It was a time of deep division and political uncertainty in America. Gerald Ford tried to bridge the chasm of enmity with a plain-spoken reminder: The Constitution works; the US is a nation of law, not men. As he delivered his remarks, several of the listeners teared up.
This could have been from his inaugural address in 1974, when President Ford declared the "long national nightmare" of the Watergate scandal over, and spoke of "truth" as "the glue that holds government together." But the occasion was more recent: the 200th-anniversary celebration of the first White House. The event just happened to fall as Al Gore was calling for a hand recount in Florida in an unresolved presidential election that was turning into its own nightmare.
The formal dinner party in the White House East Room on Nov. 9, 2000, was "providential," Mr. Ford stated calmly. The anniversary brought together four presidents who had been bitter rivals, but who joined amicably that evening in honoring something bigger than individuals and their campaigns.
Gerald Ford, who died on Tuesday, led a political life of conscience and comity. These qualities helped heal a nation after President Nixon resigned for covering up a 1972 break-in at Democratic headquarters. Ford pardoned his disgraced predecessor early on, explaining that his "conscience" told him that he could not "prolong the bad dreams that continue to reopen a chapter that is closed."
The pardon brought howls of criticism from all sides, but as the years passed, it has come to be viewed as the right thing to do. Ford himself believed that his greatest achievement was the healing of national division caused by Watergate.
Ford's candor and amicability are sorely needed in Washington politics today, given the steadily rising shrill, partisan tone. One might be tempted to think that the Ford way was unique to his situation – a president never elected to the Oval Office, and as a result, freer to be his own man. But his life shows a consistency of approach from his earliest days in politics.
In 1948, he successfully ran for the US House as an "internationalist," seeking the best role for America in the world. That played out later in his controversial presidential decision to back the Helsinki Accords with the Soviet Union – a move that again proved wise in the long run, because it encouraged dissidents to demand that Moscow live up to its Helsinki human rights commitments.
As the House Republican minority leader, he refused to discipline party members who crossed the leadership. Punishment is "counterproductive," he said. "That person knows that he disappointed you. To rub it in makes it, the next time,... impossible to get his cooperation."
Ford had a rough time as president. He was unable to tame nearly 12 percent inflation, and he presided over the fall of Saigon. He lost narrowly to Democrat Jimmy Carter in the bitterly contested election of 1976, in part because of the Nixon pardon.
And yet Ford and Carter later became friends. With his typical offbeat humor, he brought a little levity to the White House party in 2000: "Take it from someone who knows all about losing a close election," Ford quipped. "There is life after [leaving office]."
Certainly his was a full and exemplary life.