Former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker delivered an address that honored the life and service of former President Gerald R. Ford, and was awarded the Col. Ralph W. Hauenstein Fellowship in front a full house at the Amway Grand Hotel’s Ambassador Ballroom June 14.
The Col. Ralph W. Hauenstein Fellowship is one of Grand Valley’s highest honors, and was created in recognition of Col. Hauenstein’s extraordinary life, which exemplifies the service and leadership that Grand Valley State University seeks to inspire in its graduates. The university’s Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies is named for Col. Ralph Hauenstein.
Baker, who served in both the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, spoke about President Ford, his leadership style, and how using Ford’s traits would serve politicians in Washington D.C. today.
Baker fondly recalled the time he spent working with Ford, saying that he served with grace and humility.
“He was simply a beautiful human being,” Baker said. “I don’t know anybody who worked with him or for him would ever disagree with that statement. He may have lacked glibness, but he had something much, much more important: He had character. He had integrity. Gerald Ford, as the country and indeed, the entire world would soon learn, possessed some character traits that we associate often with the Boy Scouts. He was trustworthy, he was loyal, he was reverent. Of course this shouldn’t come as a surprise since he was the first American president, after all, who earned the rank of Eagle scout.”
Referencing Ford’s narrow loss to Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election, Baker said “it was a shame” the American people didn’t give Ford a chance to serve a full term as President, and said that Ford’s unwillingness to sacrifice his principles “to suit the whims of the electorate” cost him another term in the Oval Office.
However, Baker said that Ford served as an unyielding champion of bipartisanship, and understood the intrinsic truth that democracy is based on negotiation and agreement, and that “compromise is the oil that makes the government go.”
Baker also noted that Ford and his wife, Betty, inspired Americans by persevering in the face of adversity, both political and personal.
Politicians today could stand to learn a lesson from President Ford, Baker said, and need to embrace bipartisanship to solve critical issues of the day, including expanding free trade across the Pacific, establishing regional stability in the Middle East, and addressing climate change on a global scale.
“Our country would be a lot better off today and our future would be a lot brighter tomorrow if our elected officials could call upon those traits that defined President Ford’s leadership as they confront the difficult challenges that lay ahead," Baker said.
The speech and award presentation followed a wreath laying at the Ford Presidential Museum, which honored the 101st anniversary of Ford’s birthday.
“So today, 101 years after he was born, and almost 40 years after he became president, an office that he did not initially seek, but which he graciously accepted, we remember Gerald Ford as an honest, ethical, and talented public servant," Baker said. "Most of all we remember him as a leader, as a leader with unquestionable character and integrity, but we also remember him, and perhaps most importantly, as a true American patriot who always, always, always put his country’s interests ahead of his own."