January 3, 2007

Ford Inspires Warm Media Memories

Term Dec. 26 to Jan. 2
Pardon 4990
Integrity 2740
Healing 2030
Honesty 1180
Bumbler or Bumbling 372
Klutz 249

He was never elected president, served less than a full term, and has so far ended up somewhere in the lower-middle tier in the historic hierarchy of White House occupants. But the Dec. 26 death of Gerald Ford, the man who succeeded the only president to resign in office, has generated an outpouring of media attention in the past week.

Andrew Tyndall, who analyzes network newscasts, issued a report saying the networks actually “went overboard” in covering Ford’s death. He attributed this phenomenon to three factors: Ford’s calming effect after the scandal-driven departure of Richard Nixon, the fact that Ford had granted numerous interviews in his post-presidential days, and the lack of other mega stories competing for journalists’ attention in the traditionally slow news period between Christmas and New Years.

In the immediate aftermath of a former president’s death, the media usually focus on the more positive aspects of the legacy. In Ford’s case, there’s already been a significant rethinking of the bitterness that initially followed his decision to pardon Nixon, a move now more widely viewed as crucial to binding the wounds of a Watergate-battered nation.

So how, in the rush of coverage and commentary that greeted his death, is Ford’s mixed legacy being conveyed? A search of stories via Google News in the week following his passing suggests that thus far, the positive memories of a down-to-earth Midwesterner are outweighing the policy struggles of the “accidental” president. (The Google search found the word “accidental” appearing in about 1,600 stories about Ford from Dec. 26 through the afternoon of Jan. 2). In retrospect, Ford’s humanity shines through.

The word “integrity” showed up in about 2,740 stories about Ford from Dec. 26-Jan. 2. Continuing on the theme of strong personal values, the words “decency” or “decent” appeared in approximately 1,800 articles. Add in roughly 1,180 stories about Ford that contained the word “honesty.”

In recognition of his role in calming the country and restoring some sense of stability after Nixon debacle, the word “healing” found its way into 2,030 stories about Ford.

When it came to negative ways of characterizing his presidency, Ford largely escaped the broadly damning post-mortems. Words such as “mediocre” and ineffective” showed up only in scattered stories. The image conveyed more often was that of the pratfall-prone president who inspired Chevy Chase to imitate him by flopping around the “Saturday Night Live” set and who blundered in a presidential debate by claming the Soviet Union was not dominating Eastern Europe.

Thus, the Google search unearthed the word “klutz” in 249 stories about Ford in the past week while “bumbler” or “bumbling” showed up 372 times. “Gaffe” made an appearance in about 101 articles.

Presidential popularity rises and falls with the times, whether it is Jefferson, Washington on the high end or Grant on the lower. A President who was well liked by his opponents, whose decisions look better in retrospect than at the time, Ford may be enjoying more than the glow of funeral fondness.

One fact remains unchanged. Ford’s presidency is still defined by his decision to free his disgraced successor, Richard Nixon, from any legal responsibility for Watergate. Of all the terms associated with Ford’s passing, the pardon of Nixon was very prominent. The word “pardon” turned up in 4,990 stories connected with his name. Ford’s legacy is likely, for the foreseeable future, to be intertwined with how that decision is viewed.