GRAND RAPIDS — Gerald R. Ford might be remembered as the man who became president by default. He was sworn in as the 38th President of the United States in the wake of Richard M. Nixon’s resignation and one month later pardoned the disgraced former president for his role in the Watergate scandal — a move that brought closure to a national crisis in confidence in the presidency, but probably cost him his 1976 presidential election bid. Gerald R. Ford put the country’s interests before his own political ambitions, and he’ll likely go down in history as the right man at the right time for the job.
“There’s no question he was the right man at the right time” said Amway co-founder Rich DeVos, a philanthropist and long-time GOP supporter. “He accomplished more as president in two years than most do in four.”
There’s also no question that West Michigan remained close to Mr. Ford’s heart, even in his later years.
Marty Allen, chairman emeritus of the Gerald R. Ford Foundation Board of Trustees, recalled the birthday bash held here in celebration of Mr. Ford’s 90th birthday. When the party was over, Mr. Ford wasn’t quite ready to go back to his hotel:
“He told the Secret Service guys, ‘I want to take a ride.’ So they drove around, looked at the high school, looked at the place he and Betty had first dates, looked at his old home and everything. So even though he may have lived out west, this was truly his home.”
When Mr. Ford came into office, inflation was rampant, there was an energy crisis, the country was still fighting the war in Vietnam, and the Nixon Administration scandals had ignited a very personal war here at home between Republicans and Democrats in Congress, DeVos said.
“All those things were occurring and this man was thrust into the spotlight,” DeVos said. “In a very calm and cool and reflective way, he settled this country back down. By the time he left, life was back on a pretty good plane. Pardoning Nixon may have cost him his presidency, but it had a big impact on saving the country at that time from falling into further chaos.”
Mr. Ford was always a quiet, humble guy, he said. DeVos reminisced about the time he and his business partner, the late Jay Van Andel, decided to throw a party for Mr. Ford after he was nominated to replace Spiro Agnew as Nixon’s vice president. It turned out to be “a rather interesting little dinner party,” DeVos said, because the very evening of the party, Nixon announced his resignation in a televised address, so the celebration turned into one for the “new” president.
Perhaps more than anything, “Jerry” will be remembered for the dignity, integrity, humility, honesty and candor he displayed throughout his legal and naval careers, his 25 years in Congress and his brief tenure as president. Those characteristics were clearly reflected in his inaugural address of Aug. 9, 1974: “I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your president by your ballots. So I ask you to confirm me as your president with your prayers. And I hope that such prayers will also be the first of many. … I have not sought this enormous responsibility, but I will not shirk it.”
People in Grand Rapids will never forget the hometown boy who made it all the way to the top, but they have no sense of the stigma Mr. Ford had to bear by making it to the top without actually being elected by the people, said Gordon Olson, retired Grand Rapids city historian.
Ask those who knew Mr. Ford and worked with him what he was like, and the most common response is that he was a good and decent man — a common man with a simple persona and a self-deprecating sense of humor.
Mr. Ford’s sense of calm, his sense of integrity and of balance and fairness, his personal traits and reputation were what carried the day at that point in the nation’s history, said David Frey, chairman of the Frey Foundation. Mr. Ford didn’t seek the office of the presidency; the office sought him, Frey added.
“He was right then and even more right today,” Frey remarked. “The country would not have been better off to go through a lengthy, sordid trial of a former president. … His (Ford’s) reputation from his short but luminous term as president will grow with time.”
Gleaves Whitney, director of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley State University, interviewed Mr. Ford in the summer of 2005.
“What struck me was his decency,” Whitney said. “He was so unassuming. I was sitting there thinking: ‘He’s the most powerful man in the world.’ He was not full of himself. He was a man from the Midwest who loved his country, loved his family and loved the Michigan Wolverines. He made me feel right at home.”
Congressman Vern Ehlers said Mr. Ford’s honesty and forthrightness personified the many good traits that West Michigan candidates and elected officials have to offer the nation.
“I am privileged and have always felt a sense of honor to be serving in the same House seat that Congressman Ford served,” Ehlers remarked.
Attorney Bob Eleveld, of counsel at McGarry Bair PC, was a GOP activist in the 1960s and early 1970s and headed up several of Mr. Ford’s early campaigns. As far as Eleveld is concerned, Mr. Ford’s character and integrity were beyond question.
“He was so down to earth. He never had a sense of his own importance, and I think that was one of the things that endeared him to everybody. I never heard of a person who didn’t like Jerry Ford, even his opponents,” Eleveld said.
Mr. Ford wasn’t one of those congressmen who go off to Washington and are never heard from again, Eleveld added.
“He paid attention to his home folks and was responsive to them. He was all the good things that a congressman should be, in my judgment. He never ran a negative campaign; I never heard him say a bad word or run a negative ad about anybody. That just wasn’t his style.”
According to the Presidential Libraries System, Mr. Ford was only two weeks old when his mother relocated from Omaha, Neb., to Grand Rapids in 1913. Ford attended South High School, where he excelled at football and was named to the all-city and all-state teams. He went on to play football for the University of Michigan, was named the Wolverines’ Most Valuable Player in 1934, and later received pro-football contract offers from the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions.
After graduating in the top third of his Yale Law School class in 1941, Mr. Ford opened a practice in downtown Grand Rapids with his friend Philip Buchen and became active in local politics. He was part of the reform group that successfully dismantled the political machine of then-Mayor Frank D. McKay. Mr. Ford volunteered for the Navy in early 1942, was assigned to duty aboard the carrier USS Monterey, and subsequently received a Silver Star and four Bronze Stars, among other medals, in recognition of his service.
According to national library archives, upon his return home in 1946, Mr. Ford joined the Grand Rapids law firm of Butterfield, Keeney and Amberg, the predecessor to Law Weathers & Richardson. Attorney Bob Buchanan of Law Weathers & Richardson said attorneys at the firm who worked with Mr. Ford in his earlier years remember him not just for his integrity but for his selflessness.
“When you look at the current political climate of people shifting views depending on polls and always trying to create an image, Gerald Ford was a real person who stuck to his views and didn’t shift with the polls,” Buchanan said. “He was a true and dedicated public servant.”
In November 1948 the Grand Rapids Republican was elected to his first term in Congress. That same year he wed Betty Bloomer Warren, a woman who would later capture America’s heart with her own candor and forthrightness.
“All his years as representative — it was the mantra in his House office — he immediately responded to constituents’ concerns,” local historian Olson recalled. “If he got a letter from a constituent, a response went out the same day, if only to say, ‘We got the letter.’ Everyone got a Christmas card from him. I think all of that work he did for 24 years will be remembered. People all tend to think of him as though they knew him because he was extremely careful to cultivate his own garden.”
On the heels of Spiro Agnew’s resignation, while Mr. Ford was serving his 13th term as a Congressman from Michigan, President Nixon nominated him as vice president, and the Senate approved the nomination by a vote of 92-3. On Aug. 9, 1974, Nixon announced his own resignation. Mr. Ford took the oath of office as president the following day, announcing that the “long, national nightmare is over.” Four weeks later, President Ford surprised the nation by pardoning Nixon for any crimes he might have committed in office, and his approval rating plummeted. He subsequently lost his bid for the presidency in 1976 to Jimmy Carter, a peanut farmer from Georgia.
As Whitney sees it, Mr. Ford understood that public service was a noble calling, and he remains a good role model for anyone who has the desire to serve their community and their nation.
“Ford was personally committed to providing an excellent example through his trustworthiness, his integrity and his ability to compromise,” Whitney said. “He was not an ideologue; he was able to work with people who disagreed with him. It was said of President Ford that he had opponents but not enemies, and that was very revealing of his style.”
Mr. Ford remained in the national consciousness long after his departure from the White House through his writings, addresses and appearances. Up until his death last week at age 93, he was the oldest living U.S. president.