I was serving as a pastor at a church and also as head varsity football coach at West Alabama Preparatory Academy in Demopolis, Alabama, when I heard about the death of former President Gerald Ford. You would think an event such as the death of a former U.S. president would have been the top story when my wife and I were watching the local news out of Birmingham, but it wasn’t.
To be perfectly honest, it was just mentioned in passing like it was an insignificant story. The top stories of the day were dealing with college football, specifically, the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Auburn Tigers. Even Alabama high school football got more coverage than the president’s death.
Looking back, I guess it was befitting to the man who found himself in the highest position of power in the world by default. President Ford received almost no respect during his service to our country during his tenure. And as you know, he suffered countless attacks and abuse for giving President Nixon a full pardon for the Watergate scandal.
As a pastor, my background is matters relating to theology and ministry. I fully admit that that I am not an historian nor am I some type of political pundit. I personally believe clergy have an ethical responsibility to leave politics out of the pulpit. However, I do have a love for history, especially in regard to the American presidency.
My favorite two presidents in U.S. history have been Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. The mere fact that I was born and raised in Georgia and have personally met President Carter on two separate occasions makes me feel connected to him. As for President Ford, I think his pragmatic and simplistic approach to government speaks directly to the core of who I am as a human. I personally believe there is no problem that cannot be fixed if two people are willing to come to the table and listen to one another.
The day that Ford died, even with football overshadowing the event, it gave me a clear awareness of what things we as a society choose to remember about each other. I can’t hide the fact that media outlets all over the world took note of his participation in the pardon of President Nixon, a critical situation dealing with the U.S. merchant ship Mayaguez, not to mention his role in the Helsinki Accords.
NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox News, CNN and other top television news networks mentioned comments about a shortage of oil and that inflation had sky-rocketed in a manner that had not been seen in the U.S. economy for decades. However, with all that being said, in the days leading up to Ford’s funeral, most of all the media coverage took complete focus on his fundamental decency, the way he despised other politicians for conducting themselves with pride and arrogance in the power they had acquired by being elected as public servants, and his deep and profound love, respect and commitment to his spouse.
You won’t always be where you are today. Whether you are a school teacher, bank president or top-level executive with a major corporation, you will pass the torch to someone else before long. If you are a truck driver, factory worker or department store clerk, you won’t do it without end.
Lawyer, doctor, journalist, entertainer, athlete — nobody fills any role forever.
When you move, retire or die from whatever you are doing today, people will remember you more for who you were than for what you did.
Ford projected a sense of sincerity and decency.
“Truth is the glue that holds government together,” he said just before taking office, “not only government but civilization itself.”
An adopted child, he said his mother and adoptive father had three rules for him and his three half-brothers: tell the truth, work hard and come to dinner on time. Comedians mocked him as a buffoon for a fall he took coming off a plane, but Ford didn’t put their names on a hit list. He even made a joke of it himself. “I am a Ford,” he remarked, “not a Lincoln.”
He and his wife, Betty, appear to have loved each other devotedly. They held hands and even kissed in public — unthinkable until then for an American president. They broke another White House precedent by continuing to sleep in the same bed. They spoke kindly to each other and respectfully of each other. Betty’s cancer and chemical addictions were transformed by a husband-and-wife team into opportunities for helping thousands of others with similar problems.
When all is said and done with your life and career, people are going to remember your character, the way you treated people and your loyalty to your family more than your work. Wouldn’t it be wise to think about those things now?
The Rev. Scott Murphy of Columbus is an ordained American Baptist minister.