Ford's courage in office hurt political ambitions
Gerald R. Ford, our 38th President, who died Dec. 26. is the only president to assume office without being elected on a national ticket. He lived longer than any former president and for nearly 30 years after he left the Oval Office.
Ford's brief yet auspicious presidency has not yet been fully appreciated. Ford's courage in office frustrated his own political ambition. Twenty-five years after leaving office, President Ford shared his insight about the struggle between political expediency and doing the right thing. Upon receiving the John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage award in 2001 Ford said, "The ultimate test of leadership is not the polls you take, but the risks you take. In the short run, some risks prove overwhelming. Political courage can be self-defeating. But the greatest defeat of all would be to live without courage, for that would hardly be living at all."
Ford was undoubtedly coming to terms with the action for which his presidency is most widely known, the unconditional pardon of Richard M. Nixon. The quote is reminiscent of a famous speech of President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt, himself an accidental president having assumed the presidency following the assassination of William McKinley, said: "Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat."
Among the many qualities that leaders possess, vision or the ability to focus may be the most significant. Abraham Lincoln is thought of as the great emancipator. Many believe Lincoln's singular focus was his personal belief that all men and woman are created equal and should be free to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Actually, Lincoln's vision, his singular focus, was to preserve the United States of America as it existed prior to the Civil War. He would have done whatever was necessary to save the union. Lincoln's letter in response to a critical newspaper editorial makes clear his vision. "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that."
Ford, too, wanted to bind the wounds of the nation. The wounds were different, but in many ways there was no less a crisis in this country. Ford understood that he had to heal the country in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam. Ford needed to restore confidence in government. Mindful his action would most certainly impact his effort to get elected president in 1976. Ford pardoned Nixon from any prosecution resulting from the Watergate investigation or, as Ford described it, "our long national nightmare."
Only days after winning the Profiles in Courage award, Ford spoke of John F. Kennedy. They had entered Congress together in 1946. In 1960 Kennedy narrowly defeated Nixon, who would later make Ford vice president and ultimately president. Ford and Kennedy were decorated World War II veterans and their presidencies were similar in their duration, Kennedy 1,036 days and Ford 895.
Ford said of Kennedy, "Jack Kennedy understood that in the high stakes game of history, only those who are willing to lose for their convictions deserve to win at the polls. At the same time, he grasped that only those whose convictions do not blind them to the search for common ground can hope to rally a political system intentionally designed to frustrate utopian reformers."
Ford and Kennedy's tenures as commander-in-chief were separated by little more than a decade, but seemed to exist in two very different eras. Kennedy's administration began with optimism and idealism and Ford's with indignation and cynicism. Both took risks and when required both stood firm. One survived the attack of assassins, the other did not. One is immortalized, the other underappreciated.
Upon assuming his responsibilities as vice-president Ford said, "I'm a Ford, not a Lincoln." But , as Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said, "He saved the country. In fact he saved it in such a matter-of-fact way that he isn't given any credit for it."
Matthew T. Mangino is the former district attorney of Lawrence County. He is a featured columnist for the Pennsylvania Law Weekly. He can be reached at email@example.com.