05/05/2011 09:24 am ET Updated Jul 05, 2011

Gerald Ford Wins His Place in History

Quick now, can you name some of our greatest presidents?

Well, there was George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson, and Abe Lincoln, and Ulysses Grant, and Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan, and then there was Gerald Ford.

Gerald Ford? Really? You mean the guy Chevy Chase portrayed on Saturday Night Live stumbling over the furniture in the Oval Office?

Yes, really. The unassuming former House Republican leader from Michigan joined the pantheon of America's greatest presidents on Tuesday when his statue was unveiled in an elaborate ceremony in the U.S. Capitol amid effusive bipartisan praise.

Ford, who became vice president when he succeeded the disgraced Spiro Agnew in 1973 and the 38th president when he succeeded the equally disgraced Richard Nixon a year later, served only two and a half years before losing to Jimmy Carter in 1976.

But he earned his place along the presidential greats whose statues line the Capitol Rotunda with his qualities as an honest, decent person, as the late Speaker Tip O'Neill later testified, in words that were inscribed on the base of Ford's seven-foot bronze statue:

God has been good to America, especially during difficult times. At the time of the Civil war, he gave us Abraham Lincoln. And at the time of Watergate, he gave us Gerald Ford -- the right man at the right time who was able to put the Nation back together.

Indeed, it was Ford's role as a healer after the national trauma that led to Nixon's resignation that earned him his special place in history, as House and Senate leaders, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and two of Ford's children told several hundred people as they praised Ford for his steady leadership in the wake of Nixon's resignation and the Vietnam war.

Ford, who represented Grand Rapids for 25 years, the last eight as leader of the House Republicans, and is the only president who was never elected president or vice president, "restored the nation's confidence in itself, "said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "That is no small task. When things went terribly wrong, Gerald Ford stepped into the role he had been preparing for his entire life without even knowing it. And today few would disagree that he was just the man we needed for the job."

House Speaker John Boehner called Ford "the most uncommon of common men," while House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Ford's statue would stand as a "testament of his leadership, values and integrity."

Ford, who lived longer than any other president, died in 2006 at the age of 93 at his home in Palm Springs, Calif., where his wife Betty, also 93, still lives, but she was unable to attend the ceremony.

Afterwards, I introduced myself to Ford's daughter, Susan Ford Bales, who gave an emotional testimonial to her father that emphasized his qualities as a loving father and husband who answered the call of his country. I told her that as a young reporter in St. Paul in 1964, I covered his speech to the National Plowing Contest in Waseca, Minn.

I told her I didn't remember what he said, but said I agreed that he was the kind of leader who America needed at a critical time in our history.

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