- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 16, 2002

When Richard M. Nixon resigned from the White House on Aug. 9, 1974, Gerald R. Ford was catapulted into history as the nation's 38th president.

A month later, President Ford pardoned Mr. Nixon "for all offenses against the United States which he has committed, or may have committed or taken part in during the period from January 20, 1969, through August 9, 1974."

The pardon caused an uproar and may have led to Mr. Ford, a Republican, losing the 1976 election to Democrat Jimmy Carter by 1.5 percent of the vote.

"As you well know," Mr. Ford said in a recent interview, "I tried very hard to win that election. That would have given me a chance to expand individual freedom from mass government, mass industry, mass labor and mass education and to launch a program to get the federal government off the backs of the people."

But Mr. Ford, who celebrated his 89th birthday Sunday, was vindicated last year when he received the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, which cited Mr. Ford's "courage" in pardoning Mr. Nixon for his role in the Watergate scandal.

Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, made the presentation at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston. Mr. Kennedy said Mr. Ford had "withstood the heat of controversy and persevered in his beliefs about what was in our country's best interest. History has proved him right."

"At a time of national turmoil, our nation was fortunate to have him prepared to take over the helm of the storm-tossed ship of state. President Ford recognized that the nation had to get on with its business and could not, if there was a continuing effort to prosecute former President Nixon. So he made a tough decision and pardoned Richard Nixon.

"I was one of those who spoke out against his action. But time has a way of clarifying things, and now we see he was right."

Mr. Ford told the Kennedy family and some 250 guests that arguments over the Nixon pardon would continue for as long as historians recorded the era.

"But I'd be less than human if I didn't tell you how profoundly grateful I am for this recognition," he said. "The award committee has displayed its own brand of courage."

Mr. Ford recalled last week that despite the controversy his pardon engendered, he felt that his decision "was right when I made it, and today I feel it is even more right."

The Sept. 8, 1974, Oval Office speech that so drastically affected his political fortunes lasted 11 minutes.

"As we are a nation under God, so I am sworn to uphold our laws with the help of God," he said then. "And I have sought such guidance and searched my own conscience with special diligence to determine the right thing for me to do with respect to Richard Nixon, and his loyal wife and family. Theirs is an American tragedy in which we all have played a part. It could go on and on and on, or someone must write the end to it. I have concluded that only I can do that, and if I can, I must.

"My concern is the immediate future of this great country. My conscience tells me it is my duty, not merely to proclaim domestic tranquility, but to use every means that I have to ensure it. I feel that Richard Nixon and his loved ones have suffered enough and will continue to suffer, no matter what I do, no matter what we, as a great and good nation, can do together to make his goal of peace come true."

Mr. Ford said he did not expect such a "hostile" reaction.

"That was one of the greatest disappointments of my presidency," he said. "Everyone focused on the individual, instead of the problems the nation faced. I thought people would consider his resignation sufficient punishment, even shame. I expected more forgiveness."

Along with a stint as a naval officer during World War II, Mr. Ford spent 54 years in politics. His one regret: not becoming speaker of the House.

"I lost five times. There were not, then, enough Republicans in the House," he said. "I wanted to be speaker because the legislative process interested me, and was the kind of challenge I enjoyed. I was never as enthusiastic about being in the executive branch. I even turned down the chance to run for governor of Michigan."

He had planned to retire from Congress in January 1977. But in 1973, Vice President Spiro T. Agnew was forced to resign because of legal and campaign-finance problems, and Mr. Ford was selected to serve as Mr. Nixon's vice president.

He caught the eye of another man who also would move from Congress to the vice presidency, then the presidency.

"As soon as Gerald Ford moved to the White House," former President George Bush said in an interview, "he restored its honor and integrity, thus sending the world a reassuring signal about the American presidency itself."

Mr. Bush, who coordinated Mr. Ford's state visit to China in 1975, described him as a "fine leader who understood the need to avoid extremes, as well as the need to bring people together."

When asked what he most regretted as he looked back over his career, "Well, I wish I were a better public speaker," Mr. Ford said. "I would have liked to be able to communicate more effectively. That is so very important."

About turning 89, "age doesn't bother me," he says. "I'm not as mobile as I was 25 years ago, but I feel fortunate to still have my zest for life. I keep busy and I have more enthusiasm now because of the care I take of myself. I follow a good diet and don't drink or smoke."

How has the presidency evolved in the 25 years since Mr. Ford left the White House?

"The office changes with each president," he says. "Each occupant defines the role and his responsibilities. In my case, I tried to make a difference in my leadership."

He points out that "a majesty" to the presidency inhibits even close friends and heads of state from telling the chief executive what is on their minds especially in the Oval Office.

"You can ask for blunt truth, but the guarded response never varies," he says. "To keep perspective, any president needs to hear straight talk. And he should, at times, come down from the pedestal the office provides.

"I'm still convinced that truth is the glue that holds government together; not only our government, but civilization itself."

Trude B. Feldman, an internationally syndicated feature writer, has covered the White House and the State Department for more than 30 years.

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