Saturday, January 7, 2012

One VP Honors Another

As Vice President of the United States, Richard ("Dick") Cheney had occasion to give a speech in honor of President, and former Vice President, Gerald R. Ford. In addition to both having been vice presidents, Cheney and Ford had worked together on a number of occasions; Cheney began working for Ford when Ford became Vice President in 1973. Ford had been a member of the House of Representatives for over twenty years when he was tapped to be VP. Cheney recalled:
In his congressional career, he passed through this Rotunda so many times—never once imagining all the honors that life would bring. He was an unassuming man, our 38th President, and few have ever risen so high with so little guile or calculation. Even in the three decades since he left this city, he was not the sort to ponder his legacy, to brood over his place in history. And so in these days of remembrance, as Gerald R. Ford, goes to his rest, it is for us to take the measure of the man.
Cheney explained that Ford moved forward through life by working, not by getting lucky:
Jerry Ford was always a striver — never working an angle, just working. He was a believer in the saying that in life you make your own luck. That's how the Boy Scout became an Eagle Scout; and the football center, a college all-star; and the sailor in war, a lieutenant commander. That's how the student who waited tables and washed dishes earned a law degree, and how the young lawyer became a member of the United States Congress, class of 1948. The achievements added up all his life.
Of Ford's many achievements, the earliest ones were perhaps the most telling: he was an Eagle Scout, and he played football for the University of Michigan. Both required focus, self-discipline, and effort. He
belonged to a generation that came early to great duties, and took up responsibilities readily, and shared a confidence in their country and its purposes in the world.
Most of the men who have served as President of the United States wanted the job, and worked hard to get it. Gerald Ford never wanted the job, and made no effort to get it. His goal was to serve in Congress, and he
aspired only to be Speaker of the House, and by general agreement he would have made a fine one. Good judgment, fair dealing, and the manners of a gentleman go a long way around here, and these were the mark of Jerry Ford for a quarter century in the House. It was a Democrat, the late Martha Griffiths, who said, "I never knew him to make a dishonest statement nor a statement part-true and part-false, and I never heard him utter an unkind word."
The fact that President Ford frequently earned praise from members of the opposing political party demonstrates the strength of his character. Being forcing into the presidency without having been elected to it, he was keenly aware that no political power was his permanent possession, but rather that it had temporarily been entrusted to him. Desiring to show himself a good caretaker of that which did not belong to him, he rose above the angry political phrases which - then and now - people hurl at each other:
Sometimes in our political affairs, kindness and candor are only more prized for their scarcity. And sometimes even the most careful designs of men cannot improve upon history's accident. This was the case in the 62nd year of Gerald Ford's life, a bitter season in the life of our country.

It was a time of false words and ill will. There was great malice, and great hurt, and a taste for more. And it all began to pass away on a Friday in August, when Gerald Ford laid his hand on the Bible and swore to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. He said, "You have not elected me as your President by your ballot, and so I ask you to confirm me as your President with your prayers."

Perhaps the most controversial decision Ford ever made was to pardon Richard Nixon. At the time, many wondered if Ford had bad motives for issuing the pardon: if it was the price he paid to become president. But historians have discovered, in the following decades, that what seemed like a bad move at the time was probably a great benefit to the nation, and perhaps an action which preserved the republic. Had Ford not pardoned Nixon, the ensuing impeachment trial would have dragged that nation through even more pain and scandal, and potentially destroyed our form of government. Ford endured the withering criticism, and paid an additional price by being rejected at the polls in 1976. He knew that sacrificing his personal political career might be the necessary price to preserve America's honor. Cheney said:
What followed was a presidency lasting 895 days, and filled with testing and trial enough for a much longer stay. Even then, amid troubles not of his own making, President Ford proved as worthy of that office as any who had ever come before. He was modest and manful; there was confidence and courage in his bearing. In judgment, he was sober and serious, unafraid of decisions, calm and steady by nature, always the still point in the turning wheel. He assumed power without assuming airs; he knew how to treat people. He answered courtesy with courtesy; he answered discourtesy with courtesy.

This President's hardest decision was also among his first. And in September of 1974, Gerald Ford was almost alone in understanding that there can be no healing without pardon. The consensus holds that this decision cost him an election. That is very likely so. The criticism was fierce. But President Ford had larger concerns at heart. And it is far from the worst fate that a man should be remembered for his capacity to forgive.

Ford lived long enough to hear both historians and former political opponents reassess the decision to pardon Nixon. He lived to be thanked and honored by the people who rejected him:
In politics it can take a generation or more for a matter to settle, for tempers to cool. The distance of time has clarified many things about President Gerald Ford. And now death has done its part to reveal this man and the President for what he was.
Cheney made these remarks at one of several funerals given for Ford, who died in December 2006. Cheney noted that it was more than Ford's approachable personality which made him great:
He was not just a cheerful and pleasant man — although these virtues are rare enough at the commanding heights. He was not just a nice guy, the next-door neighbor whose luck landed him in the White House. It was this man, Gerald R. Ford, who led our republic safely through a crisis that could have turned to catastrophe. We will never know what further unravelings, what greater malevolence might have come in that time of furies turned loose and hearts turned cold. But we do know this: America was spared the worst. And this was the doing of an American President. For all the grief that never came, for all the wounds that were never inflicted, the people of the United States will forever stand in debt to the good man and faithful servant we mourn tonight.
In the end, it was more than Gerald Ford's friendly, humble manner which made him a great leader: it was his courageous determination to do the right thing, and the inner moral compass which directed him toward what is good, right, and noble.