The day I knew, really knew, what a great contribution President Ford had made to the nation was during the daylong celebration of the Fourth of July, 1976, the 200th anniversary of that great day in 1776. My family and I were present in New York for the glorious sight of the tall ships sailing up the Hudson River in the afternoon, and the utterly spectacular fireworks over the Statue of Liberty that night.
It seemed that the whole country was united again, in pride at the Founding and in our national institutions. What a long way we seemed to have journeyed from Ford’s swearing in as president in 1974.
His address to the Congress at his swearing in had made me and millions of others burst out laughing. We were at that time not a little surprised by our sudden rush of admiration for a man who could turn such a perfect and apposite phrase, which neatly expressed his own modesty and decency: What you are getting, he warned, is “a Ford, not a Lincoln.”
President Ford was a leader uniquely in touch with himself, who stayed always within his own game. If there was a bone of pretentiousness in his make-up, most of us never saw it. He was always a bit smarter and wittier than one expected, for we were all misled by his ability to lower our expectations about himself. He had learned well the midwest’s Eleventh Commandment: “Thou shalt never grow too big for thine own britches.”
In the 1970s, to find out that Jerry Ford had been an All-American player on Michigan’s championship team, elected most valuable player by his peers, you had to go do research. For the press, still in its ideological mode of the Nixon years, was describing the new president as if he were un-athletic and klutzy, instead of as perhaps the most nimble and lithe athlete the office had known since Teddy Roosevelt. (The systemic diminishment by the press of Republican national leaders, and the equally systemic “halo-ization” of Democrats was one of the factors that gradually turned me against the left.)
You had to pay attention, too, to pick up the well-hidden fact that Ford was Phi Beta Kappa at Michigan, then even more than now a top-flight academic center, and you had to reflect a little to note that he had got himself admitted into Yale Law School and, despite having been hired as a coach in two sports, did remarkably well there, earning a standing in the top fourth of his class. The man, like a true midwesterner, was a lot smarter than he let on. He preferred to be thought of as the first-class lineman of a first-class football team than as a campus “brain.”
During the early years of his presidency, President Ford used to devote an hour or two of Saturday mornings to easygoing conversations with scholars and writers, led by Robert Goldwin, former dean of St. John’s, Annapolis, the famous seminar school, and at that time a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Chief of Staff Dick Cheney used to sit in. The president took an active, easygoing, but penetrating part. He was always looking for the common sense of the thing, pressing academics and intellectuals to bring ideas to the practical level, as if his bottom line was: Look, if I do what you’re suggesting, what exactly are the steps to take, and what are the consequences?
The more novel and broad-ranging the themes were, however, the better the president liked them, to gain a kind of global view of the matter. These seminars were a chance for him to think outside the practical constraints of his everyday work –- but without ever allowing discussions to get too airy.
There were some practical steps that came from these seminars: A serious approach to the Census Bureau, as it prepared for the 1980 Census, and the opening of an office for an “Ethnic Advisor” at the White House (the first one was the young, learned, suave Myron Kuropas, a Ukrainian American from the Middle West, a man with wide contacts in other ethnic communities around the U.S.). Going after the “urban ethnics” was an unusual step for a Republican at that time, directly challenging a core Democratic vote.
I remember well how sick at heart Kuropas was during the last stages of the election campaign of 1976 when the president said with some pride that the Poles were already free –- meaning to suggest that they no longer took Communism (or the USSR) as a model or ideal, but in their hearts and minds were already turning Westward. Unfortunately, the words came out sounding as though the president did not grasp the dire situation of the captive nations. His support had been growing rapidly among usually Democratic ethnics, until that point.
Although the election was close, Jimmy Carter beat President Ford 54-44 among Catholic voters -– just enough to pull out the win in decisive electoral votes in Ohio and Wisconsin by a total of 46,000 votes, and more substantially in Pennsylvania by gaining 50.4 percent of the total vote. Those three states made the difference. In competing directly for the urban Catholic ethnic vote, Ford paved a way for the “Reagan Democrats” of 1980, who by that time had come to feel let down by President Carter.
After his presidency, President Ford honored the American Enterprise Institute by coming over for a year, while undertaking a series of lectures and seminars on university campuses all across the land.
Later, he hosted the AEI World Forum out in Beaver Creek, Colorado, for some 25 years, inviting as his special guests for the three-day conference Prime Minister James Callaghan of the United Kingdom, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of Germany, and Prime Minister Giscard d’Estaing of France. The affection and mutual respect among these four leaders during some crucial years in the Cold War was very satisfying to see. (A striking oil painting of the four of them together now hangs outside the AEI Conference Center). President Ford generously invited all of the conferees over to his own home in nearby Beaver Creek, and as host showed in his and Betty’s home the same Midwestern unpretentiousness and openness, up close, that the President had always projected in public. It was very hard not to like him, and beyond that not to admire him.
It was not necessary to agree with him. I remember hearing him argue strongly against the religious conservatives just then newly rising in politics, and in favor of the “pro-choice” position on abortion. (I thought he was missing something important on both these points, but he was unpersuaded). He seemed not to like to draw sharp edges between Right and Left in politics but, rather, preferred to cut his course closer to the liberal flags to gain consensus.
President Ford was not left enough for the Left, but on some issues he cut too close to the Left, as far as cultural conservatives were concerned. The same seemed to be true also in some foreign-policy tendencies, with respect to the Soviet Union and detente. The contrast between President Ford and, later, President Reagan on these issues was quite noticeable.
Instinctively, liberals liked Reagan even less than they liked Ford. Nonetheless, President Ford paved the way for much that came after him. And, after his presidency, he could not have been more supportive of his successors, even when he disagreed with them. He was a man who kept the interests of the nation far, far above any interests of his own ego. He had learned at Michigan to be a team player –- and earned highest honors by doing so. Thus, it will be no surprise to hear somewhere during the fond farewells the nation will pay to him the great Michigan fight song: “Hail to the Victors!”
President Ford was such a victor, even when he lost a round in life’s great fight.
– Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.