Was Gerald Ford really “the accidental president?” A funeral service for former President Ford will be held on Wednesday at Grace Episcopal Church in East Grand Rapids. I’ve always been fascinated by President Ford but not simply because Grand Rapids was his boyhood home. I am intrigued by the impact he had on our country.
As you know, Gerald Ford was never elected to be the 38th president of the United States. Republican Congressman from Grand Rapids for 26 years and House Minority Leader from 1965 to 1973, Ford was appointed by Richard Nixon to succeed vice-president Spiro Agnew, who resigned on bribery and other charges. One month into his presidency, Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon. Some say it was a decision that cost him the next election, when he was narrowly defeated by Jimmy Carter.
In 1977, Ford told James C. Humes, a former White House speechwriter who was working on Ford’s memoir, A Time to Heal, “I did it not for Nixon but for the country. I knew at the time it would probably cost me my re-election, but President Nixon’s legal team could advance constitutional arguments that could tie up the courts for years. The prospect that a former president could face jail time would divert the country’s attention … I had to turn the page and let the healing process begin.” Ford’s most famous words may be, “Our long national nightmare is over.”
Not everyone thought Nixon should get off the hook. Ford’s decision ignited a fury of criticism around the country. Last week, when our children were home for Christmas, I asked them, “Do you think Gerald Ford should have pardoned Richard Nixon?” One of our children said yes, and the other 2 said no, that Nixon should have suffered the consequences for his actions, just like anyone else.
I believe Ford did the right thing and have always admired him for his courage. Although Ford was hoping Nixon’s pardon might be the first step toward being elected president on his own merit, Ford’s decision was not made out of self-interest. In fact, he had everything to lose. Ford wisely knew, however, that the only way for our country to heal was to let go of the divisiveness, bitterness and distrust surrounding Watergate and move on. It was an extraordinarily gracious moment in the life of our country. Gerald Ford was leading from the heart.
But there was so much more to Gerald Ford. Humes wrote last week, “The qualities that propel a candidate to the White House – charisma, name recognition, and popularity – are not that much different from what puts someone on the cover of People magazine. However, the ascent to the leadership position in Congress is by the respect of one’s peers. Ford earned that by his integrity, his commitment, and sense of judgment. To echo Teddy Roosevelt, Ford possessed that quality that may not always help one to be elected president, but determines whether the president is a good one.”
Words like integrity, character, wisdom, loyalty, common sense and good judgment characterized Ford’s many years of public service. In the words of Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Ford had a “flair for finding really good people.” Ford’s encouragement and mentoring of others extended far beyond party lines. He promoted the political careers of women. He always sought the middle ground and respected those with whom he differed. Perhaps his most endearing statement came moments after his swearing in as President. Ford told members of Congress, “I’m a Ford, not a Lincoln.” Gerald Ford was not a pretentious or deceitful man. He was a person whose West Michigan roots gave him a solid foundation in life and faith and always kept him grounded.
As we enter a new year by remembering and celebrating Gerald Ford’s life, I would encourage you to take some time to reflect on the coming year. What principles will govern your actions in 2007? What difficult decisions do you face in your congregation or personal life? Will you have the courage to make tough decisions that may not be popular but will bring healing and reconciliation to others and enable your congregation to move into the future?
Are you content to be a Ford if you can’t be a Lincoln? Would you buy a Ford even if you could afford a Lincoln? Will you choose to share the good news of Jesus Christ and grow your church where you are? Do you understand that every time just one person enters into a life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ because of our influence, God says, “Well done, good and faithful servant?
How will you be remembered by your parishioners? Will they comment on your integrity and character before they even think of anything you may have accomplished? Do they admire you for your willingness to embrace all people, even those with whom you differ? Whom are you mentoring right now? Whom are you identifying, calling, training and encouraging for leadership in your congregation?
An accidental President? I don’t think so. Accidental pastors? I don’t think so. God has placed each one of you in ministry for such a time as this. How will you make a difference this year?