I have a typology of American political figures that I've been developing over the last year or so. Basically, I've taken to classifying historical figures in one of several ways: major figures; minor figures; minor, major figures; major, minor figures. Those designations are largely subjective, and are subject to some change as circumstances of history change, but basically I would define a "major" figure as someone whose persona and policies have had a ripple effect across time. In the 20th century, I'd classify FDR and Ronald Reagan in that category of American politics.
Minor figures are those who, for better or worse, were something of a flash in the pan, but whose influence really doesn't seem to be far reaching. Many failed presidential candidates fall into that category--those who lost, and didn't spawn a movement out of their loss.
"Major, minor" figures are those who may have never held the top office, but whose presence on the national stage had longer reaching consequences. Barry Goldwater's failed bid for the Presidency in 1964 gets him close to that status, as his campaign is often viewed as the starting point of the Reagan Revolution in the 1980s. George McGovern is moving into that category, as well. The Democratic Party leaders of today (Clinton, Kerry, etc.) were often the McGovernites of 1972. Recently, McGovern, in his mid-80's, is getting attention again with respect to his anti-war campaign.
"Minor, major" figures are the vast majority of our Presidents.
Gerald Ford, 38th President of the United States, died on Tuesday evening(Ford Dies). Ford's placement in history is a bit of a problem. He was the only President of the United States never elected to be either Vice President or President. He served only 2 1/2 years, and faced a serious challenge from Ronald Reagan for his Party's nomination in 1976, then losing to Democrat Jimmy Carter in the General Election.
Still, as a young adolescent when Ford took office, there are some vivid memories of his Presidency that lead me to believe that Ford--an honest, plain spoken, "what you see is what you get" kind of guy--was just what the country needed following the bitter days of Watergate. No more was the White House a fortress--I have a picture in my mind of the President fixing himself breakfast (English muffins, if I recall). I have a picture of Ford, on the night that he won his Party's nomination, calling the challenger (Ronald Reagan, a much more eloquent speaker, and probably more popular personality than Ford) down to join him on the podium, and asking Reagan to say a few words (which were, by the way, classy, elegant, and probably left the delegates wondering whether they'd nominated the right guy after all). Ford didn't have to do that, and while it probably helped to bring the Party together, it showed the supreme self-confidence that the man had to let "the enemy" get some of the spotlight.
Gerald Ford was sort of a Presidential "everyman." We saw him slip and fall going down stairs (and saw him become the butt of Chevy Chase's jokes on Saturday Night Live). We saw him support his wife through cancer in the White House, and addiction recovery after they left Washington. He did what he thought was right (like the pardon of Nixon, which probably cost him the election in 1976), and history has, I think, proven him to have been right most of the time.
Ford was a traditional Republican conservative--internationalist, fiscally conservative, socially moderate. And like many, his kids were more socially liberal than he was, and like the good dad that he seemed to be, he didn't take the bait of chastising his kids in public--rather he let it be known that he was their dad, that he loved them, and that any differences they had should not be a matter of public discourse.
In my typology, Ford is more than a "minor, major" figure like most of our presidents are. Because of limited time in office, though, I don't think he quite makes it into the "major" figure category either. So, for Gerald Ford, and perhaps one or two others that I might be able to come up with if given 10 or 15 minutes, I've coined a new category for my classification system: "nearly major" figure.
Gerald Ford did more to settle the nerves of the American public in his 2 1/2 years in office than most presidents do in full terms. He was, in many ways, one of us--kind of the guy down the street that everyone knows and trusts. The world of civilized politics has lost yet another of its ranks. Well done, President Ford. Rest in Peace.