Gerald R. Ford, America's 38th president, died last night at his home in California.
On Nov. 12, when he lived to be 93 years and 121 days, he had become the longest living former president. (President Ronald Reagan was born Feb. 6, 1911. He had surpassed America's second president, John Adams, in 2001. The oldest living First Lady is Lady Bird Johnson, who just turned 94. The longest living first Lady in U.S. history was Bess Truman, who died at age 97 in 1982.)
Gerald Ford, contemplating his longevity on Nov. 12 — only 45 days prior to his death — issued this statement: "The length of one's days matters less than the love of one's family and friends.
"I thank God for the gift of every sunrise and, even more, for all the years He has blessed me with Betty and the children, with our extended family and the friends of a lifetime. That includes countless Americans who, in recent months, have remembered me in their prayers. Your kindness touches me deeply. May God bless you all and may God bless America."
In one of Gerald Ford's last interviews, I spoke with him prior to his 92nd birthday. "I will celebrate," he said, "at a small dinner party here in Vail, Colorado at one of my favorite restaurants with Betty and close friends."
That quiet celebration was in contrast to what he described as “a festive dinner party hosted by President and Mrs. Bush at the White House with l33 guests” for his milestone 90th birthday.
White House Chief Usher, Gary J. Walters, remembers that "joyful event" — with former President and Mrs. Barbara Bush in attendance — as uniquely touching and emotionally charged.
| President George W. Bush and Laura Bush pose with former President Gerald R. Ford and his wife Betty Ford in the State Dining Room of the White House as they cut the birthday cake to celebrate President Ford's 90th birthday on July 16, 2003. White House photo by Eric Draper
"I hope," Mr. Walters added, "we can host the Ford family again — perhaps when Gerald Ford turns 95."
I also asked Gerald Ford whether he has a special wish for this birthday. His reply: “My one wish today is that Betty and I are able to continue to have good health for several more years.”
Asked about his health that day, he said: “After my recent physical, my doctor said it is better than last year. So I feel great. You know, as a young fellow, I never imagined that I would make it to 92 in good health, still active and enjoying life.”
At age 62 (1975), during his presidency, Gerald Ford told James B. Reston (of the New York Times) on NBC's 'Meet the Press':
"I think age is a state of mind, and obviously a state of health . . . . I do not think people should be categorized just by age bracket . . . . You ought to look at each person . . . how strong he or she is mentally and physically, as well as his or her background and experience. That's the criteria I would use . . . ."
When I asked how it feels to reach the age of 92, Gerald Ford told me:
“It's not bad. Of course, I'm not as mobile as I was — not with my old bones. Yes, I still swim regularly, but with a limited number of laps, and I still play golf, but with a shorter number of holes."
(One of his golf partners, Sanford I. Weill, Chairman Emeritus of Citigroup Inc., tells me that among presidents who have played golf, Gerald Ford is considered one of the three best. Weill, one of Gerald Ford's closest friends and 20 years his junior, also describes Ford as a "wonderful and caring person with a lot of common sense. He has made a major contribution — with his advice — to my career.
|Former President Ford is interviewed for his 90th birthday by Trude B. Feldman at Washington, D.C.'s Willard Intercontinental Hotel, in June 2003. Photo by Michael S. Messinger
"I have the highest regard and respect for him. Over the years I
have been able to rely on the President's integrity, forthrightness, good
judgment, but most important of all, his loyalty and friendship.")
And, continuing, President Ford told me: “All in all, I feel fortunate to still have my zest for life. Physically, I'm less active now, but I keep up with world affairs.”
At the time, he still hosted the annual AEI World Forums, which he established in l982 in association with Washington, D.C.'s American Enterprise Institute. Convened in Beaver Creek, Colorado, the forums are a gathering of former and current international world leaders, and business and financial executives who discuss political and business policies impacting current issues.
Two members of President Ford's administration, Roderick M. Hills, Chairman of the Securities & Exchange Commission, and his wife, Carla, Secretary of Housing & Urban Development, were participants at his 2003 and 2004 forums; and they recently shared their insights about the Ford presidency.
Mr. Hills, now an attorney who specializes in international matters, recounted that, as president, Gerald Ford had a commitment to economic reform of our regulatory agencies in the fields of transportation, communications and financial services.
“He was aware that his support for such reform would be strongly opposed by the industries affected by labor unions and by strong congressional elements,” Mr. Hills added. “He persisted, nonetheless, and today, he deserves full credit for initiating the changes that have given the U.S. so significant a lead in the efficiency of these three industries. Much of the economic success of our country over the last 20 years can be attributed to Gerald Ford's initiative.”
|After Presidents Bush and Ford met, for an hour, on April 23, 2006 at the Ford home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., the two presidents and Betty Ford greet the media. White House photo by Eric Draper
Carla A. Hills' view is that President Ford successfully led America, beset by a weakened economy, through its most serious constitutional crisis. “Political turmoil at home and the oil crisis engendered by events in the Middle East, combined to send the economy reeling,” she said. “As he took the reins of power, labor costs were rising, federal revenues were falling, inflation hit double digits, interest rates soared and unemployment was climbing.”
She described vivid memories of President Ford's willingness and capacity to debate issues openly and to reach decisions expeditiously. “I witnessed his extraordinary grasp of the substance of issues brought to him — how one program related to another; the objectives, the trade-offs and the costs,” she remembers. “His decisions were guided by principles, not polls. His judgments were shaped by what he thought was just and right for our nation.
“He knew what government did and what it should do. Still, there was more to the Ford years than good government. President Ford demonstrated honesty and candor, and restored our country to normalcy. Moreover, the unquestioned integrity and balance that he brought to the presidency set a lasting standard, one that has helped to build a bulwark against the tide of cynicism that runs against government.”
Henry A. Kissinger, former secretary of state (Sept. 22, 1973 — Jan. 20, 1977), 10 years Gerald Ford's junior, told me that age hadn't yet touched him. “He is a bit frail but it is not noticeable. He looks and acts like a much younger man,” he adds. “Most important is the significant service he performed in the cause of freedom when he rallied America during a period of much upheaval. He restored confidence in our government and contributed to the honor and purpose of the nation.”
President Ford's Secretary of Transportation, William T. Coleman, Jr., who just turned 85, was Counsel to the Warren Commission investigating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy when he first met Gerald Ford in l964. (In November, 1963, President Johnson had appointed Mr. Ford to the Commission.) “His mind is as good today as it was when he was president,” Secretary Coleman said. “He is alert, sharp, has a good sense of humor and still returns my phone calls.”
He also believes that history will support the fact that Gerald Ford was a better president than his critics or the media often indicated. “He knew all the issues and got along well with the Democratic Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill, as well as the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate,” he added. “You know, one of the tragedies today is that there is no harmony between the Democrats in Congress and the White House. I hope this changes soon. It has to, because otherwise, the nation will not get its business done.”
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, one of President Ford's chiefs of staff, who also served as U.S. Ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Brussels, Belgium (1973-74); and in 1975-77, as the 13th Secretary of Defense, as well as special presidential envoy to the Middle East in 1983-4, believes that Gerald Ford's "basic human decency had helped to replenish the reservoir of trust" in our country.
| President Ford and his Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld, at work in the Oval Office of the White House on Sept. 29, 1974. Photo by David Hume Kennerly
Today, the Secretary adds: "Sometimes folks overlook the fact that before he became president, Gerald Ford was a skillful strategist and a greatly admired leader of the Congress. Launched into a Republican leadership position after a fierce intra-party competition, he was nonetheless one of those rare people in the Congress who had a lot of adversaries, to be sure, but no enemies."
Donald Rumsfeld also tells me: "Given the fact that the reservoir of trust in our country had been drained dry during the Watergate period, and the country shaken, we were enormously fortunate to have a man with the personal characteristics of Gerald Ford arrive in that office at that difficult time. Because Gerald Ford was there to reassert the strength of the presidency, to rebuild our defenses and to show firmness and clarity and integrity in all things, as well as basic human decency, our country could again hold its head high. He reminded Americans of who they are, and he put us on the right path when the way ahead was, at best, uncertain.
"His direct approach, his integrity, his humanity, and particularly his basic human decency did as much as anything to refill the reservoir of trust, so critical to political leadership in our free system. We were lucky he was there."
Max Martin Fisher, five years Gerald Ford's senior, and Michigan's most prominent philanthropist, concurred with Secretary Rumsfeld when I spoke with him (Mr. Fisher) prior to his death last March.
“Gerald Ford deserves much credit for his strong leadership when it was most needed, “he said. “I can also tell you, from our long-time friendship, that he is a sincere and caring person.”
(When I was preparing a feature to mark Max Fisher's 95th birthday on July 15, 2003, Gerald Ford told me: "I treasure our 55-year friendship. Max is one of the most generous and thoughtful individuals I've ever known. His charitable giving to education, to the less fortunate and other worthy causes is legendary.")
Max Fisher, an international diplomat and adviser to Republican presidents since Dwight D. Eisenhower, was also an oil tycoon, who founded Aurora Gasoline Company, which became known as Marathon Oil Company.
Robert C. McFarlane, who was appointed by President Ford as his Special Assistant for National Security Affairs after five years service as Military Assistant to Dr. Henry A. Kissinger and Gen. Brent Scowcroft (when they were National Security Advisers to Presidents Nixon and Ford), told me:
"At the time when wrongdoing had undermined public confidence in the presidency, Gerald Ford — a rock of integrity and probity — righted the ship of state and steered us through the crisis.
"As a man universally acknowledged to be above reproach, he was the ultimate role model for all public servants and all Americans."
(Robert "Bud" McFarlane is now Chairman of Energy and Communications Solutions, LLC, a developer of energy and communications infrastructure projects in emerging markets, including Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.)
In l988, the Gerald R. Ford Foundation (non-partisan, non profit organization), initiated an annual program to “recognize and encourage thoughtful, insightful work” by journalists covering the presidency and national defense.
Because Gerald Ford was unable to attend the last three programs, held in Washington, D.C.'s National Press Club, Vice President Richard Cheney stood in for him — again last month — and presented the journalism prizes for Distinguished Reporting on the Presidency and on National Defense.
In the 2005 luncheon program, Mr. Cheney began by noting that for many years, President Ford “stood at this rostrum himself and awarded these prizes, and he still follows the proceedings with great interest.”
| Vice President Dick Cheney addresses the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., during a luncheon honoring the recipients of the Gerald R. Ford Journalism Awards on June 13, 2005.
White House photo by Paul Morse
(Indeed, on C-SPAN, from their home in California, the Fords watched the last three luncheon programs while drinking coffee from National Press Club mugs given Mr. Ford after each of his appearances at the Club.)
The Vice President also said that he recently joined the Fords in California at the Foundation's Trustees meeting, one which was coupled with the annual reunion of Ford administration alumni.
“It tells you a great deal about Gerald Ford, when 28 years after he left office, more than l00 staff and cabinet members still fly across the country to spend an evening with him and to pay tribute,” Mr. Cheney said. “All of us who worked for him count the experience as some of the truly great times of our lives when we worked for one of the most genuine, upright and considerate men we have ever known.
“My job as Chief of Staff was in an administration, members of which are still prominent in our national life to this day — from Don Rumsfeld to Alan Greenspan (then Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, who later became Chairman of the Federal Reserve).
“And it was Henry Kissinger (also assistant to the president for national security affairs, (Jan. 20, 1969 to Nov. 3, 1975) who observed that the Ford presidency encountered enough challenges to occupy two four-year terms, but had only 29 months in which to confront them all.”
Mr. Cheney added: “The hardest days came at the beginning, as President Ford took over an unexpired term, and his agenda was crossed by scandals and tragedies that were not his doing. And we remember so well how he conducted himself in those hours, stepping into the presidency with humility, but without hesitancy, with deep personal reverence for the office, yet without an ounce of self-importance.”
The Vice President pointed out that for his decision to pardon his predecessor, Richard M. Nixon, President Ford had received the 'Profile in Courage' award at the John F. Kennedy Library (May 2001).
“In politics, sometimes it takes a full generation for tempers to cool,” he said. “And that is happening now, as we all get older; as President Ford's harshest critics think again about that difficult era, and about the caliber of the man who brought the country back together."
Richard Cheney continued: “Years after the l976 election, President Ford looked back and said: 'I found myself, in effect, running two campaigns. The first, to win a full term; the second, to restore the shattered confidence of the American people in their democratic institutions.' Although Gerald Ford barely missed the first objective, he attained the second with the highest distinction — and our nation remains grateful to him.”
Vice President Cheney also noted that in all of Gerald Ford's years as a public figure, including a quarter century in the House of Representatives, followed by the vice presidency and presidency, he had always been on good terms with members of the press corps. “He had his complaints, as we all do, but he knew the press had a job to do and wanted to be helpful,” Mr. Cheney said. “He was the first president, I believe, to permit follow-up questions at news conferences. With him and the media, there was an easy relationship that went both ways, and many lifetime friendships were formed as a result.”
Recounting a scene during the l976 primary in Florida, Mr. Cheney said: “The White House entourage was caught in a rainstorm. Soaking wet, President Ford had to stand up in front of a crowd and give a speech. So he began by saying, 'We had a little rain and I should apologize for my appearance, but there is an old saying that aristocracy is of the soul, not of the cloth. I don't look good, but I think I'm a darn good president.' "
Mr. Cheney added: "That is how we still think of him … as a darn good president and the right man for an important time in our history. More than that, we think of him as a darn good guy —through and through, someone we are proud to know, whose company we still enjoy and who, together with his wonderful wife, Betty, represent the best in our country.”
After his remarks, Vice President Cheney was asked — among other issues in the Q and A session at the National Press Club — for his thoughts about the recent disclosure of Mark Felt as 'Deep Throat' during the Watergate scandal.
“Well, I was intrigued by it," Mr. Cheney responded. “I think, like everybody else, Watergate had a huge impact on my life. Obviously, as a result of Gerald Ford becoming president of the U.S., my career was enhanced. I might put it in those terms.
“So I am intrigued by the opportunity to learn more about exactly how all of that (Watergate) happened. But I didn't know Mr. Felt. To my knowledge, I have never met him. And I didn´t have any theories of my own as to who was ´Deep Throat´ So I watched it and read about it with interest, but didn´t dwell on it, shall I say.¨
Mr. Cheney was also asked that, had he been Chief of Staff then, and aware of Mark Felt´s role as ´Deep Throat´, would he have sought proceedings to remove and prosecute him?
¨Probably not,” Mr Cheney replied. ¨We made some mistakes, but we never made that one.¨
Sen. John W. Warner, R-Va, Chairman, U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, told me: "I would not be in the Senate today were it not for President Jerry Ford. Following my service as Secretary of the Navy in 1974, I served as the executive director for the Bicentennial Commission in 1976 at President Ford's request, a position that helped me prepare for a Senate race.
| President George W. Bush meets with U.S. Senators John McCain, R-Ariz., and John W. Warner, R-Va., on Dec. 15, 2005, in the Oval Office, to discuss the U.S. position on the interrogation of prisoners. White House photo by Paul Morse
"President Ford was among the first to encourage me to 'throw my hat into the ring' for the coming vacancy created by the retirement of the incumbent Virginia Senator in 1978. During my campaign, President Ford came to Virginia to support me, and this strong backing helped me win."
Senator Warner added that he first met then-Congressman Ford in Muskegon, in his home state of Michigan, in 1960, when he (Warner) was an 'advance man' working for then-Vice President Richard Nixon's presidential campaign.
"Vice President Nixon was scheduled to speak at a furniture manufacturing plant in Muskegon," Sen. Warner recalled, "and, as we were entering the doors to the event, spectators threw eggs at the candidate. They succeeded in 'pelting' both of us! We quickly cleaned off the Vice President, who never lost composure and gave a great speech. We then got back on the campaign train, and prepared for our next event. Congressman Ford came up to me, smiled, and said, 'Young man, don't let that episode get you down. You will recover'.
"With a sense of great humility and thanks to President Ford and many others, I recovered and am now in my 29th year in the U.S. Senate."
Before Gerald Ford´s milestone 90th birthday, he sat down with me at Washington, D.C.´s InterContinental Hotel for a lengthy, wide-ranging interview. He was in a reflective mood as he reviewed his life´s journey. He spoke of his childhood, religious background, education, philosophy, military service, athletic activities and his love of the U.S. House of Representatives, where he spent 25 years.
He also answered questions concerning misconceptions about him; his regrets; his pardon of Richard Nixon; his own presidency and the evolution of the presidency since losing the election to a full term in 1976.
He cited his unique opportunities and tremendous challenges, among them the witnessing of the preservation of the democratic constitutional process in the midst of a president´s resignation under pressure.
“And I also witnessed the defeat of Nazi tyranny and the destruction of hateful walls,¨ he recalled. ¨My life has been a grand adventure and I have been blessed every step by Betty, my loving wife and a supportive family. Betty gave me four beautiful children who turned out to be exceptional."
Mrs. Ford described her husband as a man with tremendous qualities — strength, honesty, dedication and dignity. "Jerry had never taken us for granted," she told me. "He showed his gratefulness for every little thing."
Recently, he also showed extraordinary pride when the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. — under the direction of Lee Hamilton, former representative from Indiana (who served in Congress with Gerald Ford) — had chosen Betty Ford for its annual award for public service.
According to Fred M. Bush, associate director of the Woodrow Wilson Center, when Gerald Ford presented his wife with the citation, his "graciousness and the power of his personality put at ease" the assembled celebrities at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles, Calif.
"I don't know who glowed more," Fred Bush told me. "Betty Ford or her husband."
While working on Gerald Ford's only presidential campaign in 1976, Fred Bush met co-worker Katie Murphy. They married on Sept. 10, 1977. "So former President Ford had an extra special meaning in our lives," Mr. Bush said. "He was one of the most decent public servants of the twentieth century. An excellent president, he held tight our nation's collective hands through one of its difficult times.
"And speaking of loving wives, Betty Ford has been the spiritual one who helped sustain her husband to his ripe age."
| In 1975, in the Oval Office, President Gerald Ford is interviewed by Trude B. Feldman. Photo by Paul Conklin
Chief Usher Gary Walters, who has been serving first families and their guests in the Residence of the White House since February 1976, (after working in the Uniformed Division of the Secret Service in the Nixon administration) says: "It is amazing how vibrant Gerald Ford still is at 93. Here, in the Residence, he and his family were a delight to work for. We have fond feelings for them, coupled with pleasant memories of them.
"I still remember our doorman's reactions when President Ford personally invited him for a swim together (with the President) in the then new White House swimming pool."
On Sept. 18, 1981, at the dedication of the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Gerald Ford noted: "The high point of my life, next to meeting and marrying Betty, was not making Eagle Scout, or being named all-state center from South High, or earning my Varsity M at the University of Michigan, or getting my sheepskin from Yale Law School, or winning my first election to Congress, or serving as the 38th president of the United States. They seemed so at the time. But the high point is always ahead; and today it is here, in my home town, among my dear friends. This building is made of steel and concrete — but this moment is made of love."
Born July l4, l9l3 in Omaha, Nebraska, to Dorothy Gardner and Leslie King Jr., he was christened Leslie Lynch King, Jr. His parents divorced when he was two years old. He moved with his mother to Grand Rapids, where she married Gerald Rudolph Ford, who later adopted the child and gave him his name, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr.
He attended public schools in Grand Rapids, and received a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Michigan, where he was in the top 15 percent of his class. From Yale University Law School, where he was in the top three percent of his class, he received an L.LB. He then practiced law before and after his service in the U.S. Navy (1942-6).
As a boy scout, Gerald Ford remembers that he learned about patriotism, character and the values of loyalty and reverence as well as “Duty to God and country.”
At age 14, he became an Eagle Scout and soon earned his Eagle badge.
At age 61 (1974) he became the first Eagle Scout to call the White House his home.
His Christian upbringing, he told me, had a profound impact in shaping his values. "I regard myself as a man of religious conviction. I recognize that my religious practices and beliefs have played a major role in my life,¨ he added. “I believe that my early religious training — the atmosphere in my home and my habit of going to church — gave me the necessary background to meet and work with all peoples and to confront the various problems I faced throughout my long and satisfying life.¨
One of his favorite passages is Proverbs 3: 5, 6: ´Trust in the Lord with all thine heart and lean not unto thine own understanding .... in all thy ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct thy paths...¨
He went on to say that those verses and other passages from the Bible have proved to be a "steady compass and guide as well as a source of solace to me in my personal and political life."
As an adult, Gerald Ford taught Sunday School at Grace Episcopal Church in Grand Rapids, and told me that his faith in God has never wavered. For him, the words, ¨In God we trust¨ on American currency are more than a national motto. He saw them as a kind of ´testament´ followed by Americans from the earliest days of our nation´s history.
¨From the beginning,¨ he added, "America has declared her dependence on God and Americans have placed our trust in Him. This is one of our country´s strengths.¨
He concluded: ¨There is a higher spirit, a nobler spirit which pervades our national life, and makes the quality of our lives more important than the quantity of our possessions or our individual honors. That spirit — that infinite spirit of hope, of compassion and love — has lived through the ages. We are fortunate that God´s spirit has dwelt so long and richly blessed so many Americans. You know, I believe that material things are fleeting; that which is spiritual stays with us and is immortal.¨
If Gerald Ford were able to relive his life, what would he do differently?
¨There is no major decision I would change if I could rewrite history,¨ he responded. "Overall, I worked hard in all my positions and I tried to improve myself by learning something new in each one.
¨Looking back, while serving as an officer in World War II, I learned about leadership and making decisions. I think, because of that military service, I was a better vice president and president.¨
What was the saddest day of his presidency?
"It was on April 30, 1975, " he told me. "That was when we had to pull our troops out of Saigon and withdraw from South Vietnam, which soon surrendered to the North Vietnamese."
Gen. Brent Scowcroft, the president's deputy national security adviser (Jan 1, 1973 to Nov. 1975) and national security adviser (Nov. 1975 - Jan. 20, 1977), recalled, in a recent interview, that President Ford showed tremendous courage during the last days of South Vietnam when it became clear that South Vietnam would fall.
"Many members of the Ford administration and in the U.S. Congress," he added, "asked President Ford to immediately pull out American troops. But he refused because he wanted to leave our troops in place until we could evacuate all possible Vietnamese who had put total trust in us; and would be in jeopardy to the North Vietnamese."
Gen. Scowcroft, who also served as President George H.W. Bush's national security adviser, remembers that it was a few months later — on Aug. 1, 1975 — when "one of our most significant foreign policy achievements took place."
On that day, in the face of bitter opposition, President Ford signed the Helsinki Final Act, giving the issue of human rights a real 'bite' inside the Soviet bloc for the first time, an Act that eventually led to the throwing off the shackles of Communism by Eastern Europe. The Organization For Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) grew out of that historic decision.
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of that signing, the U.S. Helsinki Commission, last year, hosted a luncheon at Capitol Hill's Rayburn Building. The program was moderated by Commission Chairman Senator Sam Brownback (R. Kan), who called the celebration a "victory."
Commissioners, Representatives Mike Pence (R. Ind); Christopher H. Smith (R. N.J.); Ben L. Cardin (D. Md.); Joseph R. Pitts (R. Pa.); Robert B. Aderholt (R. Ala.) as well as Rep. Steny Hoyer, were in attendance. Additional attendees were ambassadors from Germany, Finland, Slovenia and Bulgaria; the new OSCE Ambassador Julie Finley; Max M. Kampelman, former Chairman of the American Delegation to the Helsinki process, and the charge d'Affaires of Poland.
The commemorative luncheon was highlighted with the reading of a letter sent by former President Ford, who wrote: "On August 1st, 1975, 35 nations gathered in Finland to confront a vital challenge. It was a time of great divide throughout Europe and the world. The Cold War had entered its third decade and the threat of nuclear annihilation hung over every conversation between East and West.
"The Helsinki conference and subsequent agreement will prove to be a landmark in international relations, the first of its kind to link peace and security while upholding the fundamental principles of universal human rights.
"In fact, the three pillars of the agreement, cooperation on humanitarian issues, commercial and environmental issues, and security issues, would establish ongoing dialogues for transforming the relationships among people stretching from Vancouver to Vladivostok. Underpinning this transformation, we were guided by the most basic of principles, working together toward the peaceful settlement of conflicts, respecting the freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief, and supporting the self-determination of all to promote a true and lasting peace.
| President Ford confers with Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping on Dec. 3, 1975. Photo by David Hume Kennerly
"At the signing of the Helsinki Final Act 30 years ago, I said that history would judge this conference not by the promises we made that day, but by the promises we kept.
"Europe and the world have witnessed tremendous changes in the last 30 years. These original 35 signatories now number 55 and we have seen an expansion of liberty throughout the region and the globe that was unimaginable when we signed the Final Act.
"As we move toward a new generation, we can look back and say that despite the difficulties and tensions, we have kept our word. But we must never cease to maintain our vigilance and the support of freedom, democracy and the alienable rights that we have for so long struggled to protect.
"The OSCE has a proud legacy 30 years later and it is one that we hope to endure for another 30 and beyond.”
President Ford's letter as well as his vision were praised in remarks by the luncheon's featured speaker, Dr. Henry Kissinger, who also expressed gratitude for the "chance to re-live the process" that culminated in the Helsinki Final Act. (Dr. Kissinger and Gen. Scowcroft were among the witnesses at the signing in Helsinki.)
"I think the Helsinki process is a key challenge to our period," Dr. Kissinger stated, referring to the human dimension in the so-called third (human rights) basket.
Noting the presence of Max Kampelman, a later American negotiator of the process, he added: "Our successors in the American government, in the Carter and Reagan Administrations, gave the human rights provisions of the agreement — which was created under President Ford — a scope and a vitality that went beyond what we would have imagined at the time."
Also in the year 1975, President Ford was twice a target of assassination attempts in California by women, who were found guilty and are serving a life term in prison. The first attempt was in Sacramento on Sept. 6th by Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, a follower of Charles Manson, who tried to shoot the President. "There", Mr. Ford recalled, "my Secret Service agent, Larry Buendorf, saw the pistol in her hand and his alertness saved my life."
The second attempt, on Sept 22nd in San Francisco, was by Sara Jane Moore, who fired a pistol at the President, but an on-looker deflected the shot.
During our wide-ranging interview for his 90th birthday, Gerald Ford also reminisced about his philosophy of life, the misconceptions about him and his regrets. “I have always been an optimist and still am," he told me. "Yes, I suffered disappointments and defeats, but I tried to forget them and keep a positive attitude. When I was in sports and lost a game by error, or in the political arena, and lost by a narrow margin, no groaning would help. So I don´t dwell on the past. I learned to move on and look ahead.¨
As for some of the misconceptions about him, he said: ¨Well, one is that I always thought I had a better academic record than what the media reported. Unfortunately, some in the media didn´t appreciate that, and misrepresented my record. I had a good academic record and was a pretty darn good athlete. I received all-city and all-state football honors in high school; and in 1934, I was named the University of Michigan's Most Valuable Player."
What were some of his regrets?
¨Well, I wish I were a better public speaker,¨ he allowed. “I would have liked to be able to communicate more effectively. That is so important.¨
He especially regrets not having fulfilled his ambition of becoming Speaker of the House of Representatives. “I lost five times,¨ he lamented. ¨There were not, then, enough Republicans in the House. I wanted to be Speaker because the legislative process interested me, and was the kind of challenge I enjoyed. I was never as enthusiastic about being in the executive branch. I even turned down the chance to run for governor of Michigan.¨
In fact, in 1977 he had planned to retire from Congress. But in October l973, Vice President Spiro T. Agnew´s legal and campaign finance problems surfaced and he was forced to resign.
¨That was the turning point in my life,¨ Gerald Ford told me. ¨That´s when President Nixon nominated me as vice president; and two months later I was sworn in. It was totally unexpected and was a significant change in my political career, as well as my life and whole future. Going from 25 years as a member, and minority leader in Congress to the vice presidency, was a major change in responsibility. And when President Nixon resigned (Aug 8, l974), which I did not anticipate, that was a big, big change in my direction."
Thirty-three years ago — on Aug. 9 — Gerald Ford was sworn in as the 38th president of the United States and nominated Nelson A. Rockefeller as his vice president.
Thirty days into his presidency, Gerald Ford granted a pardon to Richard M. Nixon for his involvement in the Watergate tragedy.
| On June 6, 2005, at the Gerald Ford Foundation dinner, Betty Ford was awarded the Gerald R. Ford Medal for Distinguished Service by her husband. Previous honorees are Chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney. Photo by David Hume Kennerly
¨I now feel vindicated for that pardon. There is no question about it,¨ he often told me. “I was right when I made that decision and I am pleased that the public now seems to agree with me.¨
Because of that action in pardoning Richard Nixon (Sept. 8, l974), Gerald Ford was the recipient of the John F. Kennedy 'Profile in Courage' Award. Presented by the slain president's daughter, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, the award cites President Ford's courage in making that decision. “For more than a quarter century, Gerald Ford proved to the people of Michigan, the Congress and our nation that politics can be a noble profession,” Caroline Schlossberg noted. “As president, he made a controversial decision of conscience to pardon former President Nixon and end the national trauma of Watergate. In doing so, he placed his love of country ahead of his own political future.”
In accepting the award at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston, Mass, Mr. Ford told members of the Kennedy family and some 250 guests: “No doubt, arguments over the Nixon pardon will continue for as long as historians relive those tumultuous days. But I'd be less than candid — indeed less than human — if I didn't tell you how profoundly grateful Betty and I are for this recognition. The Award Committee has displayed its own brand of courage. But here, courage is contagious.
“To know John Kennedy, as I did, was to understand the true meaning of the word. Physical pain was an inseparable part of his life, but he never surrendered to it — any more than he yielded to freedom's enemies during the most dangerous moments of the nuclear age.
“He understood that courage is not something to be gauged in a poll or located in a focus group. No adviser can spin it. No historian can back-date it. For, in the age-old contest between popularity and principle, only those willing to lose for their convictions are deserving of posterity's approval.”
President Kennedy's brother, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, (D Mass.) — in his remarks — recalled that Gerald Ford had “withstood the heat of controversy and persevered in his beliefs about what was in our country's best interests. History has proved him right.
“At a time of national turmoil, America was fortunate that it was Gerald Ford who took the helm of the storm-tossed ship of state. He recognized that the nation had to move forward, and could not do so if there was a continuing effort to prosecute President Nixon.
“So President Ford made a courageous decision, and pardoned Richard Nixon. I was one of those who then spoke out against his action. But time has a way of clarifying past events, and now we see that he was right. He eminently deserves this award.”
(The award derives its name from the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Profiles in Courage,” written in l955 by then-Sen. John F. Kennedy while he was recuperating from back surgery. It recounts the stories of eight U.S. Senators who risked their careers to fight for their beliefs.)
Concurring with Sen. Edward Kennedy, Max Kampelman, former Ambassador to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, told me: “Gerald Ford's 'Profile in Courage' award was a late, but well-deserved recognition. He well served America at a time of crisis, and he rose to the top.”
Congressman Henry A. Waxman recalled that when he first came to Congress (Jan l975), Gerald Ford was president. "At that time, I was critical of his pardon of Richard Nixon," he added. "Now that I look back, I think he took the right action for our country. I believe history will show him as a president who tried to bring the country together.”
(Waxman, a California Democrat who represents the 30th District in metropolitan Los Angeles, on Jan. 4, he will become chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform).
Former Sen. Alan K. Simpson, (R Wy.) told me: "Gerald Ford has always been an inspiration to me. He is a man of great courage and integrity. With his brave act of pardoning President Nixon, he helped the nation, to his own political detriment. That took real guts."
Jack N. Anderson, veteran columnist for United Features and Washington editor of Parade Magazine, remembered Gerald Ford since his Congressional days. "He never was pumped up with self-importance," Mr. Anderson stated. "Even after he became the president, I was able to telephone him, leave a message and he returned my calls, without going through an assistant."
Mr. Anderson added: "Even though I was number-one on President Nixon's 'enemies list', I agreed with Mr. Ford's pardon because I learned that Mr. Nixon was then in poor psychological condition. It took much political courage to grant the pardon against public will. So President Ford did what was best for Mr. Nixon and the country rather than what was best for himself." (Jack Anderson succumbed to Parkinson's disease on Dec. 17, 2005.)
Gen. Alexander M. Haig, Jr., who was President Nixon's White House Chief of Staff, told me that the passage of time has once again favored the truth, and Gerald Ford has rightfully emerged as one of our nation's most courageous leaders. “Despite the risks, he performed a singular and selfless act of courage,” Gen. Haig asserts. “Also, having personally informed Vice President Ford of President Nixon's intention to resign, I know that rumors of a secret deal to trade the presidency for the pardon were wrong-headed, and those who fed the rumors were damaging the reputation and judgment of our nation's first non-elected president.”
Gen. Haig added: “Years later, the Nixon pardon must rank with the most courageous acts of a sitting president. President Ford, almost alone, notwithstanding the advice of some of his most intimate advisers, recognized that the nation could not risk further prolongation of the Watergate controversy and that the very effectiveness of his presidency was at stake.”
| In this exclusive photo, Vice President Gerald Ford receives a telephone call at his residence in Virginia from Gen. Alexander Haig informing him that President Richard Nixon will resign. His wife Betty looks on. Photo courtesy of Trude B. Feldman
Even though Gerald Ford is now vindicated for his pardon of Richard Nixon, he maintains that the media's fixation on Mr. Nixon's problems in that first month of his presidency was a factor in his decision. “At the time, I didn't expect the hostile reactions to my decision,” he recalled. “It was one of the greatest disappointments of my presidency that everyone focused on the individual instead of on the problem the nation faced. I thought people would consider his resignation from the presidency as sufficient punishment and shame. I thought there would be greater forgiveness."
Indeed, then-Governor Ronald Wilson Reagan had concurred. “The punishment of resignation,” he told me, “is more than adequate for the crime.”
As vice president, Gerald Ford refrained from discussing the Watergate affair or offering advice to the president. In the aftermath, however, he said he was perplexed at not being told the facts from the outset. He was also "shocked to learn" of the break-in at the office of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Hotel complex, followed by the cover-up, which, he said, "devastated so many people."
In retrospect, Gerald Ford believed that Richard Nixon entrusted too much to his subordinates and that some of the gravest errors were based on misinformation and incompetence. He also maintained that Mr. Nixon was misled by some of his staff who had extraordinary influence on him, eventually leading to the Watergate quagmire … and to his ultimate downfall.
Nonetheless, Gerald Ford noted that he still appreciated Richard Nixon's strategy in foreign policy; and told me that his "skilled maneuvering in the Middle East will go down as excellent in the annals of diplomacy."
Thomas R. Pickering, who recently retired from the Boeing Company, worked with Gerald R. Ford both as Vice President and President. A former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, he had also served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations as well as to Jordan, Israel, Nigeria, El Salvador, India and Russia.
"Gerald Ford had a very good sense of foreign affairs," he told me. "And when he became president, he was wise in keeping Dr. (Henry) Kissinger as Secretary of State. Mr. Ford knew well many of the key leaders from his time in the House of Representatives; and as Vice President, particularly in the Middle East, where I was serving in Jordan.
"He continued many of the policies of his predecessor; and those policies, in turn, contributed to the Camp David Summit (during the Jimmy Carter administration) and the subsequent Egyptian-Israel Peace Treaty, with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat."
How has the presidency evolved since Gerald Ford turned it over to Jimmy Carter in January, 1977?
“The office changes with each president,” he observed. “Each occupant defines the role and his responsibilities. It depends on the person. In my case, I tried to make a difference with my leadership; and I hope history will treat my presidency as one during which I pulled together the country and restored public
confidence in our federal government. I tried to reassure Americans that our country was sound, that we should lower our voices and respect one another in a quiet, responsible way.”
Gerald Ford still has “understanding and sympathy” for any president undergoing periods of stress and turmoil — “having gone through that myself…”
In fact, when I asked him what he would want should God grant him one wish for his 90th birthday, he was quick to respond: "That's an easy question. My wish would not be for me alone. My wish would be for our current president, George W. Bush. I understand the enormity of his responsibilities, the never-ending complexities of the Oval Office, and I'm favorably impressed with his leadership. My wish is that God protect President Bush and bless him with continued wisdom, strength and resolve to fulfill his noble mission."
Gerald Ford also noted that there is “a majesty” to the presidency that inhibits even close aides, friends and heads of state from telling the chief executive what is actually on their minds — especially in the Oval office.
“You can ask for blunt truth, but the guarded response is the norm,” he stated. “To keep perspective, any president needs to hear straight talk. I am still convinced that truth is the glue that holds government together — not only our government, but civilization itself.”
From his vast experience, Gerald Ford cautioned future presidents about general abuse of power and the dangers of over-reliance on staff. Because he cited problems with staff mismanagement, it is evident that he was still concerned about the image of the presidency.
The dilemma, he pointed out, is that there is still no solution for over-zealous employees who need to be instructed that they work for the president and for the people, and not for themselves.
He maintained that staff members are not elected by the people and that the president himself ought to determine how much trust to invest in assistants. “Otherwise," he emphasized, "the ramifications of their arrogance and abuse of power — particularly by secondary and lower level staff — can be, and has been dangerous.”
| In his vice presidential office, in 1974, Gerald Ford chats with Trude B. Feldman. Photo by Arnie Sachs, Consolidated News Pictures
Gerald Ford also said that most aides think they are protecting the president from someone or some thing. “In this area,” he added, “it is not protection that he needs. He needs the true facts about everything and everyone.”
He noted that the president — not aides — should make the decisions about whom to see, when and why. “The temptation to exceed one's authority becomes irresistible,” he said, “and in their eagerness to be close to the president, most aides tell him only what they think he wants to hear….”
Mr. Ford said that White House or State Department staff should not necessarily be selected from those “cliques of ambitious amateurs” who work in presidential campaigns; and that aides would be more effective in carrying out the president's programs and the people's business if they are competent, accountable and do not focus on their own agendas.
He maintained that he was too tolerant and too reluctant to fire anyone. “In the final months of my presidency,“ he lamented, “I began to face the problem, but it was too late.”
He said that he concurs with one of President Lyndon B. Johnson's press secretaries, George E. Reedy, who wrote in the 'Twilight of the Presidency' that "Presidents should not hire assistants under 40 years old, who had not suffered any major disappointments. When amateurs find themselves in the West Wing or the East Wing of the White House, they begin to think they are little tin gods . . .' "
In his autobiography, 'A Time To Heal,' Gerald Ford wrote: “Reedy left the White House staff several years before, but he was predicting the climate that had led to Watergate, and that is disturbing.”
Mr. Ford also wrote that throughout his political career, nothing upset him more than the bickering among members of his staff. “It was time-consuming, terribly distracting and unnecessary,” he noted. “I told my aides I would not tolerate that infighting. But it continued, even accelerated, in the White House.”
In l979, AFL-CIO President George Meany, who was acutely aware of how any type of misinformation can severely damage an individual, told me in an interview for his own 85th birthday: “There are unique advantages in being an incumbent president. He gets all the publicity he wants. But the key for any leader is good advice from good, competent assistants.
“Had Gerald Ford gotten better advice, he would have won election (in l976) because he was sitting in the Oval Office — with all its advantages, its privileges and its power.”
Much as he had yearned to be elected president in his own right in l976, Gerald Ford still believed that his leadership had steered the United States out of that period of turmoil, making it possible to move from despair to a renewed national unity of purpose and progress.
“I also established a working relationship between the White House and Congress, one that had been ruptured,” he told me. “That made a difference, and I consider that to be one of my best accomplishments as president. I hope it will be recorded as part of my legacy.”
And, when he turned 92 years old, I asked Gerald Ford how he would like to be remembered.
“I hope,” he responded, “that historians, 50 years from now, will record that I helped heal the country from the problems of Watergate, and that we recovered our economy from the Nixon recession, and that we got America back on an affirmative path.”
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.
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