History’s judgment is never complete, certainly not on any president. Books re-evaluating George Washington are still being published every year. Nevertheless, as he turns 93, I think it is clear that Gerald Ford is now more highly regarded than he was when he left office, and that his standing may continue to rise.
Ford is unique in one way. He was the only man ever to reach the presidency without having been elected either president or vice-president. Ten months before he took the oath of office, he would have regarded his chances for the White House as being as remote as I would my chances of pitching for the Detroit Tigers.
What’s more, he honestly never wanted to be president. His goal was to be Speaker of the House, and when it was clear that the Republicans were unlikely to take control of Congress in his working lifetime, he was getting ready to retire.
Then suddenly, vice-president Spiro Agnew was caught committing a felony and forced to resign. Ford wasn’t Nixon’s first choice to replace him, but congressional leaders firmly told him Ford was the only candidate they could get confirmed.
The new vice-president intended to get his footnote in history, and go home. But then, in early August 1974, the smoking gun tape came out, and Gerald Ford suddenly realized two things. First, Richard Nixon had been lying to him. And he’d better get ready to assume the presidency.
For a month, the nation was in love with the first President in decades who seemed like a normal human being. But then he pardoned Richard Nixon, and the honeymoon was over. Once again, we felt betrayed, The wonder wasn’t that Ford lost when he tried to win election on his own; it is that he very nearly won.
Eleven years ago I went to his home in California and interviewing President Ford. I learned two things that startled me. First, he loathed Nixon, because he had lied to him, You didn’t do that in Gerald Ford’s world.
More importantly, I came to the conclusion which many historians have reached, that the pardon was the right thing to do.
“I was spending 25 percent of my time on Richard Nixon. Inflation was out of control. I had to get his problems off my desk,” he said. He opened his wallet, took out a slip of paper, and handed it to me. It was from a 1915 U.S. Supreme Court decision. “The acceptance of a pardon may be construed as an admission of guilt,” it said, or words to that effect. He smiled. I got it.
Gerald Ford wasn’t perfect. He allowed the far right to push Nelson Rockefeller off the ticket in 1976. As a congressman, he engaged in a bizarre effort to impeach U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, which went nowhere.
But Ford left the presidency and the nation in better shape than when he came into it. What more can you ask, after all, than that?