Dec 28 2006

Sen. Shelby recalls `man of integrity'

Birmingham News

Gerald R. Ford might have been the odd man out in today's politically polarized Washington.

"I don't think it would be as severe as it is now if he were still there," said former U.S. Rep. Jack Edwards of Mobile, who served with Ford in the House.

"He wouldn't have liked that style," said Elbert Jemison Jr., a Ford friend and golfing partner who paid two visits to the Oval Office while the former Michigan congressman was president.

In Alabama, news of the former president's death prompted Gov. Bob Riley to order flags at state buildings lowered to half staff. Riley and other state officials praised Ford's leadership after he became president amid the Watergate scandal.

"He was a man of integrity who restored credibility and integrity to the Oval Office," said U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby.

Ford didn't mind partisan combat, but he tried to set a cooperative tone that extended even into the ranks of his own party. In 1964, when Barry Goldwater lost overwhelmingly to Democrat Lyndon Johnson in the presidential election, Republicans lost a ton of seats in the Congress. But Alabama sent five Goldwater supporters to the House. GOP House members who survived the Goldwater debacle were wary of the Alabamians, but Ford, the new House GOP leader, took an interest.

"Jerry concluded ... that we really had something we could offer the party from the South," said Edwards, who was one of the Alabamians. "He helped us all get good committee assignments."

Democratic control during most of his House years may have had something to do with it, but Ford was not adverse to working across party lines, even as president.

"I remember meeting with him at the White House," said Edwards, who then was part of the House GOP leadership. "He was going to do something of some consequence and the Democrats were going to come in later, (but) he simply would not go into it until the Democrats got there."

When Ford became president upon Richard Nixon's resignation in August 1974, Jemison said, he was suited for the moment. "He was a calming effect, I think, on the whole country, maybe the world, too," Jemison said.

One of Ford's steps as president was to appoint University of Alabama President David Mathews as his secretary of health, education and welfare.

Jemison met Ford in late 1975, when he visited the White House with golfer Arnold Palmer. The visit's purpose was to sign Ford and Palmer as associates in a membership program that Jemison had conceived for the U.S. Golf Association.

Jemison said he came to know Ford as a " warmhearted human being, unpretentious. He treated the guy sweeping the street the same as he would the president of a corporation."

When Ford ran for a full term as president in 1976, he did so amid signs that the Republican Party was changing, and that the South was pushing the party in a more conservative direction. He lost Alabama's Republican primary to California Gov. Ronald Reagan. In 1976, Ford became the last Republican presidential candidate to fail to carry Alabama in a general election. He lost narrowly to Democrat Jimmy Carter, a former Georgia governor.

Nearly two years after losing the presidency, Ford spent a week in Alabama. In a stop at Tuskegee University, he expressed regret that his 1976 campaign did not reach out more to black voters. Scant black support for candidates still is a problem for the GOP today.

During that visit, Ford, a former University of Michigan center, visited a University of Alabama spring football practice session and climbed to the top of the observation tower used by Tide Coach Paul Bryant. Ford described it as Bryant's "sanctimonious sanctum."

The next day, Ford and Palmer played against Bryant and Jemison in a charity golf tournament. Ford and Jemison rode to the golf course together, and Jemison said Ford mentioned his pardon of Richard Nixon, the issue that helped defeat his presidential bid in 1976.

"He said, `I guess people down in this part of the country are condemning me for doing that,'" Jemison said. "I said, `You don't have to apologize for doing that ... Anybody who really gave it thought knows you couldn't be an effective president if you were fighting the battle of Richard Nixon forever.'"

"I think he saved the country so much turmoil," Edwards said. "It took guts to do it, I think."

Margie Bolding, a Birmingham writer, director, actress and painter, came to know Ford and his wife, Betty, years ago while visiting her sister, who lived down the road from the Fords' home in Rancho Mirage, Calif.

One night at a dinner party, Bolding sat on Ford's lap for a group photograph, then remained on his lap to talk to him about the need for tax incentives to help artists and extended families.

"He was always so gracious," Bolding said. "He seemed to fit in wherever he went."