I'm afraid that one thing most people who praise Ford for healing the nation after Watergate mean is that, by pardoning Nixon, he shoved Watergate off the national stage and told us all to get on with it. There might have been a period when it was possible to see a kind of logic there, but now I'm not so sure. I think that, by keeping Tricky Dick out of the docket, Ford inadvertently made it possible for people to pretend that the prosecution of the Watergate criminals was a partisan indulgence and that Nixon himself was some kind of political victim, thus making it easier for him to grease the wheels for his inevitable "re-evaluation." In the end, this must have made it easier, during the Clinton impeachment, for the more wild-eyed Republicans to convince the half-sane in their ranks that it was okay to use the threat of legal prosecution of the President as just one more weapon in the kit. Maybe if Nixon had gotten the full Al Capone treatment that he had coming to him, both he and impeachment would be thought of now as something special. Or maybe not. I suppose it might have tipped his party even further into the batshit zone.
Ford was the first president whose administration and daily presence I really remember, which is kind of a hell of a note. John Updike once wrote a novel called Memoirs of the Ford Administration, whose title was itself a joke on the ludicrousness of the notion that anything that happened under Ford was worth remembering. The movie critic Pauline Kael, reviewing a movie of that period, referred to its "Ford-era nothingness," and that's one way of putting it. Ford seemed like a guy who it was equally hard to like or dislike. There were questions raised about his probity by such writers as Nicholas Von Hoffman and Garry Wills, but they were of a common, casual-corruption nature, and nobody much cared; when you've just driven Dracula out of the neighborhood, you don't complain too loudly when it turns out that the new guy on the block pads his expense account. That might be the real legacy of the Nixon era, setting the bar very high for corruption that we and the media are supposed to really care about, unless it has to do with a Democrat's sex life. Nixon himself may have suspected as much. When Spiro Agnew was still his vice-president, he used to openly refer to Spiggy as his "insurance policy" against impeachment, but for all Ford's reputation as the dullest tool in the shed, he never seems to have predicted that the possibility of a "President Ford" would set off panic in the streets. When Ford did become president, he quickly set a new record for the number of deranged women who stuck guns in his face, hoping to assassinate him apparently just for the hell of it. The fact that they kept failing to do so--this sparing us from having a President Nelson Rockefeller to try to explain to the rest of the world--gave a patina to harmlessness mixed with black comedy to his whole term in office. Swine flu might sweep our nation and New York City shuffle into bankruptcy court, but somehow it felt as if nothing really bad was going to happen to us; God, having taken a look at the head of the free world, was grading on a curve, granting us two and quarter years to be got through as uneventfully as possible, with all due respect to the Bicentennial display of the tall ships and the Ramones' first record. After all, until our current appointee, Ford was the only person ever to rise to the presidency without ever having been elected to either the presidency or the vice-presidency. It could scarcely have happened to a better Zelig.