Melvin R. Laird: The Ford presidency was a happy accident for America

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Laird served with Jerry Ford in Congress and later was Nixon's secretary of defense.]

... He was our Accidental President -- never elected by the voters to represent anything but his congressional district, which included Grand Rapids, Mich. It was a happy accident for America, and in many ways it was no accident. It was years in the making and required hard work, planning and good fortune. Jerry often told me how fortunate he had been, beginning when he was only two weeks old and his courageous mother fled an abusive marriage to make a better life for herself and her son.

I first met Jerry in 1951, but our paths came close to crossing when we both served in the Navy in World War II and our separate ships were caught in the same typhoon that nearly took our lives in December 1944. Jerry's brush with death came when he was rushing to put out a fire on the flight deck of the U.S.S. Monterey, and lost his footing. He fell as the storm rolled the ship 25 degrees, and he slid down the tilting deck. Only his quick athletic reflexes and the two-inch rim at the edge of the deck slowed him down just enough to allow him to roll onto the catwalk below. In less than a day, Typhoon Cobra sank three of our destroyers and took the lives of 778 men. Later, some were surprised that Jerry could laugh in the midst of great political turmoil. They failed to fathom how harmless political conflicts can be to a battle-tested veteran.

Seven years later, on a visit to Washington as a Wisconsin state senator, I was introduced to Congressman Ford. He was nine years older than me. We became immediate friends. And when I was elected to Congress, we were seatmates in the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee for 16 years, before I became secretary of defense. He was as plain as bread and occasionally bland, but also unfailingly believable, honest, considerate and -- that rarest of commodities -- politically dependable.

When it was clear that the mossback Republican leadership of the House needed to be swept aside, I led a group of young Turks (which included Rep. Donald Rumsfeld) pushing Jerry forward through three successive party coups, eventually making him House minority leader. Jerry and I worked as a close team rebuilding the party with policies that offered constructive alternatives and laid the groundwork for Nixon's 1968 presidential win....
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