It says something about the man Official portrait, Gerald Ford, 38th President of the United Statesthat nobody is wagging a finger and saying unkind things about Gerald Ford, the just-deceased 38th President of the United States. Certainly, there was no shortage of critics while he was active in public life.

Famously, Lyndon Johnson once said of Ford that he was so dumb he couldn’t walk and chew bubble gum at the same time. And even though Ford was one of the most athletic men to ever occupy the Oval Office, he once plinked somebody with a ball on the golf course, and stumbled on the steps of Air Force 1, and so his alleged clumsiness became the stuff of stand-up comedy routines for the rest of his life.

And there were other things, too. He pardoned Richard Nixon for any and all crimes he may have committed during the course of the Watergate scandal, a decision that led to the resignation of his own press secretary and spurred dogged speculation that Ford “bought” the Oval Office with a promise to Nixon of protection against prosecution.

The collapse of Saigon, the shocking scenes of helicopters lifting the last American personnel off the roof of the embassy as soldiers clubbed Vietnamese civilians frantic to get on board … that, too, happened on Ford’s watch.

The American retreat from Saigon, 1975When Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge seized the SS Mayaguez, a U.S.-flagged container ship, Ford ordered the marines to take it back. Following a daring assault from helicopters, the marines boarded the ship to find, embarrrassingly … nobody aboard. The Cambodians released the crew, unharmed, a few days later, apparently following intervention by the Chinese.

Debating Jimmy Carter in the months preceding the 1976 election, Ford famously denied that Poland was under the influence of the Soviet Union, a declaration that left diplomats and plain-folk worldwide shaking their heads.

By almost any objective standard, Ford’s administration was a failure and an embarrassment. He wasn’t a conspicuously intelligent man, and he lacked both guile and the ambition to reshape the world in his own image that marks the colossi of politics.

Why, then, the outpouring of fond reminiscences? Because he brought to the presidency precisely what was needed after the protracted venality of the Nixon administration: common decency. He was all the plodder he seemed to be, and no great shakes as an executive, but possessed the genuine-article character then so conspicuously missing and needed.

I began my engineering career in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1979, Gerald Ford’s hometown, and was (a very junior) part of the design team for Ford’s presidential museum. Somewhere in a file, in a box full of files, in a room full of boxes of files, are mouldering-away my calculations for the pile foundations that support the museum. I did the inspection of much of the pile construction, too, and was later invited to the opening of the museum.

I don’t recall all the details, but I spent that day in the field on some project or other, and arrived at the opening late, wearing a mismatched tie and jacket from the trunk of my car. It was, so far as Grand Rapids was concerned, a very big deal. Ford was there, of course, and his wife, and oodles of local politicians and architects and engineers and university folk and anybody else who passed for a luminary or could cadge an invite.

There was a reception line and we all dutifully lined up to shake the president’s hand, with Ford making some little comment in the way of “Thanks for your participation” to everybody. When it was my turn he looked at me, smiled, and then said something like “The bosses made you work today, didn’t they?” It wasn’t, and wasn’t meant as, the knock it may sound like; it was a sympathetic, regular-guy observation, as if we were sharing a joke about the elaborate carrying-on.

Just the right touch. R.I.P.

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