When good feeling ruled

Amid the heated election controversy, two events caught my attention.

First, Ralph Nader was the guest at a Monitor lunch last Friday. The election was up in the air; but the reporters present seemed to think that the race was tilting toward George W. Bush.

What did he think of Governor Bush, the Green Party candidate was asked. He was disparaging: "He's like his father - even less energetic. He doesn't know very much. He doesn't like controversy. He's not about to push toward significant new directions."

How about Al Gore? "He's even more reprehensible," said Mr. Nader who, one must conclude, doesn't think much of either candidate. "He knows better and doesn't do it. All during the campaign he has weasled and waffled. He's between being a great pretender and a great imposter."

Nader is convinced that nothing very constructive will happen during the next four years. "Our expectation level has hit the bottom," he asserts.

Here is a man who, quite obviously, doesn't see the glass as half full - as I do. He sees a country where "12 million children go hungry every day" and there are so many problems that cry out for correction. And why do we listen to him? While he didn't get 5 percent of the popular vote as he'd hoped, his environmental position made him an important player in several states. In Florida, his 92,000 votes could have deprived Vice President Gore of that state and, thereby, the presidency.

I've known Nader since the 1960s, when his office was just down the hall from the Monitor's in the National Press Building. He came in for a Monitor breakfast back in 1972 in his often successful role as a consumer advocate. He admits he likes working for the underdog. But when I asked, "Don't you also like being the curmudgeon?" he smiled and said no. Ralph, I really think you do get some joy out of making the big fellows uncomfortable.

Will his Green Party take off? He says yes, but that it will take a couple more four-year election cycles before it becomes one of the major parties.

Second, three former presidents came to Washington and joined President Clinton at a dinner commemorating the 200th anniversary of the White House. As Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George Bush dined with Clinton, it was a reminder, much needed at this time of heated contention between presidential aspirants, that Democrats and Republicans can get along together.

Here was Jerry Ford, whipped by Jimmy Carter in the narrowest popular race before this current cliffhanger, saying in his after-dinner speech, "Certainly few observers in January 1977 would have predicted that Jimmy and I would have become the closest of friends."

And here were Jimmy Carter's words along the same line: "I know we have several historians here, and I would challenge any of you to find any two former presidents who have formed a closer and more intimate friendship than Gerald Ford and I, and I'm grateful for that."

Mr. Ford legitimately could have asked for recounts in the 1976 election. He could have torn up the nation with challenges. But the possibility never was even raised: Ford looked at the popular vote and conceded to Mr. Carter.

I was covering Ford at the time. I know how terribly disappointed he was; he had given his all in his campaign effort. But he bowed quickly to the results, saying that Carter had won fair and square and that was it.

I wasn't surprised that Ford was such a good loser. I had been covering him since the mid-'50s in his Michigan congressional races. I've logged many a mile with him as he drove around his Grand Rapids district. And I early learned for myself what I had heard from so many of my colleagues in the press: what a "good guy" Jerry Ford was, how earnest and candid he always was.

Historians have yet to move Ford above the "average" category. But I think even though he was president for only half a term, Ford will, in time, gain a higher rating because of the way he immediately restored confidence in a presidency that had been so devalued by his predecessor, Richard Nixon. Ford, on taking over, told us that "our long national nightmare is over," and we knew that all was well once again with our democracy.

Carter said in his speech the other night: "I remember the first sentence of my inaugural address - when I said to President Ford, 'Our nation wants to thank you for healing America.' And I still feel a great debt of gratitude to that wonderful man."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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