The phone rang at my home last night with the bad news from California. I was told that moments after I hung up, it would be announced officially that President Gerald Ford had died.
Our news division, along with all others, print and broadcast, had been prepared for this news for some time. And it is during these times that our roles merge: as humans and as journalists, we are so often pulled in different directions. My daughter came into our bedroom and said "I'm sorry about President Ford," sweetly noting that I had gotten to know the former President late in life. Moments later I was asked to contribute to MSNBC's live coverage, speaking via telephone.
It was one of those many occasions when duty must come before contemplation or any personal sense of sadness. I thought about the last time I saw him, I thought about the afternoon a few years ago when he called me at home to thank me for a note I'd sent him. I thought about how he told our travelling crew during an interview in Palm Springs that he and Mrs. Ford were loyal Nightly News viewers, who "often watched on TV tables sitting there in front of the tube." I thought about a wonderful evening we had spent together at the Truman Presidential library, and how I'd discovered a picture of the two of us in a recently-published book.
I also thought about two friends of mine who knew him well: Tom Brokaw, who had been White House correspondent during his administration, and Andrea Mitchell, who by dint of her marriage to Chairman Greenspan and her career as a journalist had spent so much time around him, and admired him so.
The truth is Jerry Ford was a nice man. He was decent, courageous, honest...and a loving and faithful partner to his wife, a wonderful and trail-blazing woman. By today's political standards he just might be a liberal. By today's standards he is an anachronism of a kind of cooperative, deal-making and dare I say much more bipartisan brand of politics.
I keep coming back to the word courage -- from his World War II service in the Pacific to the decisions he made as President to the way he so forthrightly dealt with the challenges that life handed him. He also managed to form a friendship with the man who defeated him in what became a bitter fight: Jimmy Carter.
Jerry Ford did it all in the classic style of his generation -- with modesty and with a self-effacing manner. What a historic role he played: from his unorthodox elevation first to Vice President and then President, where he was handed the wounds of a nation that needed urgent attention and healing. Political junkies will long ponder the following political footnote: had the talks with Reagan succeeded, had the ticket been elected to the "co-Presidency" that was briefly flirted with, our politics and the Presidency would be vastly different today.
He was, first and foremost, a man of the House -- whose loftiest goal in life was to become Speaker someday. As one journalist put it last night, upon hearing the news: "He was an ordinary guy in the noblest sense of the word ordinary."
Think about that for a while, while we all think about President Ford's lasting impact on the nation he loved. We are thinking of his family, and while this news changes some of our plans a bit, we will devote much of our broadcast to him tonight. We'll see you then.