Gerald Ford, who died today, not only restored the presidency following the tumult of Watergate, but he almost immediately improved relations with the media, still stinging from the imperial years of Richard Nixon.
Declaring, famously, “our long national nightmare is over,” Ford immediately opened up access to his office and often talked with reporters several times a day, a sharp contrast to the zeal with which his predecessor tried to protect his image. It may not have helped him in public opinion, particularly after he granted a pardon to Nixon, but it was in keeping with his desire to restore the office to a spirit of transparency.
“I believe it is always better to err on the side of more exposure and access rather than less,” Ford wrote. “At that time, the media and the general public still resented any hint of ‘imperial’ trappings in connection with the presidency or the White House.”
And while his tenure lasted just 2 1/2 years, the Vietnam war was over, and he presided over a more carefree era in American culture, marked by the Bicentennial, the ERA and disco. His wife, Betty, even made a highly publicized cameo appearance on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” His press secretary, Ron Nessen, hosted “Saturday Night Live,” then one of the hottest new shows, and Ford taped the introduction, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”
Although a star athlete, Ford’s occasional falls and tumbles on the ski hill, in addition to slices on the golf course, drew the attention of writers on “Saturday Night Live.” The klutz image was reinforced by Chase in ongoing, pratfall filled skits, and Ford took it in stride. After his presidency he even invited Chase to the Gerald R. Ford Library in Grand Rapids, Mich., for a seminar on presidential humor, and Ford even wrote a book on it. He later admitted that the klutz image may actually have had an impact on the public’s perception of him in the 1976 presidential race, which he lost to Jimmy Carter. “I enjoyed, up to a point, Chevy Chase’s impersonations,” Ford once said in an interview. “I have learned over the years in the political arena that you cannot be thin skinned. You have to take the good with the bad.”
Ford did get back at Chase at the annual Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner in 1975. As recounted in the Palm Springs Desert Sun:
When emcee Bob Hope introduced him, President Ford got up from the table, “accidentally” caught the tablecloth in his trousers and dumped silverware in Chase’s lap. As he approached the podium, he pretended to trip, prompting the pages of the speech he was carrying to fly into the audience.
When he got to the microphone and the laughter began to diminish, President Ford reached into his coat pocket, pulled out the real script and said, “Good evening. I’m Gerald Ford and you’re not.”
In later years Ford was a mainstay in Rancho Mirage and the Palm Springs area, where he could be counted on to hobnob with the likes of Hope and other celebrities of his generation. Guided by William Morris’ Norman Brokaw, he secured lucrative book contracts and speaking engagements. And he appeared, along with other ex-presidents, on a special episode of “The West Wing,” and even made a cameo appearance on “Dynasty.”
In a final note, it was Ford who was the subject of the last real moment of suspense at a political convention, when the Republicans met in Detroit in 1980. On the day before Ronald Reagan accepted the nomination, reporters scrambled as rumors spread that Ford would take his spot as No. 2 on the ticket, in a kind of “co-presidency.” During the evening Walter Cronkite marvelled at the historic nature of the ticket — a former president agreeing to the VP slot. But the deal eventually collapsed, and Reagan chose George Bush as his running mate.
A campaign ad from 1976: