I thought about Anthony Carter’s #1 and Rick Leach’s #7 because they were conquering heroes of my childhood. Then it dawned on me: I wanted #48, for Gerald Ford. After all, he was the man who gave me my first lesson in media bias.
Ford, who died Tuesday, was a very good football player. In 1932 and 1933, his Wolverines went undefeated. In 1934, he was the team MVP. In Michigan’s storied football history — no school has won more games — only five numbers have received the honor of retirement, and Ford’s #48 is one of them.
And yet the media went on to portray this great athlete as a notorious klutz.
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.
There were reasons for this. On a visit to Austria, Ford tripped down the steps of Air Force One — to the chuckles and clicks of a press corps that, in the aftermath of Watergate, was no longer interested in protecting the image of the president. The media seemed to compensate for its prior restraint by relentlessly shining a spotlight on Ford’s every step and misstep. He fell down on skis. He bumped his head while getting off a helicopter. His stray golf balls became the stuff of legend. “It’s not hard to find Jerry Ford on a golf course,” quipped Bob Hope. “You just follow the wounded.”
Other comedians piled on. Saturday Night Live’s Chevy Chase lampooned Ford as the president who couldn’t stay on his feet. In Time, Chase explained his technique: “Ford is so inept that the quickest laugh is the cheapest laugh, and the cheapest is the physical joke.”
Part of the problem may have been that Ford really did stumble more than most people do: A nagging knee injury, acquired during his football years, possibly contributed to his imbalance. His rise to the Oval Office was itself something of an accident. In 1973, Spiro Agnew resigned as vice president and Richard Nixon chose Ford as his replacement. When Nixon quit the next year, Ford succeeded him as well. Ford became the first and so far only person to become commander-in-chief without first having appeared on presidential or vice-presidential ballot.
Whatever the cause of his reputation, the result was that many people insisted on seeing him as a bungler. Just as Dan Quayle couldn’t escape wisecracks about potatoes, Ford couldn’t get away from the teasing about his clumsiness. The jokes kept coming: The only thing between Vice President Nelson Rockefeller and the Oval Office, it was said, is a banana peel.
There were jabs at Ford’s intelligence as well. During the 1960s, when Ford was the GOP leader in the House, Lyndon Johnson said, “Jerry played football too many times without a helmet.” Ford could dish back: “Henry Clay always said he’d rather be right than president,” he once deadpanned. “Now President Johnson has proved it really is a choice.”
Yet Ford was far more often the butt of jokes than the teller of them. Have you heard about the Jerry Ford doll? Wind it up and it lurches into something.
Ford once noted that “you had to have a thick skin” to compete in football and politics, because “in both arenas, you have arm-chair quarterbacks who will criticize you whatever you do.” He also learned that self-deprecating humor is a useful tool. “I’m a Ford, not a Lincoln,” he liked to say — a line that had a little extra punch because he was from Michigan, home of the Motor City.
Even so, the jibes about his physical clumsiness always bothered him. “There was no doubt in my mind that I was the most athletic president to occupy the White House in years,” he wrote in his memoir A Time to Heal. His anything-but-athletic image became an irritant: “Every time I stumbled or bumped my head or fell in the snow, reporters zeroed in on that to the exclusion of everything else,” he complained. “The news coverage was harmful, but even more damaging was the fact that Johnny Carson and Chevy Chase used my missteps for their jobs. Their antics — and I’ll admit that I laughed at them myself — helped create the public perception of me as a stumbler. And that wasn’t funny.”
As a kid in the 1970s, I was dimly aware of this controversy. The partisan angle was quite beyond me — the notion of a liberal media making fun of a Republican president wouldn’t register for years. Around the Miller home, great pride was taken in the mere fact that a Wolverine went on to become a president. Nobody from Ohio State could say that! And nobody who has worn a maize-and-blue jersey on the gridiron could be a klutz. It simply wasn’t possible.
This conviction led to an insight that we all must have sooner or later: Just because somebody says something on TV doesn’t make it true.
Perhaps Ford earned a last laugh of sorts a few weeks ago, when he passed Ronald Reagan to become the longest-living president. This guy who celebrated his 93rd birthday earlier this year wasn’t a klutz — he was fit.
By the way, I didn’t get a #48 jersey for Christmas. Maybe that’s because my wife, who has watched me try to play sports, doesn’t think I’m worthy of the number.
— John J. Miller is national political reporter for National Review and the author, most recently, of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.