Gerry Ford gets his due

When journalists in the Monitor's group had breakfast at the White House with President Gerald Ford in early February of 1976, it was, according to one veteran newsman in attendance "an historic occasion." Richard L. Strout, who had been covering presidents for the Monitor since the 1920s, said that no president during that period had ever hosted such a session with reporters and that it couldn't have happened in the early days. He saw it as a sign of Mr. Ford's "graciousness."

Ford had been a frequent guest at the Monitor breakfast during the years when he was the Republican leader in Congress. And, during the short time he was vice president, he had dropped by our group for a morning meal and a lot of questions.

But I had no idea that we would have breakfast with Ford after he moved up to president. Somehow - I've never found out exactly how it happened - President Ford heard that the group was about to mark its 10th anniversary, and he let me know that he would like to be the host of the celebration.

Why am I recalling this Gerald Ford memory at this time? Well, it's because the prestigious John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award has just been given to Gerald Ford for his pardon of Richard Nixon.

When, shortly after succeeding Nixon, Ford pardoned the disgraced president, his public approval rating, at first quite high, plummeted. Most Americans, according to the polls at the time, had wanted Nixon tried.

In addition, there was much public suspicion - fed by stories in the media - that Ford had a "deal" with Nixon: that in exchange for Nixon stepping down and letting Ford become president, Ford would pardon Nixon.

And although Ford passionately denied that there had been such an arrangement, even appearing voluntarily before the House Judiciary Committee and swearing under oath that he had not made such a deal, he was never able while in office to dispel this widespread suspicion.

So when we met with President Ford early in that year when he would be seeking election, it was not entirely a jolly occasion. The president couldn't have been more hospitable. And it was clear that we journalists were honored to be there and were having a fine time.

Still, there was a bit of a cloud hanging over the gathering. We were quite aware that we were meeting with a president who was struggling to regain public favor - a president who faced an uphill battle to stay in office after his term was up. We liked Gerry Ford. He was such a nice guy. But we wondered how he would ever overcome his Nixon-pardon problem.

And he didn't - not while in office. He came within a few delegate votes of losing the Republican nomination that summer to Ronald Reagan. And then he went on to lose to a Jimmy Carter, who was hardly more than a "Jimmy who?" at the time we were having that White House breakfast with Mr. Ford.

Ford put on a great campaign that fall against Mr. Carter. And he came so close to winning. But he never was quite able to close the gap. Too many people still wanted to punish him for that pardon.

The two considerations the award committee, meeting recently at Caroline Kennedy's New York apartment, used in making its decision were: one, that the issue was of the utmost gravity and, two, that the action was taken with full knowledge that it would be politically fatal.

Also, of course, this committee was expressing a judgment on the pardon that reflected a shift in view over the years: Now this committee, containing a heavily Democratic coloration, was concluding that what Ford had done was good for the nation.

At the time, the stated reason for pardoning Nixon was so that Ford would be able to govern. Otherwise, he said, the national focus would remain on Nixon for months and he, Ford, wouldn't be able to get anything done.

Ford also had made it clear to political friends and reporters, including me, that by this act he would probably suffer greatly politically and perhaps be removed from office in the 1976 election. But, he told us, he was doing what he felt was best for the country.

And now Ford has been honored for doing the right thing - the courageous thing - even though he knew it would be so harmful to himself politically.

Here's to you, Gerry Ford, a real nice guy who finally is getting his due!

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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