Wednesday, December 27, 2006

So long, Mr. President

He did not serve the nation long in the White House, but he did jobs that needed to be done.

President Gerald R. Ford, who died last night at 93, did the dirty work for a nation. He cleaned up the messes of other presidents and never got the chance to establish his own legacy agenda by serving a full term in office.

President Gerald R. Ford (right) meets with members of The Desert Sun editorial board in May 2002. From left are Robert J. Dickey, Gary L. West, Sherri Mauer and Al Edwards. Photo by Ricardo Rolon/The Desert Sun I had the honor of meeting President Ford once. I was working for The Desert Sun newspaper in Palm Springs where Ford and his wife, former first lady Betty Ford, have a home in nearby Rancho Mirage. It was at their Rancho Mirage home where Ford died.

Rancho Mirage is, or was, known as the playground of presidents. President Dwight D. Eisenhower played golf there. The hospital in Rancho Mirage carries his name, Eisenhower Medical Center. That's where the world-famous Betty Ford Center for treating alcohol and drug addiction is located.

John F. Kennedy spent some leisure time in Rancho Mirage as well. As did Ronald Reagan.

But it was Ford who made Rancho Mirage his home after leaving the White House in 1977. Rancho Mirage and the Palm Springs area is one of those rare places where a former president, complete with Secret Service detail, can sort of blend in amid the wealthy captains of industry, former sports athletes, Hollywood celebrities and other famous and infamous types who call the area home. Oh, sure, the area knows they are there, behind the walls of the gated communities and private compounds. And the residents there are proud of their notable residents. They even name streets after them. Gerald Ford, Frank Sinatra, Ginger Rogers, Gene Autry, and Bob Hope, among others, have streets named for them that crisscross the Coachella Valley.

As a journalist I've had opportunities to photograph and interview a few famous people. When I was younger it was the sports athletes I was most interested in, people like Ervin "Magic" Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Clyde Drexler, Sean Elliot, Gary Payton. But there was also an interest in entertainment types, like Jay Leno, Garth Brooks, Huey Lewis and the News. I'd even covered parts of some presidential campaigns with candidates like Jesse Jackson and Michael Dukakis. Most of that was during my college days. There weren't a lot of celebrities or high-powered political figures coming to towns like Hermiston, Klamath Falls and Coos Bay, Ore., or Porterville, Calif. Although I did get a chance to interview former U.S. Sens. Bob Packwood and Mark Hatfield along the way.

But when I was in Victorville, Calif., we did have our own resident celebrities there. Former Republic Pictures singing cowboy and 1950s TV stars Roy Rogers and Dale Evans had their museum in Victorville, just down the street from the newspaper office and they lived in nearby Apple Valley. A few other celebrities came to town once in a while for the San Bernardino County Fair, or to visit the Rogers.

And earlier this year, just down the road from my old stomping grounds in Porterville, I did cover actor-turned-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's visit to the World Ag Expo in Tulare.

But when I moved to Palm Springs in 1999, it was not unusual to run into a well known person while out for dinner or walking downtown. Lots of well-known and well-to-do folk were at least part-time residents of one wealthy enclave of the Coachella Valley or another.

For much of my early tenure at the Palm Springs paper, we referred to President and Mrs. Ford as part-time residents of Rancho Mirage. It was President Ford himself who set us straight on that. During a meeting with our editorial board he told us that he was a full-time resident of Rancho Mirage, thank you very much. He and his wife considered Rancho Mirage their permanent home and they maintained a vacation home in Colorado.

Ford was in his late 80s at the time of the interview on May 1, 2002, but it was remarkable to me how attuned he remained to domestic issues and foreign affairs. His speech was slurred ever so slightly at times, an apparently holdover from the stroke he had suffered at the Republican National Convention in 2000. But if his tongue was slowed slightly, his mind had not been. He talked to our editorial board about a wide range of issues, from our own sports section, which he said he read daily and told us he'd like to see more coverage of some sports outside the Pac-10, to national and global security in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. I was impressed and awed by Ford. I would even say I was inspired by him. I was honored to get an opportunity to meet him and to shake his hand. I keep a photo of that meeting with the former president in my home office and another photo of that meeting is on a file cabinet in my office at Capital Press too.

I was proud to have played a role in getting Ford to come speak to The Desert Sun's editorial board. The idea was hatched one day when I was talking to then editorial page editor Cindy Uken. I had been on the editorial board for about two years, and Cindy had directed the editorial page for more than a year. We talked about what we would like to see and do with that editorial board. There were no shortage of people who wanted to meet with our board. We had guests at almost every weekly meeting. We were talking about how we would like to be more influential in state, even national, matters. And I said something about how we should take advantage of all the influential people who lived in our community and invite more of them to come speak to us. "Wouldn't it be great to have someone like President Ford come meet with us periodically on major issues…," was something close to what I uttered. I think I threw out a few more names too, like Lee Iacocca perhaps to talk on business issues. Who knows who else I mentioned. But the idea took root. And Cindy made it happen. And before we knew it, President Ford had accepted our invitation to meet with our editorial board. In many ways it was sort of my last hurrah on the editorial board. I came off the board a short time later. But what a way to go out, after having a chance to meet a former president.

Ford was a key figured in helping the nation recover from some of the most devastating crisis of the 1960s and 1970s. He served on the Warren Commission, which investigated the assassination of President Kennedy. He was appointed vice president after Spiro Agnew resigned in disgrace after being charged with tax evasion. Ford became president when Richard Nixon's role in the Watergate break-in and cover-up led to his resignation. Ford also oversaw the final withdrawal of U.S. troops from the long conflict in Vietnam.

Ford expressed no regrets for his pardon of Nixon, which was highly controversial at the time and probably cost him any shot at being elected outright in 1976. He firmly believed he did the right thing for the nation.
As he said after taking the oath of office on Aug. 9, 1974:

" My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works; our great republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule. ... As we bind up the internal wounds of Watergate, more painful and more poisonous than those of foreign wars, let us restore the golden rule to our political process, and let brotherly love purge our hearts of suspicion and of hate."
Ford was honored in May 2001 with a "Profile in Courage" award from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation for his bold step in pardoning his predecessor.

In all, he spent less than three years in the Oval Office, but it was a key three years in our nation's history. He and his wife Betty also contributed to countless causes in my former Coachella Valley home and in communities around the country where they lived or had ties. Betty Ford herself has displayed remarkable courage for her public disclosures of her battles with chemical dependency and breast cancer. Her courage and her strength in admitting her weaknesses has given many people, women in particular, strength to fight their own battles with hope and courage.

As a fellow native Nebraskan, I was honored to meet President Ford and to shake his hand on that day four and a half years ago. I left that meeting with a much greater appreciation for the man as a leader and statesman. I join a grateful nation in grieving for him and offer my own humble condolences to the Ford family. Thank you for sharing your husband, father and grandfather with the nation.

Rest in peace, Mr. President.

Related Stories:
President Ford dies at 93
President Ford recalled as excellent administrator and respected leader

Related Links:
Read Cindy Uken's column on President Ford

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