Thirty years ago, I thought of myself as a Jerry Ford Republican.
I was one of the schoolgirls shouting and waving when President Ford and Queen Elizabeth II arrived at Washington National Cathedral in July 1976 for the building's dedication ceremony.
Just weeks earlier, I had graduated from the Episcopal girls' school next-door. I was headed for the University of Michigan, Ford's alma mater.
When I voted for him in November 1976, I was a timid, closeted 18-year-old. I couldn't have imagined — and, I expect, neither could he — that 25 years later, in an interview with me, Ford would become the highest-ranking Republican in history to endorse equal treatment for gay couples.
After Ford left office, my regard for him grew. I came to see his pardoning of Richard Nixon as wise and gutsy.
To Ford, the question wasn't what Nixon deserved, but what was best for the country. Ford wasn't wooing any political faction, wasn't playing divide-and-conquer politics and sure wasn't trying to win a popularity contest. He was simply leading.
And I admired that Ford had appointed John Paul Stevens to the U.S. Supreme Court, picking him for his fine legal mind, not to score ideological points. Stevens has gone on to become gay Americans' most steadfast friend on the high court.
I had many reasons to admire Ford, yet long felt tremendously disappointed by him in one way: I'd read that after a San Francisco man thwarted a would-be assassin on Sept. 22, 1975, Ford sent a thank-you note but did nothing more because the hero, Bill Sipple, was gay.
That account gnawed at me. Although I'd never known Ford to take a public stand on anything gay, I just couldn't square the story with what I knew about him.
So, in October 2001, I faxed an interview request about this stain on his record. I soon received a call asking me to please hold — the president wished to speak to me.
President Ford, then 88, was eager to correct the record and sounded hurt that anyone had ever thought of him as anti-gay.
"I wrote (Sipple) a note thanking him. ... As far as I was concerned, I had done the right thing and the matter was ended. I didn't learn until sometime later — I can't remember when — he was gay. I don't know where anyone got the crazy idea I was prejudiced and wanted to exclude gays," Ford told me.
Pleasantly surprised by how comfortable Ford was talking about gay issues — not a trait I've found in many politicians — I asked whether the federal government ought to treat gay couples the same as married heterosexuals. "I think they ought to be treated equally. Period," Ford replied.
Trying to get a better sense of what he meant, I pressed on, asking whether he believed gay couples should receive the same Social Security, tax and other federal benefits. "I don't see why they shouldn't. I think that's a proper goal," Ford replied.
He also told me that he supported a federal law to outlaw anti-gay job discrimination: "That is a step in the right direction. I have a longstanding record in favor of legislation to do away with discrimination," he said.
Amazed at finding myself chatting with the former president, I told him that my first vote ever was for him, and he shared with me that he and his wife had gay friends.
Ford also said that he wanted gay Americans to be part of his party. "I have always believed in an inclusive policy, in welcoming gays and others into the party. I think the party has to have an umbrella philosophy if it expects to win elections," he said.
Not long after my column about our interview was published, the gay-friendly Republican Unity Coalition contacted Ford, and he agreed to join its advisory board, lending his name to its cause.
His memorial service took me back to Washington National Cathedral, this time as a journalist. Even in death, Ford, who was an Episcopalian, spread the message that gay people deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.
The Rev. Robert Certain — the priest at Ford's Palm Desert, Calif., church — pointed out in his homily that when he and Ford had discussed plans for his funeral this past summer, the former president brought up his concern about the growing rift in the denomination over allowing gays and women to take leadership roles: "He said he did not think (such inclusive steps) should be divisive for anyone who lived by the Great Commandments and the Great Commission — to love God and to love neighbor."
At that moment, I felt Jerry Ford’s loving embrace. He never stopped caring; he never stopped leading.
Deb Price of The Detroit News writes the first nationally syndicated column on gay issues. To find out more about Deb Price and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.