August 9, 1974 — the day Gerald Ford became president of the United States — was one of the strangest days I ever experienced in Washington. Having graduated from Trinity that May, and anticipating enrolling at Georgetown Law School later in August, I remained in town that summer working at Trinity in a position that we would call “conference assistant” today.
Trouble had been brewing downtown on Capitol Hill and at the White House all summer. A tangled web of lies and cover-ups known as “Watergate” cast a pall over the political city — the nation was not as cynical then as it is today about egregiously bad behavior in the Oval Office. Richard Nixon’s presidency was unraveling NOT because of the ugly war in Vietnam, but because of the pettiest of all circumstances: he tried to cover-up the involvement of his agents in the burglary of the Democratic headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974, and his Vice President Gerald Ford took the oath of office that day.
I went to the White House that morning to witness the historical events as closely as possible. In those days, it was relatively easy to get close to major public events. I remember walking through Lafayette Park and seeing CBS News Reporter Dan Rather doing a stand-up commentary with the White House in the background. There were a lot of people milling about, but everyone was somewhat hushed. TV reporters like Rather were accepted as part of the scene in those days, there was not a big crowd around him. He was famous at that time for being a brash young White House reporter who often challenged President Nixon at televised press conferences. But on this historic day, even Rather seemed subdued. (Little did he know that, 30 years later, his own scandal would drive him from the anchor chair at CBS as a result of sloppy source-checking on a story about President Bush.)
After the news floated through the crowd that President Nixon had resigned and would be leaving shortly, I went around back of the White House onto the ellipse where tens of thousands of people had gathered. What was most remarkable about this scene was the silence of so large a crowd. Nobody was festive, nobody was celebrating the end of a much-despised presidency. In a place where war protesters often gathered, where the aroma of tear gas and marijuana sometimes co-mingled, on August 9 there was just a hush.
Then came the sound of helicopter blades chopping the hot summer air, and the presidential chopper lifted from the south lawn of the White House. Nixon was history. The crowd actually waved, still silent, mindful of history flying above us.
President Ford held a unique place in history as the only president never elected to either high office he held — he had been appointed as vice president after Spiro Agnew resigned in another scandal, and then he succeeded Nixon after that resignation. He later pardoned President Nixon, which sowed the seeds of his later defeat in the 1976 presidential election, paving the way for Jimmy Carter’s presidency.
Gerald Ford today is widely remembered and eulogized as a good man who led the nation through one of our more bizarre political episodes. I remember the one time I encountered him personally, in 1973 during his time as vice president. He spoke to a group of college students at the Center for the Study of the Presidency. After his speech, I asked him this question: given the Watergate scandal and the anti-war sentiments of so many college students, how could he encourage any young person to choose a career in government? The people who were running the conference were very unhappy that I would ask such an impertinent question. But Ford didn’t seem to mind. Instead of taking offense, he took the offensive. His response went like this: we are counting on a new generation of precisely young people to bring new levels of dedication and ethics to the idea of public service. Don’t criticize, get involved. Make the changes you think should occur!
Good advice in 1973 — even better advice on the cusp of 2007!
President Gerald Ford’s legacy is that of a citizen who answered the call to public service on many occasions. His low-key, steady leadership made it possible for the nation to navigate the aftermath of Watergate successfully.