Gerald Ford, 93, was a man of intellect and achievement "in a plain brown wrapper," Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm said in a tribute to the late president after his Dec. 26 death.
That theme came through eloquently and elegantly at his internationally televised Episcopal rite funeral service at Washington National Cathedral Jan. 2. He served in Congress for 25 years, where he earned a reputation for decency and integrity. Speakers at the service, from President Bush to journalist Tom Brokaw, took note. When someone mentioned he was family-minded and -centered, family members in the pews nodded vigorously.
In the swirl of political scandal during the Nixon era, Ford rose to the vice presidency (Dec. 6, 1973) and presidency (Aug. 9, 1974) without having been voted into office.
Amid the political turmoil following Richard Nixon's resignation, Ford mounted the podium on the Capitol steps at his inauguration as the nation's 38th president and announced: "My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over." He extolled truth as the glue that holds together government and civilization itself. He acknowledged it was strained, but not broken. Then he tackled the task of cleaning up the national mess of the Watergate era. Part of it was to pardon Richard Nixon, absorb the predictable reactions of outrage, and move on quickly with the national agenda. In achieving those goals, Brokaw and others called him one of the most underrated presidents.
By his own accounts, Ford's faith was a key to his character. He was raised an Episcopalian. He attended his home churches in Grand Rapids and in the Washington area "as time permitted." He read the Bible daily. He joined several other representatives, beginning in the late 1960s, for weekly Bible study and prayer on Capitol Hill: Methodist John Rhodes (R-Ariz.), Lutheran Al Quie (R-Minn.), and Presbyterian Melvin Laird (R-Wis.).
He became a close friend with fellow sports enthusiast Billy Zeoli, an evangelist and head of Gospel Films (now Gospel Communications) in Grand Rapids; he and Zeoli often met for prayer and Bible study, a practice that continued after Ford became president. Ford privately credited Zeoli for much of his spiritual growth.
He also said his son Michael, a student at evangelical Gordon-Conwell seminary, provided valuable input into his spiritual formation. Ford spoke at Michael's seminary commencement. Michael went on to engage in outreach ministry in Pittsburgh before settling into student work at Wake Forest University.
Ford, unlike his presidential successor Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist, kept his faith largely "quiet and off the record." Nevertheless, close-up observers like church historian Martin E. Marty and New York Times journalist James Reston said his few public expressions of faith were genuine: "nothing artificial" and "not a role but a reality."
Some analysts theorized that if Ford had been more open about his faith, it may have wooed enough evangelicals away from Jimmy Carter to make a difference in the 1976 election. Evangelist Zeoli urged him to go public with his faith to counter Carter's "born again" campaigning, but Ford said it would have been out of place for him and less than honest to do so.
But for a "brown wrapper" man, one part of Ford's funeral service was colorful. Episcopal priest Robert Certain, the Fords' pastor in the Southern California retirement community of Palmdale, raised eyebrows in his sermon by telling of a conversation he had with Ford about schism in the Episcopal Church over the consecration of a partnered homosexual bishop and the blessings of same-sex unions. Certain said Ford hoped for "reconciliation" and said he "did not think they should be divisive for anyone who lived by the great commandments and the great commission to love God and neighbor."
Certain also sparked controversy when he omitted the second half of Jesus' words in John 14:6: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one can come to the Father, but by me." Certain read the entire verse Jan. 3 at Ford's Grand Rapids burial service. Liberals insisted the omission had to be by Ford's request. Conservatives contended it was wrong to edit out the critical point Jesus was making, and they suspect input from Washington's liberal Bishop John Chane and others accounted for the omission.