As the nation mourns the passing of former President Ford this weekend, it’s been interesting to think back on that period. Most of the coverage seems to run in the vein of “He deserves more credit than history has given him”—a nice way of saying that history really hasn’t given him much credit. That’s not unusual, of course. People are often not fully appreciated until well after they have passed from this mortal coil—and the dividends of presidential policies are often long-term investments. One thing he’s not often noted for—but that we in this business benefit from every day—is his signing of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), less than a month after taking office.
I wasn’t paying much attention to such matters in 1974. I was more focused on beginning my college education (and paying for same), and worrying how my dating life was going to survive having to pay 55 cents/gallon for gasoline (but relieved I no longer had to wait in line to do so). As presidents frequently are, Gerald Ford was portrayed by the media as a bumbler of sorts. One of our most athletic presidents, he had the temerity to engage in active sports such as skiing—and its companion activity, falling—in front of cameras. For those less prone to watch the nightly news, Chevy Chase, the then-hot ticket on the newly launched Saturday Night Live, transformed his “skill” for falling in front of the cameras into a weekly parody of President Ford during the 1976 presidential race. When press reports emerged quoting former President Lyndon Johnson’s comment that Gerald Ford had played too much football without a helmet—well, we all got the “joke.”
President Ford’s 895-day term as president is perhaps most noted for his pardon of his predecessor. A controversial decision, to say the least, and one that may well have cost him the 1976 presidential election, it still strikes me as one of those tough, principled decisions that we expect our nation’s leaders to make at critical junctures in history. It was, however, a decision that I think Gerald Ford was able to make for the simple reason that he had spent a lifetime establishing a reputation for personal and professional integrity. There may well have been those who suspected a quid pro quo—but while those notions fit nicely amidst concerns of a Watergate conspiracy, those suspicions simply didn’t hold water when applied to Gerald Ford (imagine if Spiro Agnew had granted that pardon).
Not that Gerald Ford was a saint, by any means. Recent reports suggest that his pardon of Richard Nixon may have had personal, as well as professional, motivations; and his decision to release criticisms of the current Administration’s polices—but only after his death—certainly lends a human “pallor” to his reputation, IMHO.
Still, President Gerald Ford lent his reputation and his integrity to a decision that his country needed—at a time when we needed it most.
- Nevin E. Adams