TO FULLY understand the unelected presidency of Gerald R. Ford, you have to go back to the summer of 1974, when the Watergate scandal had aroused national discontent to a rolling boil and into a potential constitutional crisis. Having no choice, President Richard Nixon resigned, and the new chief executive calmed the nation with the statement on Aug. 9, "Our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works. Our great republic is a government of laws and not of men."
The nation acquiesced with a collective sigh of relief.
Mr. Ford, who died Tuesday, was the first to be appointed vice president under terms of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution and then succeed to the presidency. At 93, he was the longest-living president, followed by Ronald Reagan and John Adams.
Although his tenure in office was brief, it was not uneventful. The Vietnam War that had plagued four predecessors came to its inglorious close. Mr. Ford helped mediate a cease-fire between Israel and Egypt, signed the Helsinki human rights convention with the Soviet Union, and traveled to Vladivostok to sign an arms limitation agreement with Leonid Brezhnev.
At home, he struggled unsuccessfully throughout his 895 days in office to right an economy plagued by a 12 percent inflation rate. But it was the Nixon pardon for which he will be mostly remembered.
Mr. Nixon had assumed that replacing the disgraced Vice President Spiro Agnew with the comparatively bland Mr. Ford would be insurance against impeachment. He was wrong.
Even so, the Nixon tar baby clung to Mr. Ford. A month after taking office he pardoned the ex-president, immediately dissipating much of the good will derived from his handling of the White House changeover. He stoutly defended the action as the only way to push the wreckage of the Nixon presidency offstage and enable him to govern.
That act undoubtedly cost him the 1976 election, in which he was defeated by Jimmy Carter, but other factors played a role, too - an inept performance in one of the debates, a winless wrestling match with adverse economic trends, characterized by his famous "Whip Inflation Now" campaign, and a stumble or two on airplane stairs, mercilessly pilloried by Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live. Even so, many historians and political observers have come to the conclusion that Mr. Ford made the right decision, unpopular as it was at the time.
Mr. Ford's tenure was marked by frequent clashes with a Democratic Congress. He used his veto pen often, and was overriden often. But his open and frank manner was in stark and welcome contrast to the secretive, almost psychotic manner in which his predecessor had operated.
A veteran of 25 years in the U.S. House of Representative, much of that time as minority leader, the President was able to maintain cordial relations with many members of Congress. Mr. Ford managed to see both sides of the legislative-executive relationship without rancor, and even with touches of humor, including his self-deprecating reference to being "a Ford, not a Lincoln."
His wife, Betty, played an invaluable role by speaking frankly on her bout with breast cancer and her hospitalization for drug addiction. Her statements struck a responsive chord with the public, and she remains a widely admired former first lady.
Following his 1976 defeat, Mr. Ford's government service ended after 28 years. It cannot be said that he pursued a post-presidential career - which was longer than his period of public service - with anything like the selflessness of other former presidents, such as Jimmy Carter. Mostly he sat on corporate boards, played golf, and maintained a large and expensive taxpayer-funded staff.
Nevertheless, the nation owes a debt to Mr. Ford, the only Michigan politician to sit in the White House. As a transition figure from the rogue Nixon presidency and the storm of Watergate, he helped reassure the American public that their system of government was equal to one of the greatest internal crises in its history. That was no small accomplishment.