A fond farewell to the chief


The death of President Gerald Ford, the so-called accidental president (1974-76), is an opportunity to reassess his brief but important presidency. With the passing of years, history has been kinder to him than the pundits or voters were at the time.

He came to the presidency as a result of Watergate. In 1973, Nixon tapped Ford to replace Vice-president Spiro Agnew, who was forced out of office in a bribery scandal stemming from his days as Maryland's governor.

A working assumption at the time was that Nixon deliberately selected Ford knowing the ex-college football standout, as a team player, would not upstage him.

As with many things, President Nixon underestimated his choice to replace the disgraced Agnew. After it became clear that Nixon could not survive impeachment, he was forced to turn over the reigns of power to Gerald Ford, the GOP minority leader prior to his becoming vice president.

Upon ascending to the presidency, Ford would select Nelson Rockefeller, then governor of New York, as his own vice president. With that choice, Ford played to his own values as a moderate Republican, which underscored the preference this 'man of the House' had for comity, not ideology.

That would be the hallmark of the Ford presidency.

Of course, the high drama moment of his presidency was the pardoning of Richard Nixon. This no doubt helped grease the skids for President Ford's defeat by Jimmy Carter in 1976.

At the time it had the scent of a 'deal' between Ford and 'Tricky Dick' Nixon. Such speculation in retrospect is probably in error but at the time, who knew for sure?

What the pardoning of Richard Nixon accomplished was to put the nightmare of Watergate behind us, as promised by President Ford. What's more important is that it saved the nation from a nervous breakdown over the spectacle and mayhem of civil suits against Richard Nixon upon his leaving the West Wing.

At the time, I was incredulous that President Ford would grant Nixon a total and unconditional pardon. I felt at the time the nation needed to lance the boil that was the Nixon era and the only way to do it was through the legal process. Only through the transparency of a public trial would Americans really come to grips with the evil that was Watergate.

However, such a three-ring political circus played out on the world's stage would have served no enduring purpose other than giving Nixon-haters the bloody revenge for which they thirsted. It would have plunged the nation into more recriminations and a deeper political divide.

Instead of focusing on the issues of the day on the home front and beyond, the United States would have been consumed by the past.

The nation would have been immobilized by the soap opera of getting Nixon and his accomplices. It would have been worse than the OJ Simpson trial - all sound and fury but signifying nothing.

President Ford in classic Greek tragedy form pardoned Nixon and in the process exorcised the demons of the Nixon presidency and saved the nation from Watergate II.

For that we owe President Ford our eternal thanks. He saved us from our worst instinct, the thirst for revenge, the character flaw that brought Nixon et al down.

The other enduring lesson of the Ford ascendancy to first the vice presidency, then the presidency is that this peaceful transition of executive power vindicated the founders' vision. As Ben Franklin rhetorically responded at the end of the deliberations in Philadelphia over the Constitution, the delegates crafted a republic 'if you can keep it.'

Just two years from our nation's bicentennial Gerald Ford answered the founders' call - he kept faith that the laws be faithfully executed and with that preserved constitutional government. There can be no higher legacy. For that we all should be grateful. A Ford, not a Lincoln, was just the right fit for the time!

Russ Dondero is professor emeritus of political science at Pacific University and adjunct professor at Portland State University. He arrived in Oregon on Aug. 9, 1974, the day Richard Nixon resigned.