President Ford was the first president I was consciously aware of. There are stories of me being pulled around in a wagon waving my arms with my hands showing the peace sign like Nixon, but I didn't really know what I was doing. Ford, though, I remember being a person in power.
I turned eight two months after he became president and was ten when he left the office, so consciousness that he was an important person is about all I was able to have at that time.
Oddly, my first memory that comes to me about President Ford is from the campaign of 1976 when he made a stop in San Antonio. He was eating some local cuisine - tamales - and did not know to take the corn husks in which they are wrapped off. I suppose someone from Michigan would not know that the finger food would have a wrapping to hold it together. His tamale incident in San Antonio played into his image as a physical klutz. Some say Chevy Chase made a career imitating Ford's mishaps. If one looks into his history, though, one finds that Ford was a rather gifted athlete.
Perhaps Ford's physical clumsiness was merely his way of showing discomfort with the sudden focus placed upon him. He went from being a Representative from Michigan, to the appointed Vice-president, to President following the resignations of Agnew and Nixon. He was a man without presidential ambition suddenly thrust into leadership at the pinnacle of the greatest political crisis in the nation's history. History has generally been kind to Ford and credited him with managing the crisis and restoring confidence and laying the foundation for credibility in the government once again.
President Ford remains a symbol of a much more civil time in Washington. In that time the political parties had genuine differences in philosophy and in governing. They fought bitterly for their side on the floor of the House and Senate - and then went for beers together when the session adjourned for the day. Sadly things have changed with our congressmen and senators genuinely disliking one another on a personal level and choosing to make all politics personal and divisive. Despite the crisis of Watergate, politicians then worked for the good of the country first and their ambitions second. If Watergate happened today, the other party would have the party involved deported faster than an Muslim facing east.
I was too young to realize it at the time, but Ford was also a progressive on GLBT issues. He appointed openly gay people to positions within his administration and in the last few years took vocal stances in support of gay marriage. He was a member of the Republican Unity Coalition advisory board which raises funds and seeks to make homosexuality a non-issue within the party. He always believed the GOP should welcome and include gays. He was remarkably progressive for a Republican of his generation and could set the example for many today.
As an adult, I look forward to learning more about this first president I remember and seeing how the historians address him through the official period of mourning.
And for his progressive stance on gay rights - may Heaven provide him all the unshucked tamales he can eat!