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Jerry Ford: President, But Still the Guy Next Door


The achievements of Gerald Ford, who was laid to rest in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, Wednesday, have been widely reported. And the universal themes in the tributes to this former U.S. president and congressional leader are his quiet and steady resolve in a crisis, as well as his fairness and decency. He was in many respects what Americans call a "regular guy."

Jerry Ford's genial nature shone through in his 1984 interview on the VOA program "Talk To America." This was 10 years after he assumed the presidency following the resignation of disgraced President Richard Nixon, whom Mr. Ford soon pardoned in the interest of ending what he called "our long national nightmare."

Mr. Ford, who spoke with VOA listeners from his home in the California desert community of Palm Springs, noted that retirement from the rough-and-tumble life of politics suited him just fine.

"The main benefit is that I have the option to say yes or no," he said. "When you're in the Congress or in the White House, you're pretty much a captive of circumstances. But I still am active politically. I'm campaigning hard for President Reagan [in his 1984 re-election race] and other candidates. So I'm in politics to a degree, but believe me, I don't want any office, either appointed or elected."

Gerald Ford said he savored a former president's role as diplomat without portfolio, noting that both incumbent Republican President Ronald Reagan and former president Jimmy Carter -- a Democrat who had defeated Mr. Ford in 1976 -- were good friends who often called him for advice. Looking back on his race against Carter, Ford said he remained uncomfortable with the increasing emphasis on image over substance in the political process. "The truth is that despite all the propaganda that comes out on behalf of candidates, the public is a lot smarter and can see through most of that. The public can see whether the individual candidate has got character, whether the candidate's views are sound, and whether that individual candidate can be trusted."

On the day almost 23 years ago that President Ford answered VOA listener questions from around the world, he spoke of the breakdown of apartheid in South Africa, a system he detested. "I'm always optimistic that the rights of people will be protected and expanded," Mr. Ford said. "It may be a small step in South Africa, but it's a step forward. And we should applaud it."

"I'm always optimistic": words that exemplified the sunny outlook of a man who almost accidentally was thrust into the vice-presidency and then the presidency itself. The adopted son of a paint salesman, a gifted college athlete, and a hard-working but unremarkable congressman who wrote not a single piece of significant legislation in a quarter-century, Gerald Ford won the hearts of a grateful nation as a plain-talking, trusted healer who soothed an emotionally fractured nation with what President Bush has called a "calm and steady hand."

"I'm a Ford, not a Lincoln," Jerry Ford liked to joke, meaning he was much closer to the everyday rather than expensive model of Ford automobiles made in his native Michigan. As one journalist remembered after Ford's death last week, he was "an ordinary guy in the noblest sense of the word."