FLORENCE GILKESON: A Good Man: Ford Lifted the Nation Up From a Trauma
Few people uttered unkind remarks about Gerald Ford, so it was a little hard to understand why he lost his bid for the presidency in 1976. If everyone liked him, why didn't everyone vote for him?
Of course, there were reasons. At the top of the list was his pardon of former President Richard Nixon who resigned in disgrace following the Watergate scandal. He was unable to deal with economic pressures during his presidency. Then there was that blunder -- whether out of sheer ignorance or simply a slip of the tongue -- when he commented that Eastern Europe was not under the political, economic and military thumb of the Soviet Union.
Ford's pardon of Nixon was probably the least practical reason not to vote for a thoroughly likeable and well-meaning candidate. After all, the pardon saved the nation the trauma and the expense of a gut-wrenching series of public trials and hearings.
Watergate alone had been traumatic, leaving the nation confused, angry and resentful. Can you imagine our reaction if we had been forced through rancorous judicial procedures?
Nevertheless, it is typical of voters to react emotionally, rather than rationally, when faced with questions of ethics or personality at the polls.
It was ironic and something of an enigma that voters turned down the amiable Ford after re-electing the stiff, aloof Nixon, whose ethics had long been questioned.
This is the reaction of the public. We vote with our hearts, not our heads.
After losing the election, Ford did not fade from sight. He did not move into seclusion, removing himself from politics and the public eye. He campaigned for fellow Republicans, kept up a very public appearance on golf courses, including those at Pinehurst. Small wonder applause was so warm when he made appearances at the Republican National Convention.
Ford behaved much in the fashion of other former presidents, whether they won re-election or not.
At times, I think Americans have greater use and greater admiration for the president after he leaves office. By that time, most of us can let bygones be bygones, and the former president can concentrate on other causes.
In fact, the degree of admiration appears to climb with the president who loses the bid for re-election. That was the case with Jimmy Carter, whose name is now synonymous with world peace efforts and Habitat for Humanity. The public has grown accustomed to seeing Carter with hammer in hand, driving nails into a Habitat house somewhere in the country. I have no idea how many times he has been called to monitor election procedures in troubled nations.
The public has a bad habit of expressing disdain for a president who exemplifies our ideal picture of the common man. We like congenial people, but somehow we think the president of the United States ought to be a more formal individual.
The first such sneers I remember from childhood were directed at Harry Truman, who was famous for taking daily constitutionals and for washing his own socks. He is also the president who accepted responsibility for mistakes, as in "the buck stops here."
I always admired Truman, whose public career began as a haberdasher. I admired his down-to-earth attitude and his commonsense approach. Others regarded him as a disgrace because his background was not that of the elite.
The same was true of Carter, admittedly a peanut farmer who became governor of Georgia, but along the way I seem to recall that he picked up a degree in nuclear physics.
Ford was a Yale law graduate who probably could have become a millionaire playing professional football. Instead, he went into public service (I know, a euphemism for politics).
People who knew Gerald Ford here in Moore County remember him as congenial and down to earth, good humored and very much interested in people.
His presidency, although brief, was a refreshing departure from the ethically challenged atmosphere surrounding the "imperial" presidency of his predecessor.
Nevertheless, voters turned Ford down at the polls, just as they turned down Carter's bid for a second term. No doubt voters were unhappy with Carter on many issues, including the Iranian hostage situation, the Panama Canal action and the energy crisis. Carter looked good in his cardigan sweater in front of a cozy fireplace, but Americans did not want to be reminded to conserve energy.
Such issues will be spelled out in histories and biographies, but the public will best remember Ford and other former presidents for their humanity or lack of it.
Florence Gilkeson can be reached at 947-4962 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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