tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Friday, November 05, 2004

A president’s son shares stories about dad

I was 12 years old when the United States witnessed one of the strangest sequences of events in the history of the American presidency.

In the fall of 1973, Spiro Agnew was vice president; a man named Gerald Rudolph Ford was the House minority leader, a Republican congressman from Michigan. Agnew was forced to step down as vice president in October because he was caught in a bribery scandal. President Richard Nixon was looking for a new vice president. Ford was on a list of 10 candidates Nixon considered.

Gerald Ford and his wife Betty were living in Alexandria, Va., with their daughter and three sons at the time. The house had two phone lines coming into it: a private line in the bedroom and a phone with four lines in the living room. The phone in the bedroom rang. It was Alexander Haig, President Nixon’s chief of staff. Haig told Ford that the president had something to tell him that both he and his wife should hear. President Nixon got on the phone and Ford immediately asked him to call back on the other line so Betty could pick up and listen. And he hung up!

“We waited five minutes,” recalled Steve Ford, one of the three sons. “It seemed like forever. Five minutes later, the President called back on the other line. And together my parents experienced that moment of being asked to be vice president of the United States.”

Steve Ford was in the Twin Cities last month to address a business group. He had numerous interesting stories to share about his father, who became the 38th president of the United States.

Ten months after that phone call, Nixon resigned under pressure from the Watergate scandal and Gerald Ford was sworn in president.

“We were not able to move into the White House the same day as the swearing-in ceremony,” Steve Ford recalled. He explained that although the nation will never forget that image of Pat and Richard Nixon boarding the Marine One helicopter on the lawn of the White House, closing out a beleaguered presidency, relatives stayed behind for a week to pack all their belongings.

“We went home that night to Alexandria for family dinner,” Ford said. “Dad was president of the United States, living in suburbia. My mother was standing over the stove, cooking. She said: ‘something is wrong here. You are president of the United States and I am cooking!’ The next seven days we lived in that home. For that week, the neighbors waved to Dad as he left every morning to go to work in the Oval Office.”

Ford explained that his dad pardoned Nixon in order to quickly close a dark chapter in American history. President Ford was concerned that the legal proceedings surrounding Nixon’s resignation would consume the country for years, at a time when it had other issues – like recession, the cold war and Vietnam – to deal with.

“When he took over, he gathered leaders of Congress and they told him they were spending 25 percent of every day dealing with Nixon,” Steve Ford said. “Dad was spending 25 percent of his time on Nixon.” Ford said his father knew that Nixon would never admit guilt related to Watergate. By pardoning him, President Ford could not only put an end to the costly waste of time, but he could also get a backdoor admission of guilt from Nixon. A 1933 Supreme Court case ruled that if someone accepted a presidential pardon, they were admitting guilt, although they remained free from the possibility of prosecution.

Steve Ford has obvious respect and admiration for Gerald Ford. Steve noted that his father came from very humble beginnings. He was born July 14, 1913, Leslie King, Jr., son of a man who physically abused his mother. In the middle of the night, Dorothy Gardner King snuck away from their Omaha home with their only son to escape back to her parents in Illinois. A divorce was filed and the shame of the situation was so strong that she had to move out of the area and begin her life anew. She moved to Grand Rapids, Mich., where she met a man named Gerald Ford. He married her and adopted the son, renaming him after himself.

“That man invested in my father’s life,” Steve Ford said of his father’s adoptive father. “This man was not a blood relative, but he is the man who chose to invest in my father’s life, giving him the character and integrity so that he would be able to handle the presidency in a very unique time in American history. He never lived long enough to see Dad become president. It is love, not blood that makes a difference in a kid’s life. That’s why family meant so much to my dad.”

Steve Ford recounted that his father “was sure any man who could lead a family could also lead a business but he wasn’t sure that a man leading a business could necessarily lead a family.”

Gerald Ford was an All-American football player for the University of Michigan in 1934. The university has retired the number he wore back then – No. 48. Steve Ford explained that the team went undefeated during the 1932 and 1933 seasons. In 1934, Michigan was scheduled to play Georgia Tech University, which was an all-white school at the time. Georgia Tech told the University of Michigan that it would refuse to play against the Wolverines because the team had one black player. The player was Willis Ward, who happened to be Gerald Ford’s roommate. Ford, a senior that year, was so upset by the racism of the Georgia Tech team that Ford said he would not play the 1934 season if Ward sat out the Georgia Tech game. Ward, however, agreed on his own to sit out the Georgia Tech game and urged Ford to stay on the team. Ford returned to the team, although the Wolverines lost every game that season except the one against Georgia Tech.

Steve Ford concluded his presentation by holding up a small collection of papers that looked as if they had hand-written notes scrawled on them. Steve said that many years ago, his father took out a legal pad and wrote 20 one-page essays on subjects such as character, learning how to win, the art of compromise, making friends, and the definition of a good marriage. Ford said it took his father about six months to write it all, but when he was done he gave each of his children a copy. Gerald Ford is 91 today, but Steve still carries around those papers.

“I will never be able to thank him enough for writing this,” Steve Ford said. “This is one of the things that saved my life when I was in the dumps 10 years ago struggling with alcoholism. He gave this to me when I was a teenage kid. I didn’t get it at the time he gave it to me, but he knew I would some day. And when I needed it, I did get it.”

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