The signature sound bite of Gerald Ford’s abbreviated presidency came seven minutes into his term. “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over,” he proclaimed in the East Room on Aug. 9, 1974, referring to the Watergate scandal that had paralyzed the nation and forced Richard Nixon from the Oval Office in disgrace.
If Jerry Ford were still around—he would be turning 100 on July 14—he’d be railing against an insidious latter-day national nightmare: a political process hijacked by extremist elements of his beloved Republican Party who have eviscerated bipartisan governance and fueled utter gridlock in Washington.
For those few of us still standing who covered Ford intently in those momentous years, it’s tempting to believe a man whose memoir is titled A Time to Heal might make a difference in today’s toxic and polarized environment. Not likely. At the margins, maybe. His political adversaries would never have treated the 38th president with the same disdain Republicans have heaped on Barack Obama. Many of them don’t just hate Obama’s agenda, they loathe the man.
Ford wouldn’t have fueled such personal animosity; he could be a fierce partisan, but he always considered political opponents honorable ideological adversaries. Democrats such as House Speaker Tip O’Neill and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski were among his closest friends, and Ford prided himself on reaching across the aisle to pursue common ground. His Democratic pals (and the public) were enraged when he pardoned Nixon a month later, but they didn’t take it personally. Though his bonds with the loyal opposition never recovered, he was still viewed kindly as a Man of the House—“Good Old Jerry,” an Ohio Democrat once called him.
Unlike Obama, whose legislative skills are negligible, “Ford was a master at building relationships,” recalls Stu Spencer, who was Ford’s chief political guru in the 1976 campaign. “He had strong conservative beliefs but was always willing to listen to the other side and compromise. He vetoed 40 bills [48, actually] but never pissed off the Democratic leadership, because he was an honest negotiator and a likable guy.” (Obama, by contrast, has only vetoed two bills yet has far worse relations with Capitol Hill.)
Ford’s secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, has described him as America’s only “normal human being” president. Indeed, he was an ordinary guy in the noblest sense of the phrase, a quality that served him well in 28 years in national office as a congressman, vice president, and—for just 29 months—president.
En route home from a dinner in Tampa, Fla., one night in March 1974, Vice President Ford loosened his tie, ordered a martini from an Air Force Two steward, and ambled up to the press area for some customary off-the-record chitchat with reporters. At one point, he asked what we’d thought of his speech. The silence was deafening; Ford was a mediocre orator, but this speech had been particularly dreary. Still, nobody wanted to be ungracious to a guy who genuinely liked reporters and went out of his way to be accessible in the dark days of Watergate.
Ford took another sip of his martini, then deadpanned: “Not worth a damn, was it?” Then he unleashed his trademark booming laugh, dissipating the tension and reminding us that he always took his job—but rarely himself—seriously. “I’m a Ford, not a Lincoln,” he loved to say.
His self-deprecating persona, abundant decency, and Midwest earnestness tempered his critics. “Jerry Ford wouldn’t have engendered the same vitriol as Obama,” says Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. (Interestingly, that lesson seems to have been absorbed by former President George W. Bush, who in an interview from Africa aired this week, suddenly sounded like a mellowed centrist.)
But that wouldn’t have saved him in today’s scorched-earth climate. “Ford looked at problems in an Eisenhower sort of way,” observes Brent Scowcroft, his national security adviser. “He tried to find the best thing to do, not the best thing to do to get elected. That’s a quality the country desperately needs, but I don’t know if he could make a difference now. I know he would try.”
Ford never forgave Ronald Reagan for challenging him in the 1976 Republican primaries, stubbornly believing that Reagan’s tepid support in the fall campaign, not the Nixon pardon, cost him the election to Jimmy Carter. Yet he and Reagan shared a pragmatic bent. “I’d rather get something [passed] than nothing,” Ford told me years into a long retirement, “even if you have to accept something that’s hard to swallow.”
That sleeping-with-the-enemy sentiment is anathema these days to many congressional Republicans, who would consider him—and Reagan, for that matter—a dread accommodator unfit for party leadership.
“The notion that compromise is tantamount to treason is antithetical to democracy,” Engel adds, “but that seems to be the prevailing sentiment in Congress today.”
Ford was House minority leader when Nixon named him vice president as insurance against impeachment; he figured Democrats would never oust him if Ford were the alternative. But today’s House Republicans would never have anointed Ford as their leader in the first place. Considered a Young Turk in his day, Ford would have been way too moderate for GOP red hots. Influenced by his feminist wife, Betty, he ultimately became an abortion-rights Republican. And one House GOP moderate believes that Ford, an ardent Eagle Scout, would have told the Boy Scouts to get over their homophobia. That would have exploded heads throughout the House Republican Conference. As a practical matter, Ford could have dialed down the temperature but would have been powerless to change the dynamics—especially within the GOP, where tea-party zealots and social conservatives would have viewed him with the same suspicion they harbor toward Speaker John Boehner.
So, Happy Birthday, Mr. President. Be thankful you’re not here to see how your cherished Congress has shredded the spirit of compromise and goodwill that were your watchwords.