WASHINGTON — The passing of President Gerald Ford is a reminder that the Republican Party was once led by political moderates who have now been replaced by members of the radical right (read that "neocons") and evangelicals.
Ford, who had served as House Republican leader, vice president and president, understood that politics is the art of compromise. He had many friends on the opposite side of the political aisle, who heartily supported his nomination to be Richard M. Nixon’s vice president when Spiro Agnew was forced to step down in 1973 amid bribery allegations.
That doesn’t mean Ford was not a partisan Republican stalwart and fiscal conservative, but he knew when to compromise. On social issues, he basically walked the middle road.
There was none of that "with us or against us" rhetoric.
Decency is the word that comes through for Ford, who became president when the nation was traumatized by the misdeeds and cover-up by Nixon and his palace guard during the Watergate scandal.
Ford was not Nixon’s first choice to replace Agnew. Nixon apparently would have preferred former Texas Gov. John Connally, who had earlier served as treasury secretary. But Connally, who had been a Democrat, was not an easy a sell in Congress, which would have to confirm the new vice president.
Ford was viewed as an "accidental" president much like Harry Truman, who was not Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first choice for vice president in his fourth term. But both Truman and Ford defied the predictions that they were not up to the job.
Both men rose to the challenge. They not only excelled in the White House but carved special places in history.
Ford paid a heavy price for pardoning Nixon one month after Nixon resigned from the highest office in the land. The pardon was for any crimes Nixon may have committed in office.
I wish Ford would have publicly declared he was against the disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq while he was still alive, rather than confiding his opposition to the war in an interview with Washington Post journalist-author Bob Woodward — and then requesting that it be withheld until after his death.
Still, it was typical of Ford — a team player — not to want to rock the boat during a war he knew President Bush was determined to wage.
And yet somehow it seems there should be a larger meaning than presidential solidarity when it comes to war and peace.
In terms of friendly relations with the media, Ford ranked high, having been a Washington insider for years as a Michigan congressman. He knew the first names of most of the reporters who covered him and was friendly toward them. He had none of the pomposity and pretensions found in some politicians.
Ford once labeled my questions at news conferences as "acupuncture." And he told the 1975 White House Correspondents Dinner: "If God had created the world in six days, he could not have rested, he would have had to explain it to Helen Thomas."
In such divine intervention, I am sure I would have been asking my favorite question: "Why?"
Following Ford on his presidential campaign trail in 1976, we came upon a scale that also dispensed fortunes with one’s weight. Reporters dared Ford to step on the scale. He dutifully did so.
Then he read aloud his fortune — which paraphrasing — said something like: "You have a chance for greatness" and a "wonderful future."
I looked at the card and teased him: "They got the weight wrong, too." Ford roared with laughter.
Ford had a good sense of humor and reporters were always invited to his annual birthday celebration at the National Press Club, usually a fundraiser held in June, although his birthday was July 14, 1913.
His wife Betty, who reporters doted on for her unique candor, also had a sense of humor. She was fearless and her honesty was refreshing at a time when first ladies tried to hide their true personalities.
Asked in an interview on "60 Minutes" what would she think if her daughter Susan had an "affair," she replied: "I wouldn’t be a bit surprised."
Once I asked Betty Ford if she knew her husband bumped his head a lot when stepping out of planes and choppers, she quipped: "So what else is new?"
As for politics, Republicans seeking the presidency in 2008 would do well to tear a page out of Ford’s playbook: Move to the middle and stay away from the far right.
© 2007 Hearst Newspapers