Antidote in the White House

December 28, 2006

He stumbled down the steps of Air Force One, fought 12 percent inflation with campaign buttons, presided over the nation's ignominious departure from Vietnam and tried to inoculate every American with a swine flu vaccine that proved more dangerous than the disease.

He called himself "a Ford, not a Lincoln," but by some reckoning the only never-elected president of the United States was a bit of a lemon.

And yet Gerald R. Ford Jr., who died Tuesday at 93, proved the man for his moment - an affable antidote to the toxic Richard M. Nixon's criminal abuses of presidential power. Mr. Ford's 30-month tenure in the White House was a respite that allowed the nation to recover its faith in government.

The former president has said his hope was to be remembered primarily as a healer, and indeed it is an accolade he richly deserves.

Less obvious is the wisdom of Mr. Ford's most fateful decision: to pardon Mr. Nixon before he had even been formally charged with Watergate-related offenses. The unconditional pardon undermined the standard of equal justice before the law and allowed Mr. Nixon to maintain for decades until his death that he had been guilty of no more than "mistakes and misjudgments."

Yet, as this newspaper also observed at the time, the pardon spared the nation the trauma of prosecuting a former president and the charade of a trial that might have been impossible to conduct in any kind of even-handed manner. Mr. Ford's biggest mistake was probably in failing to compel his predecessor to confess to a specific statement of his crimes in return for the pardon.

Mr. Ford should be admired, though, because he felt a compelling urgency to move the nation forward and took an enormously brave step to do it. The pardon decision played a huge role in his narrow defeat by Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976, but Mr. Ford never expressed any regrets.

A man of the Congress who never aimed higher than speaker of the House, Mr. Ford became chief executive in the wake of two spectacular breaches of public trust: Mr. Nixon's and that of Spiro T. Agnew, the Marylander who resigned the vice presidency to avoid charges of bribery and tax evasion.

Mr. Ford was surely underestimated in his grace, his intellect, and his policy judgments. He was, after all, a star college athlete, a Yale-trained lawyer and a caretaker executive coping with previous misjudgments.

Never questioned, though, were Gerald Ford's honesty, decency, integrity and kindness - qualities he brought to the White House at a time when they were in dangerously short supply. For that alone, the nation is in his debt.

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