Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon for potential Watergate-related charges was slammed in the press and cost Ford dearly in polls. It may even have been the reason he lost the White House to Jimmy Carter in 1976.
But CBS News historian and political analyst Douglas Brinkley says history has changed the way the pardon and, as a result, Ford himself, are viewed.
"About when he turned 90," Brinkley told The Early Show co-anchor Hannah Storm Tuesday, "(Ford) started inviting historians to Rancho Mirage (Calif.), people like myself. Bob Woodward started saying the pardon was a good thing. Richard Reeves, a journalist who was his fiercest critic, started saying the pardon was a good thing. And Ted Kennedy said it was a good thing. There became this sort of overwhelming feeling of liberals that this conservative Midwesterner had done the right thing in pardoning Nixon. That's when the revisionism kicked off, and now we're seeing the kind of second phase of it."
Brinkley says Ford was "the furthest thing from a legacy monger. His view was, history didn't owe him anything. He was a man who loved his country, did his job, pardoned Nixon, got us out of Vietnam, did a few other important things along the way. … Now, in death, people are recognizing how unusual he was. I think part of the reason we're embracing him is we've become such a polarized society. Democrats and Republicans are fighting so much. And, here's a centrist, we're kind of honoring this smart, Midwest centrist."
But when Ford left office, the pardon was overwhelmingly unpopular, and he was viewed as the only president ever to have lost a war, Vietnam.
"I think it bothered him," Brinkley said. "It bothered him enough that he wanted to get back in the game after he left the White House in 1977. From '77 to '80, he kept eyeing the presidency. He kept thinking, 'Maybe I'll go for it again.' And, in fact, at the Republican convention in Detroit in 1980, he was talked about as the vice president for Ronald Reagan."
Henry Kissinger was one of those selected to eulogize Ford. Kissinger was secretary of state and national security adviser when Ford moved into the Oval Office, and Ford stripped Kissinger of the latter title.
"The word super-sized ego you see a lot by (Kissinger's) name," Brinkley observed, "and also brilliance. But Gerald Ford told me he generally liked Henry. He also knew he didn't have to always listen to his advice, so he used him efficiently. He was really the foreign policy guru of the Ford years, but Gerald Ford was clearly the commander in chief.
"I'm told when Henry Kissinger got the call, that he was asked to eulogize, he broke down crying. There are Nixon/Kissinger tapes coming out, and Kissinger doesn't look good in those tapes, but his relationship with President Ford is clean and positive. Kissinger loved Jerry Ford."