• U.S.

Closing Out an lnterim Chapter

5 minute read


About the time that the hopes of Gerald Ford began to run thin Tuesday night, there were only three people standing outside the iron fence along Pennsylvania Avenue looking at the floodlighted White House.

Maybe that was Ford’s final legacy to this nation—a transition of power so tranquil that nobody in Washington felt compelled to take to the street in his anguish. They had stood in muted knots by the hundreds after John Kennedy was assassinated and Lyndon Johnson took over the office and went about his duties on the night of Nov. 22, 1963. It was a nightmarish time of conflicting emotions in the world of power. There is the chance that now, after 13 long and often painful years, our political system is finally returning to something like normal.

And then there were the memories of the uncertainty when Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not seek office again, forced out by protest over the war in Viet Nam. People gathered at the White House gates then to wonder about the future. Again they came by the thousands on the night of Aug. 8, 1974, when Richard Nixon told the nation he would leave office, a final great convulsion in that dark era. People cheered and wept and peered through the iron bars at the graceful facade that means so much to this nation.

But few came on Tuesday night. It was almost as if they felt secure at last, a singular tribute to what Ford had been, but also a declaration for change in the future.

The old mansion shone bright in a new coat of paint (applied expressly for the Inauguration). It was washed by intense incandescence, the Washington Monument rising behind the White House with equal brilliance and a three-quarter moon hanging above the whole scene.

It was as if some master scriptwriter had put it together once again for the United States. In the crisis of Watergate two years ago, Gerald Ford, without flair or ambition, had furnished what the nation needed—solidity, courage, common sense and honor. Ford’s stewardship was a welcome change from the decade of disarray that began with the bullet that killed Kennedy. That he thought he should stay longer may have been Ford’s biggest mistake. That another term, a prospect he had not considered when he first came to power, was more than the American people wanted to give him was something that Ford never quite accepted. His stubbornness was a part of his limited appeal, but like so much else with Ford, it was not a quality of inspiration.

In history Ford may figure as little more than a short, interim chapter, an expanded footnote. Yet it is, at the least, a critical chunk of a history that keeps churning and moving. Ford’s call for a pause was characteristic of the man but was not in the tradition of change that is at the center of American life.

Even as Ford gathered his family around him in defeat, there were shadowy reminders in his White House of the continuous American drama. Teddy Roosevelt rode his horse in the great oil paintings that festooned the Roosevelt Room in the West Wing. T.R. was a Ford favorite, but his exuberance was both physical and intellectual, something that Ford could not emulate. And Harry Truman was there in bronze and canvas, his guts and spunk something that Ford wanted to capture and use for himself but could not quite bring off.

Surely there will be a place some day down in the White House foyer for the portrait of the man who pulled the country out of its worst political scandal. Few Presidents have done more than one thing for their nation or left more than one thought or one mark in history. Ford has done that. The portraits that hung in the darkened foyer on Tuesday night included those of Truman and Eisenhower but also of Franklin Pierce and Martin Van Buren and Herbert Hoover, not men of greatness, but men who did their best. In that there is honor. Ford can proudly take his stand in such company.

He will hand the presidency to Jimmy Carter in good shape. It remains the world’s most powerful office, stripped now of some of the imperial trappings that caused trouble, subject to more restraint in certain areas by the Congress, but—as symbol of the nation’s ideals and administrator of American life—larger than ever. It cannot possibly live up to this country’s soaring expectations, but the presidency isunfettered finally from Viet Nam and Watergate and ready for a new try.

By one calculation, at least. Jimmy Carter will come to Washington less experienced in the ways of the power society than any President since Zachary Taylor. He has never stayed overnight in the White House, actually visited the building only three times and only for a couple of hours each time. But his distance from the Oval Office has been his strength, and with luck and skill it could be his genius. Those who have run the capital for so long have created a mystique about its complexities and its rituals, a device to persuade the nation to keep them in power.

Carter’s victory seems to have changed that—how completely could be judged by the tearless acceptance of the verdict. For the most part, the Republicans jammed into the Sheraton-Park Hotel were free of bitterness, the Democrats in the Mayflower Hotel more reassured than exultant. And through the night, the other people of Washington, so sensitive to trauma, did not maintain a nervous vigil outside the gates of the White House.

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