Place in the Mosaic of History: Gerald Ford in Retrospect
By Dr. Paul Kengor
Grove City College, US
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
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 goodwill,
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
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, un-elected tenure has
its own place in the mosaic.
(Paul Kengor is author of The Crusader: Ronald
Reagan and the Fall of Communism and director of
the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City
College. A longer version of this article appeared
in the December 27 edition of National Review)