The nation has ended a week of ceremonies commemorating the life and career of former President Gerald R. Ford.
It has been more than four decades since a president died after a comparable period of time in retirement: Herbert Hoover passed away in 1964, or 31 years after he left office. In Ford's case, he was barely a month short of the 30-year mark.
By comparison, Lyndon Johnson died four years after leaving office; Dwight Eisenhower eight years; Ronald Reagan, 15; and Harry S Truman and Richard Nixon, each about 20.
Jimmy Carter is still vibrant in his ninth decade; he is likely to surpass Ford in the length of his retirement. (He has now been out of office for nearly 26 years.) Like Carter, Bill Clinton was still quite young when he left the White House, as will be George W. Bush, whose father (Bush 41) is still going strong 15 years into retirement.
Permit me one more reflection on President Ford, one day after his interment in Grand Rapids.
In contrast to the current occupant of the White House, Gerald Ford -- being the sort of Goldwater Republican that he was -- showed a remarkable sensitivity and supportiveness to gay individuals and the issues that concerned them.
Detroit News columnist Deb Price wrote earlier this week of an interview she did with President Ford a few years ago:
I had many reasons to admire Ford, yet long felt tremendously disappointed by him in one way: I'd read that after a San Francisco man thwarted a would-be assassin on Sept. 22, 1975, Ford sent a thank-you note but did nothing more because the hero, Bill Sipple, was gay.Price notes that, after her original column based on that interview first appeared, Ford was invited to join the Republican Unity Coalition, and he accepted, lending his name in support of that organization's mission of equality and tolerance within the GOP.
That account gnawed at me. Although I'd never known Ford to take a public stand on anything gay, I just couldn't square the story with what I knew about him.
So, in October 2001, I faxed an interview request about this stain on his record. I soon received a call asking me to please hold -- the president wished to speak to me.
Ford, then 88, was eager to correct the record and sounded hurt that anyone had ever thought of him as anti-gay.
"I wrote (Sipple) a note thanking him. As far as I was concerned, I had done the right thing and the matter was ended. I didn't learn until sometime later -- I can't remember when -- he was gay. I don't know where anyone got the crazy idea I was prejudiced and wanted to exclude gays," Ford told me.
Pleasantly surprised by how comfortable Ford was talking about gay issues -- not a trait I've found in many politicians -- I asked whether the federal government ought to treat gay couples the same as married heterosexuals. "I think they ought to be treated equally. Period," Ford replied.
Trying to get a better sense of what he meant, I pressed on, asking whether he believed gay couples should receive the same Social Security, tax and other federal benefits? "I don't see why they shouldn't. I think that's a proper goal," Ford replied.
Ford also said that he wanted gay Americans to be part of his party. "I have always believed in an inclusive policy, in welcoming gays and others into the party. I think the party has to have an umbrella philosophy if it expects to win elections," he said.What Price learned is backed up by a recent Wall Street Journal article about the gay couple, Tim England and Robert Kent, who restored, preserved, and renovated Gerald Ford's boyhood home in Grand Rapids.
According to the article, when Ford learned about the gay men's efforts, he visited them and had a nostalgic tour of the house he grew up in. Afterwards, Ford and his family kept in touch with the couple, who have been together for almost 20 years:
Later in 1994, the house was declared a national and state historic site. At a dedication ceremony the following year, the former president stood on the front porch and, before a crowd of local dignitaries, thanked Messrs. England and Kent. "I have such wonderful memories," he said, recalling how the police used to close the sloped street in the winter so children could sled.(The Wall Street Journal article, which appeared on January 2, is unfortunately available on line only to subscribers. Written by Janet Adamy, it can be found under the headline "In Grand Rapids, Fixer-Upper Leads To Unusual Bond; Mr. Ford Took Pleasure In Couple's Renovation Of His Childhood Home.")
After that, the Fords began sending Christmas cards to the two men, sometimes including photographs of family weddings. Messrs. England and Kent filled their foyer with campaign memorabilia and a framed letter from the Fords. Each July 14, Mr. Ford's birthday, the men hang an enormous American flag across the front porch.
In 2005, the men called Mr. Ford's office on his birthday to ask his assistant to pass on their good wishes. To their surprise, Mr. Ford jumped on the line and struck up a conversation. He thanked them for recently repainting the outside of the house, Mr. England recalls.
Just past midnight on Wednesday morning, after Messrs. England and Kent went to bed, a friend called and told them to turn on their television. Watching the report of Mr. Ford's death, Mr. England says he felt sick to his stomach. A few minutes later, a local news crew pulled up in front of the home in the darkness. Mr. England went
outside and pleaded with them to wait before they started shooting. He brought out the big American flag and draped it over the front porch. Then he told them they could start their cameras.
Gerald Ford goes to his rest as a personification of the politics of inclusion, rejecting the exclusivity and divisiveness that, unfortunately, characterizes sectors of the Republican Party today. He lived and worked during a time that compromise and cooperation for the common good was not viewed with partisan disdain. Yet through it all he held to firm conservative principles of small, limited government that keeps its hands out of our pocketbooks and its nose out of our bedrooms.
One of my favorite sayings, which Gerald Ford used during his 1976 acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, and which was also often repeated by Barry Goldwater, in a similar form, is this: "The government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take away everything you have."
This is as true today as it was 30 years ago; it is a maxim that should be memorized by the current leaders of the Republican Party -- and by the ascendant Democrats, for that matter.