'A Ford, not a Lincoln'
Ford's two-year term left him little time to accomplish much in the policy realm, so for good or ill, his pardon of former President Richard Nixon defines his tenure. Nixon's resignation after the Watergate disgrace forever shook many Americans' faith in government, and a sizable number never forgave Ford for erecting a barrier to a full probe of Nixon's misdeeds. But Ford's defenders argue that the pardon was necessary to help the country move on after years of scandal, and that line of thinking has some merit.
Knowing the decision could cost him his electoral future (as it would in 1976), Ford opted effectively to shut down the investigation of Nixon. That choice will be the standard by which most history students will measure Ford at a cursory glance, which will be the deepest look most of them ever take at his administration. (Ford seemed aware of his relative place in history, once telling congressmen, "I am a Ford, not a Lincoln.")
The Ford administration's legacy lives on in other, less-publicized ways, however. For one thing, two of his top aides -- Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld -- were key architects of the Iraq war that shows no signs of ending any time soon, and their years in Ford's White House positioned them for top jobs in a future GOP administration. For another, Ford's sole appointment to the Supreme Court, Justice John Paul Stevens, has for many years been a deciding vote in dozens of 5-4 decisions that often turn out contrary to the wishes of many of Ford's fellow Republicans. Today's American legal landscape might look quite different indeed had Ford nominated a more reliably conservative judge.
But in a sign of the times, millions of Americans who either weren't alive during his term or were too young to remember it may remember Ford best not as the man who pardoned Nixon or appointed Stevens but as the model for Chevy Chase's klutzy Saturday Night Live caricature. Chase's wildly popular skits made edgy political humor cool for television and laid the groundwork for future madcap send-ups of political leaders, albeit at the cost of giving viewers the unfair impression that Ford, a football star at the University of Michigan, was physically uncoordinated.
On the whole, Ford was a decent man who guided the United States through a period when it badly needed decency from a leader, and for that he deserves our gratitude. May he rest in peace.