Jerry Ford's Classy Farewell
On this date in 1977, President Ford delivered a State of the Union speech that doubled as his farewell address. Although Ford had lost the presidency two months earlier to Jimmy Carter in a close, and cleanly fought, campaign, the two men were destined to become close friends.
No one knew at the time how that bond would develop, but what observant Americans did know -- and were reminded of 41 years ago today -- was how fortunate we had all been to have had Jerry Ford in the White House during that difficult period in American history.
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At 9:10 p.m. on January 12, 1977, House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. introduced Gerald R. Ford for the last time in the storied chamber on Capitol Hill.
Then it was the president’s turn to speak, a man never elected to national office but who had nonetheless been thrust into the role of negotiating the twin crucibles of Watergate and Vietnam -- and then been turned out of office for his troubles. Ford didn’t sound at all bitter that night. Far from it:
“The people have spoken; they have chosen a new president and a new Congress to work their will. I congratulate you -- particularly the new members -- as sincerely as I did President-elect Carter,” he said. “In a few days it will be his duty to outline for you his priorities and legislative recommendations. Tonight, I will not infringe on that responsibility, but rather wish him the very best in all that is good for our country.”
As for the state of our union at that moment in time, Ford patted himself on the back, albeit ever-so-gently, for doing something that doesn’t always occur in this republic of ours: going out of his way to assist his successor. “Because the transfer of authority in our form of government affects the state of the union and of the world, I am happy to report to you that the current transition is proceeding very well,” Ford said. “I was determined that it should; I wanted the new president to get off to an easier start than I had.”
He then reminded us of what that start had been like.
“When I became president on August 9, 1974, our nation was deeply divided and tormented,” he recalled. “In rapid succession the vice president and the president had resigned in disgrace. We were still struggling with the after-effects of a long, unpopular, and bloody war in Southeast Asia. The economy was unstable and racing toward the worst recession in 40 years. People were losing jobs. The cost of living was soaring. … The integrity of our constitutional process and other institutions was being questioned.
“In the grave situation which prevailed in August 1974,” he continued, “our will to maintain our international leadership was in doubt. I asked for your prayers and went to work.”
This was all true, as even the man’s political adversaries in the Democratic-controlled Congress acknowledged. Until tapped by a beleaguered Richard Nixon to be vice president, Ford had never harbored executive branch ambitions. He was a creature of the House, where he had many friends and allies. Ford alluded to this history in a nostalgic passage as he wound to a close.
“It is not easy to end these remarks,” he said. “In this chamber, along with some of you, I have experienced many, many of the highlights of my life. It was here that I stood 28 years ago with my freshman colleagues, as Speaker Sam Rayburn administered the oath. … It was here we waged many, many a lively battle -- won some, lost some, but always remaining friends. It was here, surrounded by such friends, that the distinguished chief justice swore me in as Vice President on December 6, 1973. It was here I returned eight months later as your president to ask not for a honeymoon but for a good marriage.
“I will always treasure those memories and your many, many kindnesses,” he added. “I thank you for them all.”
So, Gerald Ford ended his last State of the Union address with nostalgia. But he’d begun that speech with a one-word humorous aside that drew chuckles from the House chamber:
“This report will be my last -- maybe -- but for the union it is only the first of such reports in our third century of independence, the close of which none of us will ever see,” he said. As he paused over that “maybe” quip, Ford’s face broke into a wry smile, and applause and chuckles rippled through the room. Fittingly, this laughter came from both sides of the aisle.