Early Wednesday morning, just hours after being paid tribute to by Republicans at their Philadelphia convention, former President Gerald Ford 87, was admitted to Hahnemann University Hospital after suffering two small strokes. Doctors say his condition is stable; he is expected to remain in the hospital for five or six days.
The news that the former president was ailing immediately brought back images of Ford's central role in one of America's darkest periods. It was the summer of 1974, and things could hardly have been worse. Richard Nixon had at last lost his struggle to cling to power amid the Watergate scandal. On a Friday in August, a maudlin Nixon--who had won an epic re-election just two years before--said farewell to his White House staff and boarded Marine One on the South Lawn, the first leg of his journey west to exile in California. Back in the White House moments later, an unelected vice president, Gerald R. Ford, took the oath of office and told a worried country that "our long national nightmare is over."
He was right. A longtime congressman from Michigan whom Nixon had turned to when Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced from office in 1973, Ford soon proved himself an indispensable figure, offering the nation a steady hand as Washington tried to find its footing after the chaos of Watergate. As August turned into September, Ford faced mounting questions about Nixon's personal fate. Would the disgraced former president be prosecuted? What about the rest of the Watergate crowd? Concerned that the scandal's echoes would preoccupy the country, the new president pardoned Nixon. The move provoked outrage, but in retrospect Ford's decision enabled the nation to move on.
The president paid a high political price. The pardon and tough economic times didn't help him in the 1976 race, which he narrowly lost to Jimmy Carter. Ford's historical reputation has grown through the years; even President Clinton has since saluted the former president's courage in moving to close the Watergate chapter.
On Tuesday night, the image of Ford sitting in the convention's VIP section with party luminaries, including former First Lady Nancy Reagan, was a pointed reminder of the key role Ford played in the lives and careers of the party's most important politicians. He defeated Ronald Reagan for the nomination in 1976, appointed George Bush director of the Central Intelligence Agency and chose Bob Dole as his running mate. It's a legacy that has been underrated. Events in Philadelphia may have finally changed that.