deceased.

Gerald Ford was pretty much precisely the perfect man to be president at the time of his accession. He was utterly free of any taint from the Watergate scandal that destroyed the Nixon administration. His long career in the House, and very amicable relationships with many members of Congress, helped heal the conflict between the branches of the government. His low-key manner eased many people’s fear and distrust of the government.

And this is pure speculation on my part, but his public gaffes and missteps probably helped quite a bit, too. It reassured the people that the president was all too human, all too fallible, and it was safe to laugh again — and laugh at the president — without being reminded of the amazingly vindictive Nixon administration.

Ford also did a remarkable job as ex-president, continuing the long-established tradition of just quietly fading into the background, not second-guessing his successors and struggling to retain the limelight. Prior to Ford, only two presidents had deviated from that model — and both of those were incredible exceptions. John Quincy Adams served for 17 years in the House of Representatives, becoming a major voice in the fight against slavery. And Willam Taft holds the distinction of being the only man to ever lead two branches of government in his life, having served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court after leaving the presidency.

I recall being dismayed when President Reagan accepted a million-dollar speaking engagement from the Japanese shortly after he left office. I thought that ex-presidents should be seen, but not heard — and only rarely seen, at that. I think that the examples of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton are appalling, and wish they’d go away. I would also like to remind their supporters and defenders that President George W. Bush will be only 62 when he leaves office — and not only does he come from long-lived parents, he’s in considerably better physical health than any other president in some time. If he chooses to follow the Carter/Clinton precedent (which I doubt), he’s likely to have a long, long time to enjoy it.

Ford, though, played the genial, amiable elder statesman role to the hilt. He played his golf. He showed up for certain ceremonial events, when called for — but like he had over the rest of his life, never sought the limelight.

Ford will now be at the center of the limelight one last time, as a nation that rejected him 30 years ago now pays its last respects to one of the most decent men to ever hold the highest office in the land.

Rest in peace, Gerry. You did right by us. It just took us a while to realize just how well you did.

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