My one-on-one with Jerry
It was the Ford administration's last week: mid-January 1977. It was the day before Jimmy Carter would be inaugurated. We White House staffers, famous and otherwise, were getting our pictures taken with the departing president.
In my relatively obscure job working on international economic policy, it was only at photo ops like this that I got any one-on-one time with Jerry Ford. The first occasion had been the previous March 17, St. Patrick's Day. It had been a small in-house ceremony held in the Cabinet Room commemorating the issuance of our yearly report on the globe's economic well-being (or lack thereof). Treasury Secretary Bill Simon was on hand. The president slowly worked his way around the room, shaking hands with the 40 or so staff members in my section of the White House.
When he got to me, the Big Guy and I exchanged comments about our respective green ties. My rather wide tie was completely covered with images of large, almost surrealistic four-leaf clovers. I'd worn it that day despite my wife and children's embarrassed stares at the breakfast table. The president's tie displayed a tasteful bicentennial motif - cannons, flags, and Revolutionary soldiers - on a green background. I told Mr. Ford that I'd never seen a bicentennial tie of that color. (All the rest seemed to be either red or blue.) He, in turn, looked admiringly at mine, saying it was also unusual. A photographer snapped us.
Afterward, my colleagues jealously asked what had engrossed the president and me in that deep palaver. After a pause, I started to speak, but thought better of it and fell into discreet silence.
This time, wearing a subdued tie, I was to say farewell to the boss. As I waited in line outside the Oval Office, I wondered what lay ahead for our "accidental president." I had read speculation about his taking on a college presidency in California. A civil servant on loan from the executive branch, I had voted for Carter, despite the fact that Ford seemed the more attractive personality.
A few weeks earlier, I had watched a bit guiltily at the White House Christmas party as other staffers, some in tears, said goodbye to Jerry and Betty. The presidential couple were so gracious, doing a kind of bereavement counseling for employees, many of whom would not only miss their genial presence but were already looking for new jobs. I could go back to the safety of my parent agency's bureaucracy.
Finally, an aide signaled my turn. As I entered the office, I saw a cheerful, forgiving (I hoped) president, his hand outstretched. I strode over to shake it.
But there was no photographer's flash. The president just kept smiling at me and firmly grasping my hand. I wondered if he had been taken by my necktie again. Or could Jerry Ford know, somehow, how I had voted? Maybe I should say something about that possible college job.
"Mr. President," I said, after what seemed like a long time (but was probably only a few seconds), "I wish you all the best in your next adventure."
He chuckled, and said "Thanks. Now just a moment or two more."
I waited for the moment of sage presidential insight. "The photographer's changing his film," said Mr. Ford. Then someone in back of me said "Smile." At last, the flash went off. Dazed by the light, I stumbled out of the office. That was our last meeting. He never got that college gig.