GERALD R. FORD WAS the regular-guy president. Friendly and unassuming, Ford, whose death at 93 was announced Tuesday, came into office after the Watergate affair forced out Richard Nixon. Ford's openness and humanity was a refreshing contrast to the icy awkwardness and extensive covering up of his predecessor.
"Our long national nightmare is over," Ford proclaimed memorably on the day he assumed office. He and his wife Betty immediately telegraphed a more affable mood in Washington. Ford engendered a more candid relationship with reporters and a less combative stance toward Congress, where he had served for 25 years in the House representing Grand Rapids, Mich., including eight years as minority leader.
Two accidents of history propelled Ford to the presidency. After Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973, Nixon wanted a loyal No. 2, someone who could win easy approval in Congress and, some historians suggest, a man whose lack of presidential bearing might blunt the efforts that were brewing to remove Nixon. Ten months later, Nixon was out, and for the first time in U.S. history, a man who had never run for president or vice president became commander in chief.
In his two-plus years as president, Ford faced a tortuous gamut of foreign and domestic challenges, including the communist takeover of Vietnam, disarmament talks with the Soviet Union and raging inflation domestically. In day-to-day governing, his heavy reliance on the presidential veto opened him to criticism that he was less of a leader and more of a reactor. After all the controversies that have dogged presidents since, however, the Ford presidency looks relatively calm.
Ford will be remembered most for one act: his pardon of Nixon, just one month after the resignation. Ford wanted to govern as the president who led his nation out of the long shadow of Watergate. Yet his ill-timed and ill-considered pardon actually drew the shadow of Watergate over Ford's own presidency, destroying the Republican Party's chances in midterm elections that year and perhaps contributing to Ford's reelection loss to Jimmy Carter in 1976.
The pardon was a mistake, inconsistent with the fundamental principle that everyone, including the president, is equal before the law. Nixon tried hard to defy that principle and, coming so soon after his resignation, the pardon did the same. Some of those who once criticized Ford's pardon have softened their views over time, arguing that we needed healing and forgiveness. In 1974, however, after so much Nixonian stonewalling and evasiveness, our system of government would have been better served by letting the legal process take its course, no matter how uncertain.
History shows that Ford's top advisors were baffled by his determination to forgive Nixon right away. Ford's intention, some believe, was to prove that he could act as his own man and follow his own conscience. Others suggest he was influenced by the ghost of his own father, an abusive man who was devastated when Ford's mother divorced him and who died before the son had a chance to forgive him. Ford himself wrote in his memoirs that he knew the pardon was the right move and that he did not anticipate the virulence of the reaction against it. He may have been too nice a guy.