Mrs. Ford, members of the Ford family, President and Mrs. Bush, Vice President and Mrs. Cheney, President and Mrs. Bush, President and Mrs. Carter, President and Mrs. Clinton, distinguished guests, my fellow Americans; it’s a great privilege and an honor for me to be here.
For the past week, we have been hearing the familiar lyrics of the hymns to the passing of a famous man, the hosannas to his decency, his honesty, his modesty and his steady-as-she-goes qualities. It’s what we’ve come to expect on these occasions.
But this time there was extra value, for in the case of Gerald Ford, these lyrics have the added virtue of being true.
Sometimes there are two versions to these hymns – one public and one private, separate and discordant. But in Gerald Ford, the man he was in public, he was also that man in private.
Gerald Ford brought to the political arena no demons, no hidden agenda, no hit list or acts of vengeance. He knew who he was and he didn’t require consultants or gurus to change him. Moreover, the country knew who he was and despite occasional differences, large and small, it never lost its affection for this man from Michigan, the football player, the lawyer and the veteran, the Congressman and suburban husband, the champion of Main Street values who brought all of those qualities to the White House.
Once there, he stayed true to form, never believing that he was suddenly wiser and infallible because he drank his morning coffee from a cup with a presidential seal.
He didn’t seek the office. And yet, as he told his friend, the late, great journalist Hugh Sidey, he was not frightened of the task before him.
We could identify with him – all of us – for so many reasons. Among them, we were all trapped in what passed for style in the 70′s with a wardrobe with lapels out to here, white belts, plaid jackets and trousers so patterned that they would give you a migraine. The rest of us have been able to destroy most of the evidence of our fashion meltdown, but presidents are not so lucky. Those David Kennerly photographs are reminders of his endearing qualities, but some of those jackets – I think that they’re eligible for a presidential pardon or at least a digital touch-up.
As a journalist, I was especially grateful for his appreciation of our role, even when we challenged his policies and taxed his patience with our constant presence and persistence. We could be adversaries but we were never his enemy, and that was a welcome change in status from his predecessor’s time.
To be a member of the Gerald Ford White House press corps brought other benefits as well as we documented a nation and a world in transition, in turmoil. We accompanied him to audiences with the notorious and the merely powerful. We saw Tito, Franco, Sadat, Marcos, Suharto, the shah of Iran, the emperor of Japan, China with Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping all at once, what was then the Soviet Union and Vladivostock with Leonid Brezhnev, and Helsinki at one of the most remarkable gatherings of leaders in the 20th century.
There were other advantages to being a member of his press corps that we didn’t advertise quite as widely. We went to Vail at Christmas and Palm Springs at Easter time with our families. Now cynics might argue that contributed to our affection for him. That is not a premise that I wish to challenge.
One of our colleagues, Jim Naughton of The New York Times, personified the spirit that existed in the relationship. He bought from a San Diego radio station promoter a large mock chicken head that had attracted the president’s attention at a G.O.P. rally. And then, giddy from 20-hour days and an endless repetition of the same campaign speech, Naughton decided to wear that chicken head to a Ford news conference in Oregon with the enthusiastic encouragement of the president and his chief of staff, Dick Cheney.
In the next news cycle, the chicken head was a bigger story than the president. And no one was more pleased than the man that we honor here today in this august ceremony.
When the president called me last year and asked me if I would participate in these services, I think he wanted to be sure that the White House press corps was represented: the writers, correspondents and producers, the cameramen, photographers, the technicians and the chicken.
He also brought something else to the White House, of course. He brought the humanity that comes with a family that seemed to be living right next door. He was every parent when he said my children have spoken for themselves since they were old enough to speak – and not always with my approval. I expect that to continue in the future.
And was there a more supportive husband in America than when his beloved Carol began to speak out on issues that were not politically correct at the time. Together, they put on the front pages and in the leads of the evening newscasts the issues that had been underplayed in America for far too long.
My colleague Bob Schieffer called him the nicest man he ever met in politics. To that I would only add the most underestimated.
In many ways I believe football was a metaphor for his life in politics and after. He played in the middle of the line. He was a center, a position that seldom receives much praise. But he had his hands on the ball for every play and no play could start without him. And when the game was over and others received the credit, he didn’t whine or whimper.
But then he came from a generation accustomed to difficult missions, shaped by the sacrifices and the depravations of the Great Depression, a generation that gave up its innocence and youth to then win a great war and save the world. And when that generation came home from war, they were mature beyond their years and eager to make the world they had saved a better place. They re-enlisted as citizens and set out to serve their country in new ways, with political differences but always with the common goal of doing what’s best for the nation and all the people.
When he entered the Oval Office, by fate not by design, Citizen Ford knew that he was not perfect, just as he knew he was not perfect when he left. But what president ever was?
But he was prepared because he had served his country every day of his adult life and he left the Oval Office a much better place. The personal rewards of his citizenship and his presidency were far richer than he had anticipated in every sense of the phrase.
But the greatest rewards of Jerry Ford’s time were reserved for his fellow Americans and the nation he loved.
Farewell, Mr. President. Thank you, Citizen Ford.