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 January, 2007


 An objective look at the presidency of Gerald Ford

The Gerald Ford I Remember

By Al Owens
At precisely 7:01 p.m. on May 26th, 1976 – the 38th President of the United States strode into the room. Not just any room, but the one in which I was sitting. President Gerald R. Ford was about to conduct a presidential news conference in the Presidential Ballroom of the Neil House Hotel in the heart of Columbus, Ohio and I was of the reporters there.

I was so inexperienced at the time there was hardly a chance the president would ever call on me. In fact, it had been pre-determined that only a few local reporters would get a chance to ask the president any questions. And I wasn’t one of them! That prevented me from embarrassing my television station (WBNS-TV), my parents, the state of Ohio and myself from asking something really, really stupid like, “So how does it feel to be in Columbus, Ohio?”

So I was nothing more than a potted plant with ears as national correspondents like Terry Drinkwater and Tom Brokaw (he was young too, but impressive) grilled President Ford on a number of national issues of the day.

Two things stood out about that news conference. President Ford seemed much taller than he did on television. I just looked it up and he was only 6 feet tall, but he looked quite imposing at the time. And I was struck by how low key and sincere he seemed to be.

As it turned out, maybe he shouldn’t have been so low key. Tom Brokaw and another national correspondent played tag team with their questions. They asked him repeatedly about his stand on busing. It seems Ford had voiced his strong disapproval of the recent Supreme Court decisions that court-ordered busing in Boston and in Detroit. So strong, that he was looking into ways to overturn those decisions.

I watched as Brokaw and another reporter got so aggressive with their questioning that Ford actually appeared to get a little confused. The following day, his Press Secretary, Ron Nessen, even had to explain that the president had misspoken during the news conference. That he’d expressed his opposition to Brown vs. The Board of Education (A Supreme Court decision that eliminated segregation in the nation’s schools), when he meant another Supreme Court decision. I remember watching the news that day – and that gaffe topped the news!

I was so impressed by how Brokaw and the other national reporters had been so fierce that it caused the President of the United States to blurt out something he didn’t mean – that I decided the next time I interviewed a high ranking political figure, I’d get tough too.

In 1976, Columbus, Ohio seemed to be a great place for young reporters like me. On one Saturday during the primary season, my story led a newscast, while Ronald Reagan, who was accompanied by the actor Jimmy Stewart, waited in the studio so they could be interviewed. To this day, I don’t remember why my story was more important than theirs. I can’t even remember what the story was. But I still delight in knowing the future President of the United States had to wait for me, before he took center stage. I did stop and remind Mr. Stewart we shared the same home state. He from Indiana - me from Uniontown.

A few weeks later with that Brokaw/Ford experience still making me an eager, if not a particularly skillful journalist, I happened to be watching one of those Sunday morning news shows. Somebody made the point that Jimmy Carter’s support of the Humphrey/Hawkins full employment bill was only lukewarm. I’d never really known what that bill meant. It could have been something made famous by Hubert Humphrey and Connie Hawkins for all I knew. But when Mr. Carter made a campaign swing through Columbus, I was sent out to interview him live. Unlike President Ford, I found him to be much smaller. About 5’7” or so.

Me being 6’1”, I looked down at him and asked him about his “lukewarm support of the Humphrey/Hawkins full employment bill”. He seemed very irritated by the answer. Suddenly, I felt myself shrink – because this was a live interview and I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about.
Suddenly, after he finished, I looked up at him and said something like, “So how does it feel to be in Columbus, Ohio?”