Saturday, January 7, 2012

One President Honors Another

In 2006, as the nation mourned the death of President Gerald Ford, his friend and colleague, President George H.W. Bush (the elder of the two Bush presidents) spoke to the nation, explaining that it was Ford's honesty, trustworthiness, and promise-keeping which not only made Ford a great president, but also preserved the republic in a time at which political scandal threatened to destroy our government:
Well, as the story goes, Gerald Ford was a newly minted candidate for the United States House of Representatives in June of 1948 when he made plans with a reporter to visit the dairy farmers in western Michigan's Fifth Congressional District. It was pouring rain that particular day and neither the journalist nor the farmers had expected the upstart candidate to keep his appointment. And yet he showed up on time because, as he explained to the journalist, "they milk cows every day and, besides that, I promised."

Long before he arrived in Washington, Gerald Ford's word was good. During the three decades of public service that followed his arrival in our nation's capital, time and again he would step forward and keep his promise even when the dark clouds of political crisis gathered over America.

Ford lent his personal honor to the office of the presidency, at a moment in which that office had little left, and in manner of Cincinnatus, embodied virtues which can benefit the republic:
A decade later, when scandal forced a vice president from office, President Nixon turned to the minority leader in the House to stabilize his administration because of Jerry Ford's sterling reputation for integrity within the Congress. To political ally and adversary alike, Jerry Ford's word was always good.

And, of course, when the lie that was Watergate was finally laid bare, once again we entrusted our future and our hopes to this good man. The very sight of Chief Justice Berger administering the oath of office to our 38th president instantly restored the honor of the Oval Office and helped America begin to turn the page on one of our saddest chapters.

As Americans we generally eschew notions of the indispensable man, and yet during those traumatic times, few if any of our public leaders could have stepped into the breach and rekindled our national faith as did President Gerald R. Ford.

History has its long stretches of 'status quo' and its decisive moments. A precise Providence supplies the human being with the proper qualities to match a decisive moment: Ford was an example of this. President George H.W. Bush, who had worked for Ford - first as a diplomat to China, then as director of the CIA - explains Ford's place in American history:
History has a way of matching man and moment. And just as President Lincoln's stubborn devotion to our Constitution kept the Union together during the Civil War, and just as F.D.R.'s optimism was the perfect antidote to the despair of the Great Depression, so too can we say that Jerry Ford's decency was the ideal remedy for the deception of Watergate.

For this and for so much more, his presidency will be remembered as a time of healing in our land. In fact, when President Ford was choosing a title for his memoirs, he chose words from the book of Ecclesiastes.

Ford's autobiography was entitled A Time to Heal, and the word 'heal' appeared many times in the different speeches, essays, and books written about him. The presidency of Gerald Ford, in the consensus of a diverse group of texts, was about healing the nation from the wounds of Vietnam and Watergate. The providence which guided Ford into the Oval Office preserved his life in the midst of assassination attempts. Perhaps no president had so many attempts against his life when measured against his relatively short stint in the office (James Garfield comes to mind).
It is plain to see how the hand of providence spared Jerry in World War II and later against two assassination attempts. And for that we give thanks. It is just as plain to see how the same hand directed this good man to lead a life of noble purpose, a life filled with challenge and accomplishment, a life indelibly marked by honor and integrity. And today we give thanks for that, too.
As the nation mourned the loss of a great leader, speeches by President George H.W. Bush and many other leaders gave us material for meditation on the topic of what we can learn from President Gerald Ford.