The passing of former President Gerald R. Ford just after Christmas made a slow news week interesting, as reporters reflected on the events of more than 30 years ago that created a constitutional crisis for the nation, and made Gerald Ford, as Tom Brokaw said in his eulogy, “a President by fate rather than by design.” If you read only about the Watergate era in history books or see old television clips, it’s hard to fathom the mood of that time in Washington. For others, it was a reminder of an intense period that called into question the rule of law and trust in government, every bit as threatening as today’s bullets and bombs.
There is a television commercial for Claritin that has the actor pull away a grey film from the screen to let the sunshine in. That’s not far different from the reaction I remember having when President Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974. The storm of Watergate swirled around President Nixon for months, creating a black cloud not unlike the one that always accompanied Joe Btfsplk, a jinxed character in Al Capp’s Lil’ Abner cartoon strip. August 9 dawned bright and sunny, but a black cloud still enveloped Washington. Until noon, that is. As the helicopter carrying Richard Nixon to ignominy rose off the White House lawn, a weight also rose off the shoulders of the nation. The black cloud disappeared, a constitutional crisis had been averted, and we all could breathe again. It was truly a physical manifestation of an emotional burden being cast off.
I was working on Capitol Hill, for Senator Frank Church (D-Idaho). Senators and House members were more family-oriented and social than today. Families lived here full-time, and went to home districts only during the summer (thanks partly to a number of congressional wives who lobbied their husbands for saner U.S. House and Senate schedules, and were successful!). I remember Mrs. Church and Mrs. Ford working together on a children’s immunization campaign against rubella in the early 1970s. They brought together other congressional spouses to make public service announcements about rubella vaccinations for their home states and districts. Mrs. Ford was a quiet force in the effort, and always lovely to work with, sort of an every-mom, never standing on ceremony, even though her husband was a power in the House. She showed that same quiet force in the events of this week honoring her husband.
There have been other potential constitutional crises: Secretary of State Alexander Haig announcing that he was “in charge” after the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan (Haig was quickly advised of his constitutional faux pas); the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, and the 2000 election (both of which provide a lot of fodder for constitutional scholars), and the 9/11 attacks on the nation (just how would government work with its physical structures obliterated?). None, however, approaches the risks created by the Watergate scandal. Thirty-some years later, it was fitting that, at Gerald Ford’s funeral, the sun was shining.