WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Now he tells us. Former President Gerald R. Ford wanted us to know that he disagreed with President Bush's decision to invade Iraq. But Mr. Ford didn't want us to know about his disagreement until after he was dead, according to a 2004 taped interview with Bob Woodward of The Washington Post. Such caution may frustrate you as much as it frustrates me, but it was characteristic of Mr. Ford. He was a man of firm views who nevertheless didn't like to make a fuss.
That's why, as one looks back on the Ford years, electric words such as "dynamic" or "groundbreaking" do not spring immediately to mind.
Instead, one thinks of descriptions that sound about as enticingly dull as the blind date who is described as "wholesome." One hears "decent," "honorable," "thoughtful" and, of course, "a good cleanup man."
Mr. Ford, after all, is best remembered as the unlikely president who turned out to be ideally suited for cleaning up the messes his predecessors left behind. These include the Watergate scandal's aftermath, the last days of the Vietnam War and revelations about FBI abuses under J. Edgar Hoover's leadership.
Yet Mr. Ford did not shrink away from controversy. When he felt the time was right for him to speak out, he said things that were worth hearing, even if it displeased more-conservative partisans.
He opposed abortion on demand, he said, but he also opposed a constitutional amendment to ban all abortions. He preferred to leave the debate to the states. Ronald Reagan, by contrast, defended the amendment, although he hardly raised a finger to push it through Congress.
In 1970, as House minority leader, Mr. Ford lined up key signatures to free the Equal Rights Amendment for women from committee, where it had languished for 47 years. It eventually failed to be ratified by enough states.
Mr. Ford also opposed discrimination against homosexuals as recently as in a 2001 interview with Detroit News columnist Deb Price. Same-sex couples should receive the same economic benefits as married couples, such as Social Security and tax deductions, the former president said.
"I think they ought to be treated equally. Period," he said.
Views such as those easily could earn Mr. Ford a "RINO" label ("Republican in name only") in conservative circles these days.
His support of the University of Michigan's affirmative-action enrollment policies showed particular passion in a 1999 New York Times op-ed. The 1935 Michigan graduate recalled his senior year on the Wolverines football team when visiting Georgia Tech wanted a player named Willis Ward, "a close friend of mine," to be dropped from the roster because he was black. Mr. Ford's classmates were just as adamant that Mr. Ward should take the field, Mr. Ford wrote, but Mr. Ward eventually decided on his own not to play.
"His sacrifice led me to question how educational administrators could capitulate to raw prejudice," Mr. Ford wrote. "Tolerance, breadth of mind and appreciation for the world beyond our neighborhoods: These can be learned on the football field and in the science lab as well as in the lecture hall. But only if students are exposed to America in all her variety."
With that in mind, Mr. Ford objected to the Michigan plaintiffs' insistence in a U.S. Supreme Court challenge that race not be considered as one of many factors weighed by admissions officials. "So drastic a ban would scuttle Michigan's current system, one that takes into account nearly a dozen elements - race, economic standing, geographic origin, athletic and artistic achievement among them - to create the finest educational environment for all students," he wrote. "This eminently reasonable approach, as thoughtful as it is fair, has produced a student body with a significant minority component whose record of academic success is outstanding."
"Thoughtful" and "fair" well describe Mr. Ford's approach to government and the role it can play in helping people live better lives. Some would call his view out of step, since Michigan voters overturned affirmative action in November. And if any group will continue to receive preferential treatment at Michigan or in Georgia these days, it is football players, regardless of race.
Yet Mr. Ford's wish for government to help open job and educational opportunities for everyone survives him. As a poor boy who made it to the top, Mr. Ford stayed in touch with that aspect of the American ideal. It is up to us, the living, to keep it alive.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column usually appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is email@example.com.
Cal Thomas' column will appear later this week. Steve Chapman is on vacation.