I went to see Jerry Ford two years ago, at his home office in Rancho Mirage, in the California desert where he played so much poor golf. Other sports came more easily to him: tennis, running, skiing, small-boat sailing, swimming and, of course, football.
Douglas Brinkley, the presidential historian, calls Ford “our great athlete-president.” No president was a more accomplished athlete, even though Chevy Chase did so much to dispel that idea. He was a sportsman through and through. Ford’s secret service man watched him swim daily and talked Michigan football with him all season long. He tried to prepare me for a physically diminished man, a consequence of a minor stroke. “Before that, he could’ve arm-wrestled anybody,” the security man said.
I entered his office, and there he was: Gerald R. Ford, 38th President of the United States, the MVP center of a terrible Wolverines football team, now another ninetysomething-year-old man playing out his final holes. He stood up. He stood up! Manners from a lost era. His handshake was all meat. He was wearing a faded Greg Norman golf shirt and shoes with thick rubber soles.
I asked him about Siki McGee.
“Siki McGee,” Ford said.
I had pulled the name out of Ford’s high school yearbook, at Grand Rapids South, and Ford recalled it instantly. Siki McGee was a football teammate, a black boy on an integrated team. That wasn’t so common, in the early 1930s.
“Siki and I used to walk home from school together,” Ford said.
He spoke of McGee’s speed and good hands. When Ford was president, he invited his schoolboy football team to the White House for lunch. McGee was a longshoreman in San Francisco then, big as a house, Ford said, “and still talking gibberish.” He hadn’t changed since high school — he was lose and fun. In 1964, as a moderate Republican congressman, Ford voted for the Civil Rights Act. Ford, in his stolid and earnest way, said that McGee helped show him “that African Americans and whites could get along and work together. I saw the benefits.”
Many of Ford’s great life lessons came from playing fields. He told me he thought of his Michigan coach, Harry Kipke, when he pardoned Richard M. Nixon of any crimes he may have committed while president. Kipke’s motto, Ford explained to me, was something like first things first. Ford said he pardoned Nixon so he could try to focus on inflation, which he saw as the great American threat. His WIN buttons (“Whip Inflation Now”) felt like something to which a desperate fan might resort.
Bob Hope had a field day with Ford’s golf game — “Jerry Ford turned golf into a contact sport,” was one his gag lines about him. But Hope was Ford’s golf buddy and his joke was nothing but a gentle sporting needle, one old duffer to another.
Ford was an amateur sportsman from another era, when sports enriched your life but didn’t necessarily define it. He said he had minor regrets that he didn’t try playing professional football for a year or two, but he had to do the practical thing, make a living. He went to law school at Yale and had side jobs as an assistant football coach and as the boxing coach.
One of his boxers was William Proxmire, the former senator from Wisconsin and a Democrat. They spent their political careers on opposite sides of the aisle, but their tone was always civilized. “To people like Bill and Jerry, sports were a metaphor for politics,” Proxmire’s wife, Ellen, once said. “You needed viable competition in your life.”
When I left Ford’s office — after an hour-plus of sports talk — Ford had a little parting gift for me. He called for his secretary and asked for a black-and-white publicity photo of himself from his Michigan playing days. No helmet, a strapping kid with floppy hair, a picture that ran in dozens of newspapers along with Ford’s obits. “I was hairy then,” Ford said. Other than that, he really hadn’t changed.