Washington — The one character trait that stands out with Jerry Ford is how slow he is to take offense and how quick he is to forgive. In a recent interview the former President was asked: "In view of the tepid support Reagan gave you in the 1976 campaign, why are you giving him your all-out backing?"
"I won t pass judgment on Reagan," Ford told me. "I don't look back. I've always looked down the road."
Ford was speaking slowly, thoughtfully. He continued: "I've seen how badly Carter has handled the White House. I'm not going to let some personal feeling of what happened or didn't happen in 1976 affect my judgment on the future."
Then Mr. Ford went on to say how he has "gotten to know Reagan better" and how he now has "faith in him" and is convinced "he will make a good president."
So Ford is campaigning almost as hard as if he were the presidential candidate. "I'm doing it," he says, "because I'm convinced that Carter has failed the American people -- and that he should and can be beaten."
Here Ford added: "The United States is really in serious trouble worldwide. I want to do something to change this presidency."
So between Labor Day and election day Mr. Ford will have been out on the road campaigning for 53 out of 60 days -- traveling some 60,000 miles and into 30 states.
Wouldn't Ford rather be campaigning for himself? He smiles. "Well, I find that a lot of people who voted for Carter last time would vote for me today.
"I don't know how many people come up and say to me, 'I made a mistake. I've very sorry I didn't have an opportunity to vote for you this time.'
"It's just amazing how many people tell me this -- or write me this.
"Now I didn't lose by many votes in 1976, and it wouldn't have taken much more to win." He paused. "But I don't have any regrets about not running."
Would he accept a high-level presidential appointment from Reagan?
"Absolutely not," he said. "I don't want any job. And I don't want any patronage."
Would he take the post of secretary of sate? "No," he said. "No permanent positions."
He would, he said, be willing to be a kitchen-cabinet type of out-of-government presidential adviser to Reagan. He also might, he said, consider heading some presidential commission -- say something like the Hoover commission that Truman set up to seek ways of bringing more efficiency to the federal government.
When asked about the President's charges against Reagan which Carter himself has admitted were excessively rough, Ford said: "He has gone beyond the borders of decency when he implies that Reagan is a racist and a warmonger."
Had Ford seen this side of Carter during the 1976 campaign? "No," he said, and then, on reflection, he added:
"Well, there was that time he turned to me in one of the debates and said, 'You should be ashamed of yourself.'"
Would Ford like to "come back on Carter now and ask this same question about such things as the economy or defens?"
Ford showed no eagerness at the prospect of such a confrontation with Carter -- at an opportunity to "get even." But he said, rather philosophically, "It would be an interesting debate."
Would Ford debate Carter?
"If he would debate me," said Ford, "I'd be glad to do so."
Are you challenging Carter?
"You can say that I said it would be an interesting contest. But I don't think he would accept it because he's afraid to defend his record."
The two reporters interviewing the former President commented on how "good" Ford looked, on his youthful, vigorous appearance. "I'm feeling great," he said. "I enjoy what I'm doing. I thrive on it. And I'm thoroughly committed."
Coming back to Reagan, Ford said: "Our views are essentially parallel. And we hit it off real well."
As he stood up to end the interview Mr. Ford said he was confident that Ronald Reagan would be the next president and that the nation would be in good hands.