WASHINGTON - The standard tribute to Gerald Ford is that he served the nation best simply by stepping into the presidency for the disgraced and banished Richard Nixon.
But to those who served with the man from Michigan, his achievements did not begin or end with his being available to help "heal our land" from the wounds of the Nixon presidency, as his successor, Jimmy Carter, said on the day he took over from Ford.
The alumni of the Ford administration - a notable group - insist that though he had never particularly aimed for the presidency, the "accidental president" developed a considerable mastery of the job and was on the way to building a legacy when the voters sent him into early retirement.
Instead of great deeds, they say, he left behind a great model of decency and integrity in office - and a generous gift of friendship that has endured for many of them for the three decades since they served under him.
Many of those alumni who first exercised real power under Ford have remained active in government through the years. For all that he has borrowed from Ronald Reagan, President Bush owes the greatest debt to three stalwarts of economic and national security policy inherited from Ford - Vice President Dick Cheney and former Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, both former chiefs of staff to Ford, and former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, Ford's chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers.
In all of his years, Greenspan observed, he has never been part of a more talented administration. Henry Kissinger was secretary of state and Brent Scowcroft headed the National Security Council staff. Kissinger's personal staff included Lawrence Eagleburger, later secretary of state himself, and L. Paul Bremer, who would lead the U.S. reconstruction effort in Iraq. William Colby headed the CIA, and the ambassador to the United Nations was Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
The Department of Justice was headed by Edward H. Levi, the former University of Chicago president and perhaps the most nonpolitical attorney general in modern times. Serving under him, in various high staff positions, were such people as Rudolph Giuliani, Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia. And Nelson Rockefeller was vice president.
The overall tone of the Ford Cabinet and White House reflected the moderate conservatism of Ford's own Grand Rapids background - with more than a tinge of the progressivism embodied in the term "Rockefeller Republicanism."
In the final days of the Nixon presidency, Ford made a memorable visit to The Washington Post. As the vice president, he had defended Nixon against the Watergate charges, but recognized in our meeting he had a responsibility larger than any further claims of personal loyalty from Nixon. "I want you to know I am someone who enjoys having adversaries who are not enemies," he told reporters and editors.
It was a signal, understood by everyone in the room, that a new - and welcome - era was about to begin. It turned out to be a shorter period in office than Ford expected, but the standard of civility and good will he set for himself is an example that endures.
David Broder, a columnist for
The Washington Post, can be reached at email@example.com.