Ford and Ali -- one more time?

The news is that two old tigers, Gerald Ford and Muhammad Ali, are threatening to stage what is quaintly known as The Comeback. Mr. Ford has quoted Betty Ford as saying that a former President who wants the old job back raises serious questions about his mental qualifications for it. So far, Ali's wife has made no similar judgments about former heavyweight champions, but almost everybody else has.

Was Mr. Ford influenced by Ali, or vice versa? A student of the The Comeback would hesitate to say. But Ali, as an unofficial ambassador-at-large to Africa on the matter of the Olympic boycott, must be keeping up with political news more than he did when he was in the butterfly-floating and bee-stinging business. and, on the other hand, Mr. Ford has been more and more the golfer and the skier -- the athlete -- these days. May one not presume that he has become accustomed to reading the sports page first, like every red-blooded Americanm male?

There is no need to push the coincidence too far. Sooner or later, it seems, everybody who has made it to what is allegedly The Top -- from Frank Sinatra to Pierre Trudeau, from Bobby Hull to the "I-think-I-can" train -- feels an irresistible urge to climb that hill one more time.

The Greeks had a word for it: hubrism -- the overweening pride that tempts a man to behave as if he were a god. But it is worth noticing that nobody brings up hubrism unless The Comeback falls.

Peope love The Comeback that succeeds because it says maybe, just maybe there's a second chapter for you too, dear bystander.

Just think of the ripple effect a successful comeback by Ali will have on Ken Norton, Jerry Quarry, and every club fighter who saw "Rocky" one too many times.

Sensitive sports fans are already waking up in the middle of the night, hearing themselves cry out: "Don't do it, Joe Namath."

As for the department of ex-Presidents, if Mr. Ford succeeds, will Mr. Nixon be far behind?

In the participant, in the spectator, The Comeback draws a fine line between hope and hallucination, and this holds particularly true for Americans. For The Comeback is practically our national myth. Down and out in the Old Country, Americans come to the New World and . . . stage a comeback.

There are only two known ways to avoid the Ali-Ford temptation:

1. Never quit in the first place, like Gordie Howe, Lawrence Welk, and the Venerable Bede.

2. Change your specialty.

The second alternative is also very American: the myth of the new frontier. And besides golf, Mr. Ford did try college lecturing. And besides playing ambassador-at-large, Ali did try acting.

But most people are simply not Renaissance men -- except in the primary sense of wanting to be reborn, wanting to come back. Ali suffered more as an actor than he ever did in the ring; and not even Mr. Ford's worst enemy would suggest that he audition for those old Ronald Reagan parts as his next alternative.

So it's back to skipping rope and saying "My friends . . ." very sincerely to the nearest mirror.

The Ford-and-Ali comebacks say awful things about the joys of Palm Springs and world travel, not to mention early retirement. But there you are. The message seems to be that one cannot escape the consequences of hope, and that, in the end, most people would rather lose than not play at all.

By all accounts, Harold Stassen is a happy man.

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