Donald Rumsfeld, the implacable ex-defense secretary, sniffled through his remarks about President Ford. Former vice president Dick Cheney recalled Ford’s kindness in hiring him despite his having dropped out of Yale twice and been arrested two times. Henry Kissinger, whom Ford inherited as secretary of state from President Nixon, said Ford was “a president . . . whom I can say I loved, a feeling not every president inspires.”
At public events, former aides tend to talk about the achievements of the president they served. Seldom do they express the deep affection that Ford’s subordinates, powerful figures in their own right, feel toward him. An emotional Rumsfeld? You don’t often see that. And it’s noteworthy that Kissinger said Ford “was the president for whom I enjoyed working most.”
The occasion for their dewy-eyed recollections was the christening on November 9 of the newest and biggest aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford. The ship has a flight deck of five acres, weighs 100,000 tons, and is home to 75 warplanes. Still under construction by Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, it’s expected to be commissioned two years from now.
An aircraft carrier’s christening is a stirring event. Speaker after speaker noted that only the United States could build, much less deploy, a behemoth like the USS Gerald R. Ford. And it has an official “sponsor,” Ford’s daughter Susan Ford Bales.
She has taken her role to heart. She traveled to the shipyard numerous times to work on the carrier. Among her tasks was welding. So she addressed a crowd including thousands of shipyard workers “as my fellow shipbuilders.” She said her father’s last letter, a month before he died in 2006, expressed his great pride in having a carrier named for him.
The christening was followed by a dinner with Ford administration officials and friends from Ford’s hometown, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Ford was elected to the House in 1948 and rose to minority leader before he was appointed vice president in 1973 when Spiro Agnew resigned. Ford became president on August 9, 1974, upon Richard M. Nixon’s departure.
At the dinner, Kissinger recalled Ford’s meeting with Chinese leader Mao Zedong. Mao repeated his favorite saying: “There is turmoil under the heavens, and the situation is excellent.” Ford responded with one of his: “People can disagree without being disagreeable.” It wasn’t clear if they understood each other.
When Cheney followed Kissinger at the podium, he said, “This is one of those moments I wish I could speak with a German accent.” He said Ford guided America through the constitutional crisis of Watergate “better than anyone else could have.”
Then he told a Ford story. In 1978, when Cheney was running for the House in Wyoming, he invited Ford to speak and stay at the Cheney home in Casper. In the morning, as the Cheney family waited for Ford to come to breakfast, water began dripping from the ceiling. Ford, it turned out, had failed to put the shower curtain inside the tub. Cheney never told Ford what had happened.
The USS Gerald R. Ford has another distinction. Ford has topped President Kennedy. His carrier is the first in its class. The USS John F. Kennedy comes second.