The coverage of Gerald Ford would not be complete without reference to Chevy Chase's pratfalling characterization of him on Saturday Night Live — a pop culture touchstone which turned a momentary stumble (all right, a massive spill down the steps of Air Force One) into a characterization which defined the President going forward, not unlike Janet Reno's Dance Party. Reports today specifically include mention of Ford's surpassing athleticism, and the fact that the klutz characterization always sorta bugged him. It's an interesting slice of the story: How the media picked up the ball of the klutz meme and, to use a Ford-appropriate football analogy, ran with it. John Miller gives an illuminating backstory at the NRO, tracing it with amazement: "Somehow, the only president who ever tackled a Heisman Trophy winner gained the reputation of a lubber. A man who turned down offers from the NFL in order to attend law school -- at Yale, no less -- became known as a blockhead."
Ford's good humor has come through clearly in the coverage, but less noted has been his sense of humor, which turns out to have been pretty good, too. The Palm Springs Desert Sun's crack entertainment writer and editor Bruce Fessier has a great piece today revealing that side of Ford, who has lived in the region served by that paper since leaving office. Here's a great excerpt:
Ford, an all-star University of Michigan football player who was drafted by the Green Bay Packers, was probably the most athletic president in American history.
But, in 1975, Ford stumbled down the steps of Air Force One in Salzburg, Austria, while bands were playing and troops were being presented. Photographers captured the mishap and White House photographer David Kennerly quipped, "Nice of you to drop by."
Chevy Chase, as a major player on the new series "Saturday Night Live," made a career of the accident, making a stumbling pratfall part of his usual entrance.... Ford reacted to Chase's jokes by sending his press secretary, Ron Nessen, to play along with him on "Saturday Night Live."
He explained in his book, "I believe it is always better to err on the side of more exposure and access rather than less. At that time, the media and the general public still resented any hint of 'imperial' trappings in connection with the presidency or the White House."
Ford's best comeback to Chase came at the annual Radio and Television Correspondents Association dinner in 1975.
When emcee Bob Hope introduced him, Ford got up from the table, "accidentally" caught the tablecloth in his trousers and dumped silverware in Chase's lap.
As he approached the podium, he pretended to trip, prompting the pages of the speech he was carrying to fly into the audience.
When he got to the microphone and the laughter began to diminish, Ford reached into his coat pocket, pulled out the real script and said, "Good evening. I'm Gerald Ford and you're not."
Fantastic quip — but also really indicative of how already SNL, in just its first season, had become a must-see can't-ignore national player. In retrospect, perhaps some of that was due to how Ford handled it: By participating, and thus giving the show the Presidential seal of credibility. Either way, an inextricable and important element of the history of both Ford and SNL.
"Gerald Ford dead today, from an overdose of crack cocaine" [SNL Transcripts]
Update: About a zillion and a half people have emailed the Dana-Carvey-as-Tom-Brokaw-Gerald-Ford-eaten-by-wolves clip to me. I've seen it; I just assume you read Defamer. To give credit where credit is due, ETP stalwart Nick Douglas wanted to post on that last night but I told him to hold off for the sake of decorum. My bad.