Respect! It’s a word I learned to use in a new way once a long time ago in Europe. It is, I learned, not just a leaden noun, but an honorific salutation, used to address someone, like a professor, of proven intellectual prowess, or, better yet, someone whose demonstrated decency and integrity commands just that – respect. It was the first word that came to mind Tuesday night, when I heard that Gerald Ford had died. And, soon enough, other words – decency, integrity, kindness, humility, and moral courage – came rushing forth.
Playing on the “what ifs” of history – What if he had not been appointed vice president to replace a disgraced Spiro Agnew? Had not been called to replace a disgraced Richard Nixon? Had not pardoned Nixon and beat Jimmy Carter in 1976? Had run as Reagan’s vice president? – a commentator on MSNBC likened Gerald Ford to Forrest Gump.
Hearing that, I was reminded how, a few years ago, someone, glancing up from my biography during a failed foray into Vallejo politics, had also likened me to Forrest Gump – so often in the shadows of great events, in the company of great men and women, but always vaguely out of focus. And, as I struggled for sleep in the midst of a howling windstorm, I recalled how our lives – Gerald Ford’s and mine – had crossed so briefly, so tangentially in that unlikeliest of places – Krakow, Poland.
It was 1974 and I was consul in Krakow, struggling to reestablish an American presence in southeast Poland for the first time since 1946. Personally and professionally, the twin weights of Vietnam and Watergate were draining our morale and haunting our efforts… like some menacing Golem stalking the alleys of the ancient city. The nightly news on the BBC, my station of choice, (the Voice of America having lost all semblance of credibility) was a depressing drumbeat.
Then, late one August night, there was Alistair Cooke, reporting from America that Richard Nixon had resigned and that Gerald Ford would momentarily be sworn in as our 38th president. Overjoyed, I got up early next morning and rushed to my office well before the arrival of our Polish staff. Behind my desk – as behind those of all ambassadors and consuls – there hung a picture of the president, until then Richard Nixon. Ripping it from the wall, I tossed it upside down into the trash basket beside the desk. Rushing to our ground floor reading room, I retrieved a 1973 Sports Illustrated. There on the cover, shortly after he had replaced Agnew as vice president, was a youngish Gerald Ford in his University of Michigan football uniform. Putting it in a frame, I placed it in our street front display case, flanked by an American flag and a vase of red flowers. Below it, I placed a bold, stencil-penciled sign: Nasz Nowy Presydent (Our New President). Pride and hope had returned to America and to this American in Poland.
And less than a year later - on July 29, 1975 – that new president was to pay a visit to Krakow on his way to Helsinki to sign the historic agreement that was as close as we ever got to a peace treaty ending World War II in Europe and that opened the way to the human rights movement that lead to the unraveling of Soviet rule on that continent.
We had a week to prepare, with the advance team arriving with but twelve-hours’ notice. I’ll never forget calling Krakow’s mayor, Jerzy Pekala, back from his vacation in the Tatra Mountains or informing the colonel in charge of the Polish Air Force base outside town that a USAF C-141 would be landing at dawn with tons of equipment and a White House team of dozens.
In the blur of preparations that followed, three events remain vivid in my mind. First was the large meeting at city hall among three overlapping, competing teams – the President’s; that of Poland’s Communist Party boss Eduard Gierek; and the Mayor’s. I was surprised to see seated across from me the head waiter who had catered so many dinners at my home…surprised that is until the introductions began. “Colonel ---, UB (Secret Police),” he announced. We both smiled.
Then there was the head of the President’s traveling Secret Service detail who had developed a nasty infection in, of all things, his trigger finger. Before week’s end he required minor surgery. It was carried out at the Pediatrics Institute – the “American Children’s Hospital” – by Dr. Jan Grochowski, a friend who was second in command at the Institute.
Finally, there was the detailed walkthrough at the Wawel, the ancient castle where Gierek would host the official luncheon for the Fords. One detail to be nailed down was the designation of a quiet room, where Mrs. Ford, still undergoing chemotherapy, could catch a short nap. Another thing to be “nailed down” was the carpeting over the wooden floors, especially where there was a step or two. Whether there was any truth to the Chevy Chase routine or not, the President’s political team did not want to see a repeat of that stumble on the airplane steps.
As the day of the visit approached, the consulate was transformed into an electronic nerve center, crawling with officials from Washington and our embassy in Warsaw. We were even issued calling cards, a few of which I still have, that proclaimed us the “Krakow White House.”
The visit itself proceeded without a hitch, including the moving tribute at nearby Auschwitz under a banner that proclaimed Nigdy nie wiecej (Never Again!). Henry Kissinger was there and, as he insisted, his young son David. So, too, was a young Dick Cheney, then-White House Chief of Staff, who, at the time, seemed so friendly and reasonable. I always wondered whatever happened to that reasonable demeanor. Funny, last night on MSNBC, Tom Brokaw wondered too.
There was one last speech before the packed thousands on the city’s square, Europe’s largest. Standing with St. Mary’s Church over his shoulder, he invoked the memory of Krakow’s native son Tadeusz Kosciuszko. Kosciuszko was, the President said, not only a “hero of America’s war for independence and America’s war for liberty,” but also of “the independence of Poland and the freedom of all Poles.”
There was a motorcade to the airport, a raucous “wheels up” party, and the quiet dismantling of the “Krakow White House.” And I was left with the pride and hope and a suddenly easier task in downtown Poland.
And, this Wednesday morning, I’m still ruminating over the “what ifs,” including one that occurred barely a month after President Ford returned to the States. It was September 5, 1975 on a visit to Sacramento. In an assassination attempt, the first it turned out in as many weeks, Lynette “Squeaky Fromme had cocked her pistol before being wrestled to the ground by a brave and familiar looking Secret Service agent, Larry Buendorf, his hand now healed. Before I left Krakow a few weeks later, I made sure Dr. Grochowski got a copy of the New York Daily News front page emblazoned with the picture. When I visited several years later, it was hanging proudly on his wall.
What if? What if, indeed? What if we didn’t get our “accidental President,” a simple, decent man, who had the moral compass and found the courage to heal a wounded nation? Who had the guts to pardon his predecessor and, two weeks later, to grant amnesty to those who had resisted the draft? Who had the sense to end a senseless war? Who reassured a nation wrought with fear and confusion? Oh, how I remember the innate commonsensical rightness of the words of his first address to Congress: “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.” Would that we could call up such wisdom and humility today?
Recalling, too, how he refused to allow that pompous “Hail to the Chief” to be played before his appearances, I trust they’ll find something more appropriate to play at his funeral. Might I suggest “Fanfare for the Common Man?”
Whatever they play, as they lay him to rest, I’ll be off in my distance, praying a Gump-like “Respect, Mr. President. Respect!”