Retired NBC anchor Tom Brokaw spoke for eight minutes at President Ford's memorial service today in Washington, but the most memorable lines offered thanks for how Ford welcomed the media as friends, not enemies, unlike Richard Nixon. He also praised Ford for supporting his wife as she spoke out on issues that weren't "politically correct."
“As a journalist I was especially grateful for his appreciation for our role even when we challenged his policies and taxed his patience with our constant presence and persistence. We could be adversaries, but we were never his enemy, and that was a welcome change in status from his predecessor’s time."
"To be a member of the Gerald Ford White House press corps brought other benefits as well, as we documented a nation and a world in transition, in turmoil. We accompanied him to audiences with the notorious and the merely powerful. We saw Tito, Franco, Marcos, Suharto, the Shah of Iran, the Emperor of Japan; China, with Mao Zedong, Chou en-Lai, and Deng Xiaoping all at once. What was then the Soviet Union, in Vladivostok with Leonid Brezhnev, and Helsinki, one of the most remarkable gatherings of leaders in the 20th century. There were other advantages to being members of his press corps that we didn't advertise quite as widely. We went to Vail at Christmas and Palm Springs at Easter time with our families. Now cynics might argue that contributed to our affection for him. That is not a premise that I wish to challenge."
That line drew laughter. Brokaw then told a story of how Ford (and his chief of staff Dick Cheney) delighted in AP reporter Jim Naughton wearing a fake chicken head to a campaign press conference on the campaign trail in Oregon. Brokaw seemed pleased to represent the political press:
“When the president called me last year and asked me if I would participate in these services, I think he wanted to be sure that the White House press corps was represented: the writers, correspondents, and producers, the cameramen, photographers, the technicians -- and the chicken. He also brought something else to the White House, of course. He brought the humanity that comes with a family that seemed to be living right next door. He was every parent when he said, 'My children have spoken for themselves since they were old enough to speak, and not always with my approval. I expect to have to continue in the future.' And was there a more supportive husband in America than when his beloved Betty started speaking out about issues that were not politically correct at the time? Together, they put on the front pages and on the lead of the evening newscast, the issues that had been underplayed in America for far too long."
"My colleague Bob Schieffer called him the nicest man he ever met in politics. To that I would only add the most underestimated. In many ways, I believe football was a metaphor for his life in politics and after. He played in the middle of the line. He was a center, a position that seldom receives much praise. But he had his hands on the ball for every play, and no play could start without him. And when the game was over and others received the credit, he didn't whine or whimper."
Brokaw then celebrated Ford as another stoic member of the Greatest Generation of World War II fighters. But what about Betty Ford's activism was not "politically correct" with the liberal media? Certainly, breast cancer wasn't so openly discussed, but that wasn't conservative or liberal. Mrs. Ford's stands on social issues were only a problem with the emerging conservative base of the Republican Party. The Baltimore Sun is one of a line of newspapers celebrating Mrs. Ford's "candor" for speaking a liberal mind on television during her husband's tenure:
Betty Ford stumped for the Equal Rights Amendment. She told Barbara Walters that she believed in a woman's right to choose a safe and legal abortion. And, in front of a television audience of millions, she refused to balk when Morley Safer on 60 Minutes asked what she would do if her 18-year-old daughter, Susan, came home and said, "Mother, I'm having an affair."
"I said, 'Well, I wouldn't be surprised. I think she's a perfectly normal human being, like all young girls. If she wanted to continue it, I would certainly counsel and advise her on the subject. And I'd want to know pretty much about the young man,' " she recalls in her autobiography.
On that 1975 show, Safer pressed other hot buttons: Premarital sex? Ford said it might lower the divorce rate. Drugs? She said she didn't think her children were very interested in them.
She also said that if she had been young during the 1970s she probably would have tried marijuana and that her children probably had. She called the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade a "great, great, decision," something which she had said before.