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Published: 12/29/2006

The accidental president did what he had to do

WASHINGTON - Thirty years ago, I was happy the night that Jimmy Carter narrowly defeated President Gerald Ford. I thought the accidental president was a stumbling party hack who had lost all credibility when he pardoned Richard Nixon.

Well, I was wrong. I fully realized how wrong two decades later when I flew to his home in Rancho Mirage, where I had been granted a long interview with the former president. There was a little banter about University of Michigan basketball, and then I had to ask him about it. The Pardon. The stroke of the pen that had cost him the presidency.

What happened startled me. President Ford took out his wallet, rummaged through it, frowning, pushing a boxed set of Ken Burns' series on baseball out of the way.

Finally, he pulled out a little slip of folded paper. "Here," he said.

This all seemed slightly surreal. It contained a typed quotation from a 1915 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Burdick vs. United States. It said something like "the acceptance of a pardon implies the admission of guilt."

"See," he smiled. He explained that by getting Nixon to accept the pardon, he accomplished something prosecutors never had. He had, I realized, contempt for Richard Nixon. Mr. Ford had tenaciously defended Nixon throughout Watergate, first as minority leader of the U.S. House and later as vice president.

One day in late July or early August, 1974, he realized Nixon had lied to him, as he had lied to everyone else. That was that. He stopped defending him, and started getting ready to take the oath. But why, then, the pardon?

"I was spending 25 percent of my time on Richard Nixon's problems. The country had major problems, including inflation and a stagnant economy," Mr. Ford told me. "I felt I had to get all this off my desk." Besides, he didn't think the nation needed to be further distracted and torn apart by a Nixon trial.

Nor did he think the then-desperately ill Nixon would survive a show trial. So Mr. Ford pardoned him, and took the consequences. The nation, which virtually worshipped Mr. Ford in the first month after Nixon was gone, fell out of love instantly. He told me he knew that would happen. But he did what a leader had to do.

Easily forgotten now was how torn apart the nation had been by Watergate, and just plain torn by the revelation on the infamous tapes that their president was a cold man who plainly did not like people, a snarling, lying, foul-mouthed criminal bigot.

Younger Americans don't know how refreshing it felt to suddenly have a president who seemed, well, to be a human being, who invited the press in to see him making his own toast; who sometimes wore a UM belt buckle, who had a normal 1970s family, none of whom seemed to be made out of plastic.

True, Gerald Ford was, well, not a Lincoln, as the saying went. Sometimes he would get words mixed up or say the wrong thing. Once, way back when I was as a teenager, I saw him mix up George Romney and Richard Nixon's names. He was not a silver-tongued orator, nor fast on his feet, which led to some thinking he wasn't very smart.

This too was wrong; he graduated near the top of his Yale law school class. He long amazed Congress with his encyclopedic understanding of the federal budget.

Mr. Ford had his faults. He could be stubborn, as when he hurt himself by refusing for days to take back his claim that "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe," made at the worst possible time, during a televised debate with Jimmy Carter.

He was the only member of the Warren Commission who sought to make money from the experience by cranking out a cheap book. He launched a bizarre and ineffective attempt to impeach liberal Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas in 1970. And he bowed to right-wing pressure and booted Vice President Nelson Rockefeller off his ticket in 1976, something he later deeply regretted.

But he was fundamentally a normal, decent man. Wednesday afternoon, in a Washington taxi, I listened to the speech he made to a joint session of Congress when he assumed the presidency. We are in this mess together, he told them.

We have to find ways to heal our wounds and attack the nation's economic problems. No bluster, no ignoring of the facts, no ideological blinders.

You can make the case that if the two-party system has any meaning, the Republicans needed to be tossed out after Watergate. And yet had Mr. Ford been elected in 1976, the nation would have been spared the ineffectual Carter presidency and the ideological Reagan one. Likely a centrist Democrat would have been elected in 1980.

We don't know. But I do know that one of the classiest things Jimmy Carter did was to use his first breath as President to thank Gerald Ford "for all he did to heal this land." We've lost something valuable since that day.

I think President Ford would like us to try and get it back.



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