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Examining Gerald Ford's 'nice guy' legacy

Douglas Brinkley makes clear that Gerald Ford's ambition was to become not president but Speaker of the House. Douglas Brinkley makes clear that Gerald Ford's ambition was to become not president but Speaker of the House. (David hume kennerly/white house photographer via reuters/file 1975)

Gerald Ford, By Douglas Brinkley, Times, 199 pp., $20

Since Gerald Ford's death, on Dec. 26, 2006 , the late president has been eulogized as a bipartisan nice guy who helped heal the nation after the twin traumas of Watergate and Vietnam. Best-selling historian Douglas Brinkley reminds us that things were far more complicated than these simplistic memorial pronouncements indicate.

For President Ford, whose heartfelt human decency was his strongest attribute, there will always be the issue of his tricky relationship with Richard Nixon. Nixon named Ford vice president, and President Ford pardoned his disgraced predecessor a month into his presidency .

Brinkley succinctly and accessibly details Ford's long Congressional career. As Brinkley makes clear, Ford's lifelong ambition was to become not president but speaker of the House. After graduating from the University of Michigan, where he was a football standout, he went on to Yale Law School and then the South Pacific during World War II.

In 1948 , Ford, a Republican, jumped into politics, challenging an isolationist congressman from his home district. As a campaigner, Ford was not renowned for his brilliance or soaring oratory, but, notes Brinkley, "he combined his athlete's backslapping bonhomie with simple, nice-guy good manners. He spoke pretty well but, more important, he listened brilliantly." In our present political landscape of scorched-earth partisanship, Ford's friendly political style stands out in sharp relief.

Brinkley shows how Ford built his career in Congress as a bland, nonideological, yet highly effective crafter of bipartisan coalitions. But Ford also remained loyal to his party and the president. When President Johnson announced an escalation of US troop levels in Vietnam, Ford typically followed along. After the infamous burglary at the Watergate Hotel complex, in 1972, White House officials assured Representative Ford that President Nixon was not involved. The steadfast Ford typically believed them and even worked successfully to squelch initial Congressional hearings into Watergate. Brinkley notes that Ford's spectacular sense of decency worked against him with Nixon because "he couldn't grasp the level of deviousness Nixon had."

In 1973 , Nixon's vice president, Spiro Agnew, resigned under indictment, and Nixon selected Representative Ford as his replacement. Nixon had found a supporter, liked by all, who wouldn't ask questions. As vice president, Ford worked tirelessly, says Brinkley, "to promote Nixon's innocence." As evidence mounted that Nixon not only knew about the Watergate burglary and cover-up but had organized them, Ford spoke out repeatedly in support of the president.

On Aug. 8, 1974, with impeachment hearings looming, Nixon announced he would resign the next morning. Ford became president, promising to bring a more open, friendly political style to the White House. His pardon of Nixon effectively ended the Watergate scandal. As Brinkley shows, initial reaction to the pardon was decidedly negative, leading some to speculate that Nixon and Ford had cut a secret deal.

We'll never know for sure about that, but Ford's action did have the long-term result of calming, if not healing, the national mood. As president, Ford ably handled the evacuation of US forces from Vietnam and did his best to energize a stagnating economy. His friendly brand of governing contrasted sharply with that of his suspicious, brooding predecessor. In the end, Ford was a transition president. Perhaps veteran journalist Richard Reeves best summarized Ford's "nice guy" legacy: "The remarkable thing about Ford and others like him is that they have won leadership by carefully avoiding it." Ford built his career on being inoffensive, and while this mild-mannered approach has some obvious weaknesses, the nation could have done far worse.