To be fair to Gerald R. Ford, his presidency was no easy task. Never elected chief executive, Mr. Ford was appointed vice president after Spiro Agnew resigned in disgrace, and he assumed the helm as the nation's 38th president at the height of the Watergate scandal that precipitated Richard M. Nixon's resignation.
Mr. Ford's subsequent - and highly controversial - pardon of Mr. Nixon didn't help matters much, and many Americans never got over that decision. But Mr. Ford served the nation during a crucial transition and helped the country heal from Watergate's wounds. Despite Mr. Ford's contentious relationship with the Democratic majority in Congress, his administration witnessed the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam and worked to curb inflation and to keep budget deficits at bay.
Mr. Ford will not be remembered as the best president in postwar American history. But he will probably not be remembered as the worst president either. Overall, Americans' impressions about Mr. Ford's performance in office were not stellar. His average approval rating during his tenure was 48 percent, suggesting more Americans disapproved of his performance on the job than approved. By contrast, Mr. Nixon's average approval rating was 49 percent, although this number is inflated by higher approval ratings pre-Watergate. Still, Mr. Ford's average approval rating was higher than Jimmy Carter's ratings, which, at 46 percent, is the lowest on record for an incumbent president.
It may turn out, however, that Mr. Ford is remembered more fondly than many other presidents. According to a June 2004 Gallup poll, 66 percent of respondents considered Mr. Ford an "average" president, compared with 17 percent who felt he was below average or poor and 14 percent who believed he was above average or outstanding. By contrast, 24 percent of Americans in the same poll viewed Bill Clinton's performance as president as below average or poor, even as 35 percent felt Mr. Clinton was above average or outstanding. Thirty-one percent found Mr. Clinton only average.
Despite his weak approval ratings in office, retrospective evaluations of Mr. Ford are substantially higher. Sixty percent of Americans approve of Mr. Ford's performance as president, according to a June 2006 Gallup poll. This places Mr. Ford only a point behind Mr. Carter and Mr. Clinton, and ahead of George H.W. Bush, Lyndon B. Johnson and Mr. Nixon. Only Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy score more than 10 points better than Mr. Ford, at 84 percent and 71 percent, respectively, in the poll.
Granted, retrospective evaluations of presidents are generally more favorable than assessments in office. But Mr. Ford's post-White House ratings exceed his presidential approval ratings by 12 percentage points, a margin close to that enjoyed by some of the most popular ex-presidents. The difference between Mr. Kennedy's and Mr. Reagan's average approval ratings while in office and the evaluations in the June 2006 survey was plus-14 percentage points. Only Mr. Carter's recent evaluations beat this, placing Mr. Carter 15 percentage points ahead of his average approval rating while in office. Mr. Johnson's June 2006 ratings fell 15 points below his average approval rating, Mr. Nixon's dropped 21 percentage points, and George H.W. Bush's recent rating was 9 points below his average score.
It seems Americans' memories of Mr. Ford are more sympathetic to the former president than assessments were at the time. To summarize Americans' retrospective evaluations of him, it may be appropriate to paraphrase Mr. Reagan: All in all not good, but not bad at all either.
Costas Panagopoulos is director of the Elections and Campaign Management program at Fordham University in New York City. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.