By Traci Cothran
Who served as both Vice President and President of the United States, without having earned a single vote in the election?
Gerald Ford, that’s who!
Last week I traveled to Grand Rapids, MI, and visited The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. During this 2016 election season, it was a breath of fresh air to wander amidst all the exhibition reminders of Ford’s “character,” “integrity,” “teamwork,” and how he “led by example” – detailing his life from his days as a Boy Scout, to college football player, to Navy man, and into his long career in government.
Never elected, Ford was chosen by President Richard Nixon to succeed VP Spiro Agnew (after his bribery scandal), then less
than a year later Ford ascended to the presidency after Nixon’s resignation. Ford wielded great power with humility, moderation, and wisdom, though his decisions were not always popular – particularly his pardon of Nixon. On the other hand, Ford personally welcomed Vietnamese refugees to this land, and he signed the Helsinki Accords in 1975 which served to temper much of the Cold War hostilities. Ford’s legacy in that museum is, not surprisingly, presented in a most positive light, and there’s much truth reflected therein. He respected the law and constitution as he strove to bring the US together during a tumultuous time: the Vietnam War, an economic recession, energy crisis, Watergate.
Whenever I visit an historic site or museum, I like to do some critical thinking and fact-check a bit afterward to see what wasn’t addressed or what was glossed over in that site’s presentation – so I looked up Ford entries and articles in U.S. History In Context, Biography In Context, and Academic OneFile. With the Ford Museum, I don’t recall an exhibit on school desegregation and the bussing issue, nor do I recall mention of his program of limited amnesty for Vietnam-era deserters and draft evaders. While it’s not always pleasant, it is good to take a moment to have a fair, thorough representation of a person, because no one always makes the good, popular, or “right” decisions – and those decisions are much easier to critique in hindsight.
One article, “Normalcy Comes to Bedlam” by Aram Bakshian, Jr. in The American Enterprise (1999), reminded me that – unlike elected officials – Ford never had a transition period into either office of President or Vice President; he didn’t have the luxury of time to select a staff ahead of his tenure and battle-test them. “It is a tribute to his personal character and judgment that, with all the cards stacked against him, he did as well as he did. There was something so obviously solid, honest, and manly about him that even those who were his political foes could not ignore it,” wrote Bakshian.
Now that’s a tribute. And although he’d narrowly lose the following election to Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford is remembered as a President who served the American people with great integrity.
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