Gerald Ford is the first President I can actively remember. I recall a bit of Nixon, but I was six when he resigned, and most of my memory of him involved Watergate.
I do remember President Ford, though, pretty well. The 1976 presidential campaign was the first one I paid any attention to at any level. Of course, after he lost that election, he pretty well kept out of the public eye -- and for a long time, too. He was out of office for 30 years.
I had no realization of this earlier, of course, but what strikes me now about him is the fact that he was pretty well the last regular human being we've had in the White House. Think about who we've had since.
- Carter: Smart but not competent in the office
- Reagan: Highly effective, oddly detached
- Bush I: Probably close to regular guy status, but didn't keep it together politically
- Clinton: Unbelievably intelligent, unbelievably preoccupied with himself in so many ways
- Bush II: Well-intentioned but stubborn, too many blind spots
Ford was a smart, strong person who never sought the office. He just stepped in and rose to the occasion by being simply decent.
Maybe I have an odd affinity for him because he reminds me of my grandfather, who was a fairly successful small-town business owner. I never saw him lose his temper. He had a rock-solid understanding of what was important and what wasn't, and he tended to the former and ignored the latter, even if he knew there was a cost to either action. He was amused at how people twist knots in their ropes, and sort of chuckled as he watched it all go by. When it was time to step up, he stepped up. When it was time to go home, he went home and paid attention to his family. Everything was in balance and he knew it would all work out in the end, as it always does.
I got the same sort of feeling from Ford. He made decisions the right way, despite the personal cost that might be associated. Everyone else was losing their heads (like about the Nixon pardon) about what was at stake, but he was fine with just doing the right thing. If it cost him the Presidency, OK. Life would go on, and the country would be better for what he did. That was better reward than the office itself.
My feeling is he had a very good sense of perspective. I heard a commentator say over the weekend that people of Ford's generation that served in Congress had such a collegial working relationship because so many were World War II veterans, and they knew what a real enemy was. No one got in a snit over a simple difference of opinion -- life was much bigger than that, and snits were somehow dishonorable to what they'd already accomplished and what they were in public service to do. What a thought, huh?
I'm afraid men and women of this kind are becoming fewer, and that's a problem for our country. Without healthy perspective and balance, and a devotion to something greater than ourselves, we'll continue to become a nation of the trivial.
My grandfather (like many of his generation, he went by his first two initials: C.A.) had a saying that I like to remind myself of as often as I might need to -- he called it C.A.'s Law:
It is utterly impossible to underestimate the relative unimportance of practically everything.
That of course is not literal about what truly is important. It was more the way he oriented his own thinking, away from the noise of the trivial and toward the calm and lasting benefits of the real. I keep having to re-learn the lesson, but maybe one day I'll get it right myself.