Editor’s Note: A longer version of this article appeared in the December 27 edition of National Review.
On the day after Christmas 2006, thirty years after he lost his only presidential bid, Gerald R. Ford, the nation’s 38th president, was called home. At age 93 and five months, he was the longest-living president, outlasting Ronald Reagan, who died at 93 and four months.
The Ford-Reagan link in death is ironic, as the two Republican presidents were so closely connected in life—though often for opposing reasons. Indeed, it was the Gerald Ford / Ronald Reagan rivalry of 1975-76 that provided the ultimate contrast between the two figures, and which also defined Ford’s presidency, both in policy and in style.
Disgruntled with Ford’s pursuit of détente with the Soviets, Ronald Reagan in 1975 decided to seek the seemingly impossible: to challenge the incumbent president from his own party. He fired unceasingly at Ford’s support of détente. “We are blind to reality if we refuse to recognize that détente’s usefulness to the Soviets is only as a cover for their traditional and basic strategy for aggression,” he said in October 1975.
Reagan opposed Ford’s signing of the Helsinki Accords, a product of détente. By signing the accord, the United States had, in effect, “agreed to legitimize the boundaries of Eastern Europe, legally acquiescing in the loss of freedom of millions of Eastern Europeans.” Worse, said Reagan, Helsinki did nothing to constrain the Soviets outside of Eastern Europe.
Reagan hit détente so hard throughout the campaign that there was a consensus that President Ford stopped using the term because Reagan had made it a dirty word. So successful was Reagan that The New York Times, in a May 14, 1976 editorial titled “Mr. Reagan’s Veto,” claimed that the former California governor had “won something approaching veto power over the Ford Administration’s foreign policy.” As Reagan did, Ford plummeted in the polls, and knew he was now vulnerable in the primaries, especially once Reagan won North Carolina, claimed a huge triumph in Texas, and followed with victories in Indiana, Georgia, and Alabama.
Suddenly, Ford not only dropped the word détente but replaced it with the preferred phrase of Reagan: “peace through strength.” In a pronouncement that signaled a startling concession before the convention, a waffling President Ford declared: “Our policy for American security can best be summarized in three simple words of the English language: peace through strength.” Reagan chuckled, noting it was “a slogan with a nice ring to it.”
All of this came to a head on August 19, 1976, when Republicans held their convention at the Kemper Arena in Kansas City, where Reagan, in the end, did not get the nomination, crushing his supporters. And it was then, at that precise moment, that Gerald Ford’s immeasurable graciousness was again put on display before the entire nation:
President Ford had just finished speaking. As a gesture of reconciliation and supreme good will, he waved from the podium to the Reagans, seated in a skybox. He beckoned Reagan to come down to speak. The Republican faithful exhorted, “Ron! Ron! Ron!” A blushing Reagan refused, gesturing his hands downward, pushing delegates to sit down and shut up. “It’s his night,” he muttered to friends, deferring to Ford. “I’m not going down there.” Ford pressed on: “Ron, will you come down and bring Nancy?”
Reagan eventually obliged, giving one of the most memorable convention speeches in American history. Official biographer Edmund Morris later wrote of the extemporaneous talk: “The power of the speech was extraordinary. And you could just feel throughout the auditorium the palpable sense among the delegates that [they had] nominated the wrong guy.”
The race for the GOP presidential nomination had come down to the wire. Ford won 1187 delegates, with Reagan grabbing 1070. Three months later, Gerald Ford lost the presidency to Jimmy Carter.
From 1974-79, during those Ford-Carter years, the Soviets picked up 11 proxy states around the world. America was losing the Cold War. The third and most disastrous year of Carter’s presidency—1979—ended with Americans taken hostage in Iran in November and the Soviets invading Afghanistan in December. Now, much of America agreed with Reagan that détente was a joke.
The Ford-Reagan relationship in the 1970s was a metaphor for Ford’s presidency: His policy toward the Soviets was flawed, and he was neither a notably effective nor inspiring president, but his kindness as a person was hard to surpass.
Gerald Ford’s contribution to history came in his service as a transitional figure, one who helped heal a divided nation during a critical post-Watergate period, which he achieved through that gentle demeanor. Quite unintentionally, he made another contribution: like Jimmy Carter, he offered an example of what not to do in Cold War policy. By giving détente a chance, and thus an opportunity to show its true colors, he unwittingly revealed it to be a failed route, paving the way for Ronald Reagan to be successful not in 1976 but in 1980, and thereby allowing Reagan to later make a much deeper impact on history.
It is difficult to look back and say that a certain president was unsuccessful, as many will say of Ford. Yet, Gerald R. Ford was probably the right man for the right place in time. The contours of American history have a wonderful way—almost Providential—of somehow weaving together, coming into focus and making sense only in retrospect. Gerald Ford’s brief, unelected tenure has its own place in the mosaic.