American campaigns were not always, I can testify from personal witness, about the politics of personal destruction. Your political adversary was your opponent, not your enemy. Just 10 years ago, at the funeral of a former Republican president, the eulogy, at the personal request of the deceased, was given by the Democratic president who had defeated him in a race so close that with a switch of only 12,785 votes in two states — Ohio and Mississippi — Republican Gerald Ford would have won instead of Democrat Jimmy Carter.
Honoring the national reconciliation Jerry Ford had, by the strength of his own decency, personally brought to a divided and disillusioned country after Watergate and President Richard Nixon's resignation in disgrace, Carter began by quoting himself: "For myself and for our nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land." He then self-deprecatingly explained, "Those were the first words I spoke as president, and I still hate to admit that they received more applause than any other words in my inaugural address."
Of Ford's succeeding Nixon as president, Ford's good personal Democratic friend Tip O'Neill, who was the speaker of the House when Carter was inaugurated, had this to say: "God has been good to America, especially during difficult times. At the time of the Civil War, he gave us Abraham Lincoln. And at the time of Watergate, he gave us Gerald Ford — the right man at the right time who was able to put our nation back together again."
A month after taking office, Ford almost certainly doomed his own chances for re-election by pardoning Nixon. The pardon was an act of character and of conscience that, while almost universally unpopular at the time, we know some four decades later undoubtedly spared the country from a sustained epidemic of poisonous recrimination. A quarter-century after he lost the presidency, Ford's statesmanship was recognized when he was honored by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library with its Profile in Courage Award. A vindicated and appreciative Ford said simply on that occasion, "In the age-old contest between popularity and principle, only those willing to lose for their convictions are deserving of posterity's approval."
Ford was a total stranger to self-importance, a confident leader who never mistook political compromise for surrender. He had no enemies list, no lust for vengeance, no dark side. Not unlike the case with Harry Truman, another vice president from the Midwest who assumed the office of the president and never assumed airs, it can be said of Jerry Ford that he liked being Jerry Ford and he was comfortable being Jerry Ford. He never thought of being anybody but Jerry Ford.
And let it be noted that Ford, in losing, won 48 percent of the votes cast, an almost identical percentage to the one Hillary Clinton received when carrying the national popular vote by nearly 3 million in 2016.
It is frankly impossible to imagine the 2016 presidential nominees ever personally asking their opponent to offer a eulogy at their funeral. But there really was a time, a better time, when we had campaigns that were not emotional train wrecks, when America and the Republican Party had a Jerry Ford.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.