Jerry Ford was always a likable guy — even when he was put in the unenviable position of having to defend Richard Nixon.
And he had to do that far too often after Nixon (under the provisions of the 25th Amendment) picked him to replace the previous vice president, Spiro Agnew, who resigned in disgrace in October 1973.
There were probably many times during Ford's 2½–year presidency when he was too nice for his own good, and this day in 1976, the year he sought a full term as president, may be the best example.
On this night 35 years ago, Ford's task was to defend his own actions as president after Nixon's resignation — when he accepted the Republican presidential nomination.
He was the survivor — narrowly — of a long, sometimes divisive campaign against former California Gov. Ronald Reagan for that nomination, and this night in Kansas City in 1976 was supposed to be his night.
Ford had been mercilessly attacked by Reagan's followers for the fall of Saigon and detente with the Russians. He had been ridiculed for many things, and, although Reagan had not been nominated, the right wing of the party still managed to squeeze several conservative planks into a platform that, in the past, had been much more centrist in its tone.
In so many ways, on this day in 1976, Ford prepared to accept the nomination of a party that was moving more to the right. He could rightfully be said to be the last of his breed of Republicans.
(Not so long ago, Ford's running mate, Bob Dole, observed that Nixon probably couldn't win the Republican nomination today. "He'd be too liberal," Dole said. Astonishing.)
This night was to be Ford's opportunity to present his side, to reassure voters that the GOP had not been hijacked.
Yet, strangely, the night — and the future of the Republican Party — belonged to Reagan and the right wing. In the context of what we have witnessed in the last 35 years, the conclusion that this was centrism's last real gasp in Republican national politics is inescapable.
People often say the party was hijacked by the right–wing extremists in 1980 — and, to a great extent, that was true — but I believe it really began in Kansas City 35 years ago tonight.
And Ford, in his amiable, well–meaning way, was a willing (if unintentional) accomplice.
As tradition required, Ford delivered his acceptance speech, and he did an adequate job. Ford never was a stemwinder of a speechmaker, but it actually wasn't a bad speech — by his standards.
But he never could compete with Reagan when it came to speech giving.
And, on this night, after he had given a respectable acceptance speech, Ford also gave the delegates — and the viewing audience at home — an unprecedented opportunity to compare the nominee to the man he had beaten, side by side.
With all eyes on him, Ford waved to Reagan, who was sitting in the back of the hall, and prevailed upon him to come down and share the spotlight. Reagan agreed to do so — and, whether he intended it or not, he upstaged the president of the United States with an unforgettable impromptu speech.
While I don't believe that what happened 35 years ago tonight was what ultimately defeated Ford, it sure didn't help.
Ford didn't give a bad speech. He simply didn't sparkle — whereas Reagan, in an extemporaneous speech, did.
When Reagan was done, many of the delegates — and many of the folks watching at home — must have wondered if the wrong candidate had been nominated.
Perhaps that doubt persisted when the voters went to the polls that November. Perhaps the voters were angry about the pardon of Nixon. Perhaps they were simply ready for change.
Whatever the truth was, I think it can be safely said that what happened on this night in Kansas City 35 years ago didn't help Ford's bid for a full term.
And it certainly set the table for what was to come.