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Gerald Ford

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At the center of history

February 21, 2000
Web posted at: 4:11 p.m. EST (2111 GMT)

Gerald Ford came back from World War II, after a couple of brushes with death in the Pacific, determined to nudge the world toward peace. He climbed aboard history's caravan in 1948, when he won a Michigan seat in Congress; then he held on for the full ride. The record of that journey is two-dimensional now, in pictures and cartoons tacked up on the wall of his quiet office along the Rancho Mirage, Calif., fairways. But all that history is alive in his mind despite his 86 years--or maybe because of them--and it tumbles out in rich color. The sum of it is that Ford has been at the center of more history than any other living figure on this globe.

Only seconds after he was sworn in as a new Congressman, a slender, intense figure appeared at his elbow on the House floor. "Hello," the man said, "I'm Dick Nixon." The two would be elbow to elbow 25 years later, in strained silence as they walked to the helicopter that took the disgraced Nixon out of power and elevated Ford to the presidency.

Ford officed first across the hall from John Kennedy, already a two-year House veteran. "I could tell from the start," claims Ford, "that the House was only a way station for him." Fourteen years later, Ford would get a Sunday call from Lyndon Johnson, beating down Ford's protests and ultimately persuading him to serve on the Warren Commission that investigated Kennedy's assassination. He would fly to Dallas to interview Jack Ruby, the killer of Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. "He was crazy" is Ford's terse summation of Ruby. Ford is the only surviving member of the commission.

In those early days, Ford was invited to the White House by the natty, peppery Harry Truman, who wanted $5 million to renovate the crumbling building. Ford got the full treatment, with amateur architect Truman pointing out sagging floors and the lack of closets. Truman got his money. (When Ford became President, he was deeply grateful for Truman's home repair, especially for the famous Truman Balcony on the rear of the White House.) And Truman got more: Ford's support on foreign policy, even when Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur, though Ford still glows a bit when he recalls MacArthur's "old soldiers" farewell to Congress. Says Ford: "One of the most moving speeches I've ever heard."

Ford joined the group of legislators pushing General Dwight Eisenhower to run for President. Soon Ford was on the delegation with Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to monitor the Korean cease-fire. Then he went to Saigon: "I remember the French generals with all their spit and polish giving us a two-hour briefing on how they were going to win the war in Vietnam." It would be President Ford who inherited the final convulsion of that tragic war, made indelible by the pictures of desperate Vietnamese on a rooftop stairs trying to get on a departing helicopter. Ford insisted that a replica of the stairway be set up in his Grand Rapids, Mich., museum.

In 1956 he was summoned to a secret meeting in the Capitol, where he learned he was to serve on the appropriations intelligence subcommittee. That was when he learned that the U.S. was overflying the Soviet Union with U-2 planes and preparing an invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.

When Puerto Rican nationalists shot up the House of Representatives in 1954, Ford rushed from a nearby committee room to sort out the bloody chaos. He helped Lyndon Johnson write NASA's charter, which focused American efforts in space. He was one of the young Republicans who pushed the avuncular but ineffective Joe Martin out of leadership; when Martin's successor, Charlie (the "gut fighter") Halleck, was deposed, Ford was the choice for minority leader--positioned for his climb to the top.

Ford still chuckles when he recalls watching the faltering Chinese leader Mao Zedong suddenly show life when he spotted Ford's beautiful 17-year-old daughter Susan. Ford talked nuclear arms control with Leonid Brezhnev, and when the Soviet boss, nicely relaxed with vodka, admired a wolf-skin coat given to Ford in Alaska, Ford peeled it off and put it on Brezhnev as they walked on the frigid tundra of Vladivostok.

In his amazing memory bank, there may be no finer moment than the U.S.'s 200th-birthday party in 1976. Ford swooped to Independence Hall, Valley Forge and the Statue of Liberty. That night he returned to Washington and looked down at the Capitol and the White House, both anchors of American democracy and both houses in which Gerald Ford watched and made history.


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Cover Date: February 28, 2000

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