Thursday, January 04, 2007

EULOGY: The Jerry Ford I knew.

President Gerald Ford is laid to rest. The nation remembers his reputation for fairness and decency. His sense of being a common man was reflected in his favorite self-effacing retort, “I’m a Ford, not a Lincoln.” In reality, he was more like America’s justifiably most revered President than Ford would admit, or even believe.

Both were men whose road to the Presidency was most improbable. Though Lincoln was elected, his victory required such a convergence of unlikely events that no Victorian odds-maker would have bet on his early potential. Ford’s ascent was astonishing. He was the first, and perhaps the last, President to come to office without ever having been elected President or Vice President. Thanks to the newly minted 25th Amendment, President Nixon had the opportunity to nominate a person to fill the vacancy in the office of Vice President occasioned by the resignation in disgrace of Spiro Agnew. Soon afterward, Nixon, himself, was felled by the political maelstrom know simply as “Watergate.” While it is unfair to call Ford an accidental President, as he has been dubbed, it was an outcome beyond reasonable anticipation.

Both Lincoln and Ford came to the office in a time of Constitutional crisis and deep political divisions. Neither brought with them an elitist pomposity that is too often found in those who rise to great heights of fame and power. Both were considered simple men, more likely to depend on common sense than academic acumen. If they were good communicators, it was because they both understood plain-speak. In fact, Lincoln transformed public oratory from the prolonged flamboyance and dramatics of such people as Edward Everett to the simpler style and form we find to this day. Lincoln ended the era of orators-as-entertainers, and nowhere more convincingly than at Gettysburg.

Ford and Lincoln were genuinely respectful of those with whom they disagreed. More importantly, they were magnificently forgiving. Had he lived, Lincoln would have issued general pardons to the military and political leaders his armies defeated. He saw no benefit to expose the nation to an era of trials and hangings. Ford sacrificed his political future to spare the nation the agony of placing a former President on trial. Both Lincoln and Ford believed that reconciliation could best be achieved through forgiveness.

It is said that Lincoln was an easy man to know. People felt comfortable in his presence. He was an engaging conversationalist, eager to listen and quick to quip. His conversational style did not change, whether he was in the presence of a common citizen or a prominent person.

I cannot know from experience whether the characterization of Lincoln is fact or fable. I can say from experience that those qualities at least attributed to the 16th President are very much the traits of Ford. Among the number of Presidents I have been privileged to meet in person, Jerry Ford (as I knew him) stands out as among the kindest and most descent men in politics.

My first contact with Ford came in my days as a consultant to the White House during the Nixon administration. As Minority Leader of the House of Representative, there were a number of occasions where I was invited (sometimes ordered) to meet with Ford at public forums or private meetings in his office. I was impressed by two qualities of the former President. After our first meeting, he never failed to recognize me by name in any setting, and had no problem referring to past conversations – whether the subject of critical policy or some anecdote of my personal life.

I also was impressed by the fact that when speaking to a person, he was fixed on the conversation. His eyes did not dart around the room looking for the next encounter or more important personality, as is a very common trait of politicians.

And then there was that Lincoln-esque casual friendliness. In the presence of Ford, one never felt awe – and lest not after a moment or two of conversation. It was more like meeting a nice guy at a local tavern. I sometimes wondered if this was not to his detriment. Maybe all those inaccurate parodies and mockeries of his intellect and physical facility would not have been so easily rendered if it had not been for his commonness. Some have even contended that the Chevy Chase comedic rendition of a stumblebum President Ford cost him the election.

During my years in Washington, and for a time following, I remained in modest friendship with Ford. On the occasion of the birth of my first child, Ford visited and brought flowers for my wife. He attended a number events to which I invited him. Two occasions stand out in my mind. The first was a Smithsonian Institution reception in recognition of a collection of cast iron toys donated by Sears, Roebuck & Co. He was then Minority Leader. The other was after he took over the Oval Office. He accepted my invitation to be guest of honor at a charitable event in Chicago (see photograph).

As a lobbyist for Sears, and before gifts to legislators were the subjects of scandal, I recall giving the President an Olympic tie. Sears was the outfitter of the Olympic team that year. After the Olympics were over, Ford returned the tie back to me as a personal memento. It was a tie he wore frequently.

I was also a participant in an incident involving Ford at the 1976 GOP National Convention – an incident in which he most likely never knew of my role. I was there as communications director for the Illinois delegation led by former Governor Dick Ogilvie. To add to the festivities, I convinced a friend at Whamoo to give me 500 Frisbees to add to the convention floor festivities. They were inscribed, “I flipped my Frisbee over Ford.” It was a site, as hundreds of Frisbees took to the air before and after his acceptance speech. As the President was coming to the podium, or receding from the podium (I was never told which), one of my flying saucers bounced off the President’s forehead – much to the chagrin of the Secret Service. I was later told that my most lasting contribution to the American national political conventions was the banning of Frisbees and other airborne objects.

Apart from the tie and a Frisbee or two, my most cherished Ford possession is a series of three letters in which Ford responded to my congratulations on his ascent to the presidency. The content of the letters, and the fact that they are written on the respective letterheads of the United States Congress, The Vice President and the President, make them cherished documents, personally and historically.

It has not been many years since I have enjoyed his company, but the memories will never dim. I feel grateful as an American to have lived through those difficult times with my friend Jerry Ford at the helm. More personally, I have been most fortunate to have had the pleasure to know such a good and decent human being. Jerry Ford was a giant of a man, but never looked down on anyone. God bless him, and may he rest in the peace of eternity he so well deserves.

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