Gerald Ford at 90 reflects on his presidency, prays for Bush

Trude B. Feldman
Saturday, August 9, 2003

Gerald R. Ford just reached the venerable age of 90. The 38th President of the United States can look back with much pride at his record of 30 years in public service, especially his role during his presidency (Aug. 9, 1974-Jan.20, l977) in the healing of our nation.

IIn an interview for this milestone birthday, he is a picture of health and is in an expansive mood while reviewing his life's journey. “First, I want to say that it was delightful to return to the White House where the President and Mrs. Bush hosted a dinner to celebrate my 90th.

“I'm also excited about this birthday because, as a young fellow, I never anticipated that I would be in such good health, still active and enjoying life."

Concurring with Mr. Ford's enthusiastic response are two members of his White House cabinet: Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, ten years his junior and Secretary of Transportation William T. Coleman, Jr, who turned 83 on July 7. “Age hasn't touched Gerry Ford yet, “Dr. Kissinger told me. “He is a bit frail but it is not noticeable. He looks and acts like a much younger man.

Asked what he would want should God grant him one wish for his 90th, 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."
“. . . 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. “

William Coleman, as Counsel to the Warren Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, first met Gerald Ford in l964 when he was a member of the Commission. “President Ford's mind is as good as it was when he was 60,” he says. “He is alert and sharp. He is also a genuinely decent man who has a good sense of humor and he still returns my phone calls.”

How does Gerald Ford feel about reaching 90 years of age?

“It's not bad,” he tells me. “Age doesn't bother me. Of course I'm not as mobile as I was—not with my old bones. I feel fortunate to still have my zest for life. Physically, I'm less active but I keep up with world affairs.”

He is particularly proud of his annual World Forum which he established in l982 in association with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), whose president is Christopher DeMuth. Convened in Vail/Beaver Creek, Colorado, the Forum is a gathering of former and current international world leaders and business and financial executives who discuss political and business policies impacting current issues.

Gerald Ford during his 90th birthday interview by Trude B. Feldman at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel in Washington, D.C. Photo by Michael Messinger.
Two of the participants at this year's Forum shared with me their insights about the Ford presidency. Roderick Hills, Counsel to the President in the White House and his Chairman of the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC), recounts 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 adds. “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.”

Hills' wife, Carla, Ford's Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), recalls how he 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,” Ms. Hills told me. “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 describes 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,” Mrs. Hills 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. He 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.”

When Gerald Ford became president, he was faced with an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress. He recalls that he “struggled repeatedly” over such issues as government spending, presidential war powers and oversight of the intelligence community. He also advocated reducing the size and role of the federal government through cuts in taxes and spending, paperwork reduction and government deregulation.

William Coleman believes that history will support the fact that President Ford was a much better president than his critics or the media would often indicate. “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,” Mr Coleman says. “You know, one of the great 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.”

Bipartisan bickering still concerns Gerald Ford. “I hope,” he says, “that Congress will care more for what is best for the public, rather than look at issues on how to obtain the best political advantage from any particular issue.”

Much as he had yearned to be elected president in his own right in l976, Gerald Ford is confident that history will record that he “helped to heal America at a very difficult time.”

He believes that his leadership as president for 29 months had steered the U.S. 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 says. “That made a difference. I consider it to be one of my best accomplishments as president and hope historians will record that as part of my legacy.

“I also hope history will treat my presidency as one where 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.”

In foreign affairs, Gerald Ford cites his emphasis on stronger relationships with American allies, encouragement of detente with the Soviet Union and progress in negotiating with the Soviets on nuclear weapons.

And with French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, he initiated annual international economic summits of the major developed economic nations.

IIn the face of bitter opposition, President Ford signed the Helsinki Final Act, for the first time giving the issue of human rights a real “bite” inside the Soviet bloc which eventually led directly to Eastern Europe throwing off the shackles of communism.

As President in the Oval Office, Gerald Ford is interviewed by Trude B. Feldman in 1976. Photo by Mel Chamowitz.
According to Dr. Kissinger, President Ford was also responsible for bringing about a commitment to majority rule in Rhodesia . . .”and the Ford Administration directed the final withdrawal of Americans and refugees from Indochina at the end of the Vietnam War.”

Dr. Kissinger adds: “When he became President, Gerald Ford re-started the peace process in the Middle East. He was also responsible for the second disengagement agreement between Egypt and Israel, which, for the first time since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, introduced political elements, and not simply military elements, in the relationship between Arab nations and Israel. This laid the basis for the peace agreement which was signed by President Carter in 1979.”

I asked Gerald Ford about the misconceptions of him. “Well, I always thought I had a better academic record than what the media recorded,” he recalls. “I was in the top l5 per cent of my class at the University of Michigan and in the top three per cent in my class at Yale Law School. Unfortunately, some in the media didn't appreciate that and misrepresented my record. They also gave me a hard time about my stumbling and falling… but at the University of Michigan I was a pretty darn good athlete and was named (in 1934) its most valuable player.”

One of President Ford's golf partners, Sanford I. Weill, chairman and CEO of Citigroup, tells me that among presidents who have played golf, he is considered one of the three best. Weill, a close friend, also describes Ford as a “wonderful and caring person with a lot of common sense . . . and he has made a major contribution Ýwith his advice—to my career.”

What are some of the former President's regrets?

“Well, I wish I were a better public speaker,” he allows. “And I would have liked to be able to communicate more effectively. That is so very important.”

He also regrets not having fulfilled his ambition of becoming Speaker of The House of Representatives. “I lost five times,” he laments. “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.”

He was planning, in fact, to retire from Congress in l977. But in 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 recalls. “That's when President Nixon nominated me as vice president. It was totally unexpected and was a significant change in my politics, my life and whole future…to go 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. 9, 1974), which I didn't anticipate, that was a big, big change in my direction.”

Thirty days into his presidency, Gerald Ford granted a pardon to Richard Nixon for his involvement in the Watergate scandal. Today, he says he feels vindicated for that pardon. “There is no question about it,” he adds. “I was right when I made that decision and I'm pleased that the public now seems to agree with me.”

Turning to his philosophy of life, Ford says: “I've always been an optimist and still am. 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.”

The saddest day of his presidency, Ford recalls, was on April 30, 1975, when “we had to pull our troops out of Saigon and withdraw from South Vietnam, which soon surrendered to the North Vietnamese.”

Born July 14, 1913 in Omaha, Nebraska, to Dorothy Gardner and Leslie Lynch King, Jr., Gerald Ford was christened Leslie L. King, Jr. His parents divorced when he was two years old. He moved with his mother to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she married Gerald Rudolph Ford, who later adopted the child and gave him his name, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr.

If he were able to relive his 90 years, what would he do differently?

“There is no major decision I would change if I could rewrite history,” he says. “Overall, I worked hard in all my positions and I tried to improve myself by learning something new in each one.

“I have also witnessed the defeat of Nazi tyranny and the destruction of hateful walls that once divided free men from those enslaved.

“. . . It has been a grand adventure and I've been blessed every step by a loving wife and supportive family.”

How has the presidency evolved since Gerald Ford departed the White House 26 l/2 years ago? “The office changes with each president,” he responds. “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.”

He went on to say that he learned about leadership and making decisions while serving as an officer in the U.S. Navy during World War II. “I think,” he adds, “I was a better vice president and president because of that military service.”

He further notes 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 never varies,” he says. “To keep perspective, any president needs to hear straight talk. And he should, at times, come down from the pedestal the office provides.

“I am still convinced that truth is the glue that holds government together -- not only our government, but civilization itself.”

From his experiences, Gerald Ford cautions future presidents about general abuse of power and the dangers of over-reliance on staff. Citing problems with staff mismanagement, he — even today — is concerned about the image of the presidency. The dilemma, he says, is that there is no solution for over-zealous employees who aren't instructed that they work for the president and for the people, and not the other way around.

He maintains 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 emphasizes, “the ramifications of their arrogance and abuse of power — particularly by secondary and lower level staff — can be and has been dangerous. “

Gerald Ford concurs with one of President Lyndon Johnson's press secretaries, George E. Reedy, who wrote in The Twilight of the Presidency: “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 writes: “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 writes 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 points out. “I told my aides I would not tolerate it. But it continued, even accelerated in the White House.”

In 1979, then AFL-CIO President George Meany, acutely aware of how any type of misinformation can totally damage any individual, told me in an interview for his 85th birthday: “There are unique advantages in being an incumbent president. He needs only to walk out of the White House and he gets all the publicity he wants. The key for any leader is good advice from good assistants.

“Had Gerald Ford gotten better advice, he would have won in 1976 Ý because he was sitting in the Oval Office . . . with all its special advantages and its power.”

Today, Gerald Ford still has “sympathy and understanding for any president undergoing periods of stress and turmoil — having gone through that myself…”

Before closing our interview with his birthday wish, President Ford talked about his religiosity, which, over the years, has stood him in good stead. He regards himself as a man of deep religious conviction, and recognizes that his religious practices and beliefs have played a major role in his life. As an adult, he taught Sunday School at Grace Episcopal Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He believes that his early religious training — the atmosphere in his home, and his habit of going to church — gave him the necessary background to meet and work with all peoples and to confront the various problems he faced throughout his 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.”

This 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.”

Gerald Ford's faith in God has never wavered. For him, the words “In God We Trust” on American currency are more than a national motto. He sees them as a kind of 'testament' followed by Americans from the earliest days of our nation's history. “From the beginning,” he says, “America has declared her dependence on God and placed our trust in Him. This is one of our country's strengths.”

He adds: “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. Material things are fleeting; that which is spiritual stays with us and is immortal.”

President Ford achieved the “American dream” — and many of his birthday wishes have been fulfilled. Asked what he would want, should God grant him one wish for his 90th, 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.”

Trude B. Feldman, a veteran White House and State Department correspondent, is internationally syndicated and a contributing editor for World

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