WASHINGTON — He was a quiet, unassuming everyman, and it showed.
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Gerald R. Ford, who died Tuesday night at 93, was the first president of the television era to wear his humanity on his sleeve, and his label as the “accidental president” was fitting: In 29 short months in the Oval Office, he earned a reputation for both physical and verbal gaffes.
Footage of him stumbling on the stairs of Air Force One, tumbling down a ski slope and bumping his head on a helicopter gave TV news and comedy shows — particularly “Saturday Night Live” Ford impersonator Chevy Chase — plenty of fodder.
His errant golf shot was notorious among both spectators (he was captured on camera dinging at least one person with a golf ball) and the celebrities he shared carts with.
“He barely missed me a couple times. I wasn’t sure if he was trying to hit me or not,” golfer Arnold Palmer joked in an interview with The Associated Press. The four-time Masters winner said he played golf with Ford on the last day of his presidency.
Bob Hope, another golfing friend of Ford, once quipped: “It’s not hard to find Jerry Ford on a golf course — you just follow the wounded.”
As he teed off with former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, Ford promptly hit the ball into the crowd, grimacing and yelling, “Fore!”
'Perception of me as a stumbler'
Sometimes his words were errant, too.
“I always watch the Detroit Tigers on the radio,” he once said. At a celebration for Lincoln’s birthday, he told the audience: “If Lincoln were alive today, he’d roll over in his grave.”
One of his most famous verbal gaffes helped Jimmy Carter win the presidency. “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration,” Ford said during the second presidential debate in October 1976, still the height of the Cold War.
The audience gasped, but when the moderator gave Ford the opportunity to clarify his answer, he went on to say that Poland was “independent or autonomous.”
Ford had a sense of humor about his golf game — “Back on my home course in Grand Rapids, Michigan, they don’t yell “Fore!” they yell “Ford!”’ he joked at a dinner at the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974.
In reality, he was one of the most athletic presidents in history. He played football for the University of Michigan, where his team won two national championships and he was named the 1934 Wolverines’ most valuable player.
According to his 1979 memoir, “A Time to Heal: The Autobiography of Gerald R. Ford,” he didn’t enjoy jokes about his clumsiness.
“There was no doubt in my mind that I was the most athletic president to occupy the White House in years ... (but) every time I stumbled or bumped my head or fell in the snow, reporters zeroed in on that to the exclusion of almost everything else,” he wrote. “The news coverage was harmful ... (and) helped create the public perception of me as a stumbler. And that wasn’t funny.”
But just as time has burnished his legacy as the nation’s post-Watergate healer, Ford eventually warmed to the jokes. In 1986, he invited comedians — Chevy Chase included — and former presidential aides to a symposium on humor and the presidency.
There, a decade after Chase left “SNL” and his stumbling Ford impersonation behind, Ford staged the last laugh: To open the second day’s events, he stuck out his leg and tripped Chase.
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