The federal government is closed today to mark the passing of President Gerald Ford. The state funeral was relatively modest as compared to another recent past president's, probably to reflect Ford's modest character and even more modest imprint on the nation's history. Save flags at half mast, Ford's passing enjoyed seemingly less hype than James Brown's. (Some would say the King of Soul's trademark moves will have a more lasting impact on the nation.) That's unfortunate.
The pundits' trivia grab-bag is shallow for the man who served less than a full term and is branded as the first unelected president. (Some say we've now had two.) They all note that his preemptive pardon of Nixon strained his own legitimacy. (History may well judge him wise for sparing the country more of the needless sideshow.) And we know Ford presided over the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam. (And Ford apparently had little taste for Iraq.)
We may forget that Ford played on two national champion football teams. I, for one, am too young to remember Ford dodging an assassination attempt by one of Charles Manson's followers. Few could name the Helsinki Accords as a crowning achievement, and even fewer have the faintest clue what the Accords signified. (Count me among the Accords-illiterate.)
But Ford has a lasting legacy, one that has had a profound impact on the nation. Ford appointed John Paul Stevens as associate justice to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Justice Stevens continues to serve more than three decades later. Stevens, a nominal republican nominee, hardly fits the familiar ideological mold we've seen from recent presidents. Depending on your leanings, you may variously curse or celebrate Stevens' ideological defiance. In any case, he has been a champion for some of society's least popular and most vulnerable, especially in the realm of criminal defense. Whether Ford knew it or not, this would be his enduring legacy.