Gerald Ford was not hesitant to hide his disappointment at losing the l976 election to Jimmy Carter.
"As you well know, "Mr. Ford told me, "I tried very hard to win that election. It would have given me a chance to do what I most wanted to do — to expand individual freedom from mass government, mass industry, mass labor and mass education; and to launch a program to get the federal government off the backs of the people."
Despite that election outcome, former Presidents Ford and Jimmy Carter had become close friends and are co-sponsors of various conferences on world affairs at the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia and other sites.
Saluting Gerald Ford on his 92ndth birthday, Jimmy Carter told me: "He was a strong leader during a time of great challenge. Since leaving the presidency, he has continued to provide an outstanding example of statesmanship, and still lends his moral and active support to issues that are in America's best interests.
| President George W. Bush walks with former President Gerald Ford and Betty Ford after arriving at their home in Rancho Mirage, California on April 23, 2006. White House photo by Eric Draper
"Each time we work together, I am reminded anew of our country's good fortune to have been led by a man of such principles and convictions. Not only do we share the special bonds of the presidency, but I'm proud to claim him as my friend."
Nearly nine years ago at the White House, President William J. Clinton presented Gerald Ford with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian award. Mr. Clinton stated that from Gerald Ford's earliest days as a student and athlete, he was destined for leadership.
"He was an outstanding player on the University of Michigan football team in a segregated era," Mr. Clinton noted. "And his horror at the discrimination to which one of his teammates was subjected, spawned in him a lifelong commitment to equal rights for all people, regardless of race …. He represents what is best in public service and what is best about America. When steady, trustworthy Gerald Ford left the White House after 895 days, America was stronger, calmer and more self confident …. more like President Ford himself."
George Herbert Walker Bush — like Gerald Ford — is a former congressman, vice president and president. He was appointed by President Ford to the directorship of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and as Chief of the U.S. Liaison Office in the Peoples Republic of China. In l975, he coordinated President Ford's State visit to China.
To mark Gerald Ford's 90th birthday, George H.W. Bush told me: "As soon as he became president, Gerald Ford restored honor and integrity to the White House, thus sending the nation a very reassuring signal about the presidency itself," former President Bush tells me. "He was a fine leader who understood the need of avoiding extremes as well as the need to bring people together.
"From him, I learned so much, particularly about the complexities of the U.S. Congress. To this day, I treasure our friendship."
When Gerald Ford reached the age of 80 — thirteen years ago — two former presidents gave me their reflections for a feature to mark that milestone birthday.
Ronald W. Reagan, who narrowly lost the l976 Republican nomination (Aug. 19) to him, told me: "First, I can say to Jerry Ford that turning 80 doesn't hurt at all. Kidding aside, he is an independent thinker and down to earth. He is not impressed with his own importance, and that humility has stood him in good stead.
"He climbed to the top of his profession without wavering from his principles. When respect for government officials had begun to wane, he was, and still is, held in high regard."
Richard Milhous Nixon met Gerald Ford in l949 when he was sworn in as a member of the House of Representatives. "I was a congressman from Whittier, California and for all those years, we remained friends," Mr. Nixon told me. "In an illustrious career, he became an eminent statesman, and as my vice president, he was an asset.
"Because he understood the Members of Congress, he was able to encourage them, to appeal to their best qualities and to unite them for the common good. He was admired for his decency and his respect for each individual's rights. And so this milestone 80th birthday gives me the chance to express my gratitude to him for all the good he did for our Nation …."
In this age of intense partisanship, it is refreshing to recall how five former American presidents, from both parties, had personally shared with me their thoughts on Gerald Ford on his milestone birthdays.
And President George W. Bush — on the eve of Gerald Ford's 93rd birthday — put his recollections this way:
"President Gerald Ford's story is the American story. It is the tale of a son of the Midwest who achieved great things through hard work, dedication, courage and humility. President Ford played football at Michigan. He received a law degree from Yale. He served in the Navy during World War II. And for years he represented Western Michigan as a Republican congressman from Grand Rapids.
"Then came his appointment with history. He assumed the presidency at a perilous moment. The United States was fighting the Cold War. The Soviet Union was trying to expand its reach and might. The economy was sputtering. President Nixon had resigned.
"Few leaders have ever faced such challenges upon taking office. Yet President Ford met them with steadfastness and courage. Through his leadership, he helped a wounded nation heal.
"President Ford also stepped forward to advance the cause of human rights. His commitment to spreading liberty to all corners of our world helped lead to the Helsinki Accords, which became a platform to expose the horrors of totalitarianism. Brave men and women living under repressive Communist regimes seized on the Helsinki Accords to press for human rights and for political change. By insisting that all nations acknowledge the God-given dignity of every human life, Gerald Ford played an important part in advancing freedom's cause.
"President Ford confronted the great challenges of his time with dignity and without complaint. He did not look at polls. He looked to the heart of America — its people, its high principles, its optimism — for guidance and inspiration.
"Since leaving office, President Ford has set a high standard for grace and character. He has never forgotten his roots or lost sight of the things that matter — including his deep love for his wife and life's partner, Betty.
"This good man assumed heavy responsibilities at a difficult time — and he carried out his duties in a way that made us all proud."
On April 23, 2006, President Bush visited for an hour with Gerald Ford at his home in Rancho Mirage, California.
While posing for photographers, the president said: "It's such an honor to be with President and Mrs. Ford. The country has produced a lot of fine citizens, and there are no two finer people than these two."
Holding his cane with one hand and Mr. Bush's hand with his other, Gerald Ford mused: "We solved all the problems, didn't we?"
President Bush's response: "That's right. You sure did."
Trude B. Feldman, a veteran White House and State Department correspondent, met Gerald R. Ford when he was a congressman. She also covered his vice presidency and presidency and has often interviewed him since he left the presidency. Ms. Feldman has interviewed every U.S. president since Lyndon B. Johnson; and every U.S. vice president from Hubert H. Humphrey to Al Gore. She is a contributing editor for World Tribune.com.