Today, a quiet garden on Woolworth Avenue in Omaha, Nebraska gives birth to roses and other colorful flowers which rise in the shadow of a single flagpole and several humble monuments. Nearly one hundred years ago this week, a baby was born on that same tract of land. The baby’s name was Leslie Lynch King, Jr., and it is not a memorable name by any measure. Leslie Lynch King, Sr. was was abusive, bad-tempered, and did not mix well with alcohol. He was also handsome, blonde-haired, had an athletic build, was successful in business and had married a woman in September 1912 named Dorothy Ayer Gardner. Dorothy quickly found out that she was pregnant and found out almost as quickly that the father of her child was a terror.
Even before Leslie Junior was born at the home of Leslie Senior’s parents on Woolworth Avenue on July 14, 1913, Dorothy knew that she needed to escape her husband. On the first night of their honeymoon, a drunk Leslie Senior had exploded in anger at Dorothy after she smiled at a stranger in the elevator at the hotel they were staying at. That night was the first night that he hit Dorothy, but certainly not the last time he beat his wife. Less than a week after Leslie Junior was born, Leslie Senior pulled a butcher knife on his wife and threatened to kill both her and their new son. When Leslie Junior was just 16 days old, Dorothy fled with her son to safety with her parents in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Dorothy’s divorce from Leslie Senior was finalized in December 1913 and Leslie Junior was free from the threats and dangers posed by his biological father.
Leslie Lynch King, Jr., also escaped his father’s name soon afterward. When he was two-and-half years old, Dorothy remarried a wonderful man in Grand Rapids who would fill the paternal role for the former Leslie Junior. Together, they raised the young boy and helped him become a genuinely good man whose rivals couldn’t even find bad things to say about his personality. They saw him become an elite athlete, work his way to the University of Michigan and Yale Law School, serve with honor in World War II, and enter public service. From there, the young man who was born the son of an abusive alcoholic distinguished himself in the halls of Congress and eventually healed his nation during an unprecedented crisis. And when he made a name for himself, he did so with a new name which paid homage to the man who raised him. He earned distinction as a great American not as the son of Leslie Lynch King, but as Gerald Rudolph Ford.
On January 2, 2007, the Washington National Cathedral was the site of a rare and solemn occasion. President George W. Bush and all living former Presidents gathered with Senators, Representatives, Cabinet members, Supreme Court Justices, soldiers, diplomats, foreign leaders, friends, family, and regular Americans to pay tribute to Gerald R. Ford. Several days earlier, a state funeral held in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol building allowed Americans to stream past Ford’s flag-draped casket as it rested on the same catafalque which once held the coffin of Abraham Lincoln. To honor his service in the House of Representatives, Ford’s casket paused in repose near the House Chamber. To honor his service as Vice President of the United States (the President of the Senate), his casket paused in repose near the Senate Chamber. To honor his service in World War II, his hearse had stopped briefly near the World War II monument in Washington, D.C.
At the National Cathedral, eulogies were given which spoke to Ford’s humility, his decency, his gracious manner, his humor, his devotion to flag and family, and his decision to pardon Richard Nixon in 1974 after Nixon resigned during the Watergate scandal and Ford assumed the Presidency. In 1974, Ford’s pardon of Nixon was controversial and so risky that it likely cost him the 1976 election against Jimmy Carter. As the pages of history have turned, however, even the most vehement opponents of Ford’s pardon of Nixon have not only softened their viewpoints, but agreed that what Ford did helped close the book on Watergate and begin healing the nation. During the national funeral service, President Bush said, “When President Nixon needed to replace a Vice President who had resigned in scandal, he naturally turned to a man whose name was a synonym for integrity: Gerald Ford. And eight months later, when he was elevated to the Presidency, it was because American needed him, not because he needed the office.”
The next day, a final funeral service was held in Ford’s hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan and Ford’s 1976 campaign opponent, Jimmy Carter, repeated the words he originally said about Ford as he left office and Carter assumed the Presidency on January 20, 1977, “For myself and our nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land.”
It was Ford’s reputation for healing and for honesty which has made him such a beloved figure amongst people of all political parties. Ford was an operator in Congress, Republican leader of the House of Representatives in the 1960’s, a member of the Warren Commission which investigated John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and one of the most visible politicians of the 1970’s — a time in American history when Americans had very little confidence or respect for politicians thanks to Watergate, CIA scandals, and a revolving door of mediocre political “leaders”. Yet Ford came out of the 70’s — despite losing his election bid against Carter in ‘76 — as almost heroic. He restored honesty to the Presidency and he didn’t make waves.
On his first morning as President, Ford — still living in his personal home in Alexandria, Virginia — retrieved his newspaper from his doorstep and cooked his own breakfast. Gerald Ford never tried to be someone he couldn’t be. He was perfectly content in Congress and his only ambition in life was to someday be Speaker of the House. When Nixon’s first Vice President, Spiro Agnew, was forced to resign in disgrace in 1973, Congressional leaders basically forced Nixon — who was in the midst of his own scandal — to choose Ford. Ford was plucked from Congress and placed in the Vice Presidency and, eight months later, stepped into the Presidency upon Nixon’s resignation. Ford never wanted to be President of the United States and he’s the only man to ever hold the office who hadn’t been elected on a national ticket.
Ford was a savvy politician, however. He knew that his role was to bring the country back together after the ugly debacle that was Watergate. Pardoning Nixon was controversial, but he also pardoned draft dodgers and deserters to soften the Nixon pardon. Ford brought troops home from Vietnam and negotiated the Helsinki Agreement of 1975. Ford was only President for 30 months, but his steady and solid stewardship of the Presidency helped begin to repair the damage that Nixon’s scandals had exacted from the institution.
It’s most interesting to note that one of Ford’s lasting legacies is as the bumbling, clumsy guy who slipped and fell down the steps of Air Force One in Austria, accidentally hit golf shots into crowds of people on more than one occasion, and was lampooned constantly by Chevy Chase in the early days of Saturday Night Live. It’s also fascinating to realize that, of all the criticisms that might be launched against a national politician of Ford’s stature, it was his apparent clumsiness that bothered Ford the most. Ford was the best athlete to ever occupy the White House. At the University of Michigan, Ford was a star football player whose teams won national titles in 1932 and 1933 and whose jersey number (#48) was retired by the team in 1994. Ford turned down contracts from the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions to attend Yale Law School, but his love for Michigan athletics never wavered. As President, Ford often had the Marine Band play Michigan’s fight song "The Victors" instead of "Hail To The Chief". Ford was also a skilled downhill skier, swimmer, and golfer who continued an active lifestyle until his 90th birthday.
What should be remembered about Gerald Ford this week as we celebrate the anniversary of his birth is not his athleticism or his specific accomplishments. It’s not the landmarks that he achieved such as being the longest-lived President (when Ford died at 93 years old, he had lived several months longer than Ronald Reagan, the previous record-holder) or the fact that he has an airport named after him in Grand Rapids. It’s not even the fact that Ford pardoned Nixon and helped heal the country, although that could be the greatest accomplishment of his brief Presidency. What is most amazing is that Gerald Ford spent 30 years in public office and nearly 60 years actively engaged in American politics, yet even the best researchers or historians would be hard-pressed, if not totally unable, to find a single enemy who hated Gerald Ford. Gerald Ford left behind a legacy of friends and supporters — people who called him “Jerry” and “Mr. President” — that couldn’t even imagine a negative anecdote about the man, let alone remember one.
At Ford’s funeral in 2007, former President George H. W. Bush said, “To know Jerry was to know a Norman Rockwell painting come to life.” However, the most fitting tribute to Gerald Rudolph Ford was given while he was still alive to hear and appreciate it. On August 13, 1999, President Clinton presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to a tearful, grateful, 86-year-old former President Ford at the White House. Before bestowing the nation’s highest civilian honor on Ford, Clinton gave the best epitaph for his long career, “President Ford represents what is best in public service, and what is best about America.” Everyone who knew, who worked with, or who worked against Gerald Ford completely agreed.