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Mark Shields: The Gerry Ford Test for 2012 Presidential Campaign

Is there a candidate who puts principle above popularity, and the nation's best interests ahead of his own?

It was rightly said of President Harry Truman that he liked being Harry Truman: He was comfortable being Harry Truman; he never thought about being anybody else but Harry Truman.

Equally comfortable in his own skin was President Gerald Ford, who more than once quoted Truman on the isolation of flattery to which occupants of the Oval Office so regularly succumb: “The president hears one hundred voices telling him that he is the greatest man in the world. He must listen carefully indeed to hear the one voice that tells him he isn’t.”

In the 12 presidential campaigns I have been lucky enough to work in or cover, I have never observed a presidential nominee more emotionally healthy than Ford. Most presidential candidates are so consumed by ambition for the office they lust after that they end up spending too much of their time and lives plotting or manipulating to get there.

As a Republican representative from Grand Rapids, Mich., and as the GOP’s House minority leader, Ford had the then-unrealistic goal of becoming speaker after leading Republicans to a majority in the House. Along the way, he instead — after the forced resignations of Vice President Spiro Agnew and President Richard Nixon — became the president of a divided and disheartened nation.

Ford, refreshingly free of neuroses or self-importance, was Midwestern open and American natural. Voters responded. His 71 percent job-approval rating — some 44 points above the resigning Nixon’s — was the highest given any president in 10 years.

Then Ford listened not to any White House palace guard or campaign mavens. He put principle over political popularity and consciously sabotaged his own chances for re-election by pardoning Nixon.

Like too many others at the time, I slipped from skepticism into cynicism, sure that the pardon must have been part of a secret deal for Nixon to leave and Ford to rise. Ford’s poll numbers began the steep drop down to 37 percent approval.

I, and every other cynic, was absolutely wrong. What Ford did in pardoning Nixon was both courageous and wise. Thus did the man who took pride in the fact that he had only momentary adversaries and no political enemies save his fellow Americans from continuing to tear themselves apart over Nixon. His moral courage (he had already, as his 10 World War II battle stars attested, proved his physical courage) made it possible for the healing of the nation to begin.

After the 1976 Kansas City Republican convention, where a switch of just 59 of the 2,257 delegates to Ronald Reagan would have cost him the nomination, Ford on Labor Day trailed his Democratic challenger, Jimmy Carter, by 30 points in the polls. That year, more than 81.5 million Americans voted for president. That meant Ford in September was more than 24 million votes behind Carter. By a brilliant campaign effort, Ford closed the gap to the point where on Election Day, with a switch of only 12,740 votes in Mississippi and Ohio, he would have won the White House. The bad taste left from the Nixon pardon changed history.

Regardless of your personal leanings or loyalties, are you optimistic, let alone confident, that your preferred 2012 presidential candidate would jeopardize victory in November — to say nothing of his entire political career — by daring to stare into his own political grave and to put principle above popularity and the health of the nation ahead of his own ambition? Is it too much to ask for a president in 2013 who could pass the Gerry Ford test?

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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