The Other Born-Again President?

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U.S. President Gerald Ford and Billy Zeoli bow their heads at a National Religious Broadcasters Annual Congressional Breakfast in 1975. Zeoli served as an informal chaplain in the Ford White House.

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Ford did have a private source of spiritual sustenance, which was in every way different from Nixon's public displays of piety. For years Ford faithfully attended a weekly late-morning prayer session with several friends in the House: John Rhodes of Arizona, Mel Laird of Wisconsin and Al Quie of Minnesota. The sessions, which began in 1967 and continued off and on through 1975, were "very quiet," totally off the record, Ford said. Talk about going to Bible study, he worried, and people will get the idea that you think you're somehow better than they are.

It's easier to understand the pardon when you reckon with the prayers. The question of what to do about Nixon landed hard on Ford from moment he was sworn in. Apart from everything else, Nixon was a longtime friend. Ford worried about what putting the disgraced President in prison would do to him, as well as to a country so shaken by the betrayals of those years. Mercy and healing were very much on Ford's mind on Saturday, Aug. 31, when he spent the morning discussing an amnesty plan for Vietnam draft evaders. When the meeting was over, Ford went back to the Oval Office and called evangelist Billy Graham to talk about their mutual friend. "There are many angles to it," Ford said of Nixon's fate. "I'm certainly giving it a lot of thought and prayer." Graham, who was arguing for a pardon, told Ford he was praying for him and, before the two men finished their conversation, Graham recalled, "we had a prayer over the telephone."

A week later, on Sunday, Sept. 8, Ford went to St. John's Episcopal Church, directly across Lafayette Square from the White House. He took Communion with some of the 50 other worshipers and knelt in prayer. There was no sermon that morning — at least until Ford delivered one of his own. He went back to the Oval Office, practiced his speech aloud twice, moved to a smaller adjoining office and alerted congressional leaders of his plans. At 11:05, Ford told the nation he was pardoning Nixon in a statement that invoked God's name six times. "The Constitution is the supreme law of our land and it governs our actions as citizens," he said. "Only the laws of God, who governs our consciences, are superior to it. He invited the congregation to think of the Nixon family: "Theirs is an American tragedy," he said. "It could go on and on and on, or someone must write 'The End' to it... Only I can do that. And if I can, I must."

Even as his faith inspired him to save Nixon, he refused to use it to save himself. Ford's discretion would be tested as the 1976 campaign took shape. Former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter was a Southern Baptist who taught Sunday school, did mission work, filled in for preachers when they were on vacation and told the crowd at a backyard reception in March 1976 that he had been born again. His sister Ruth Carter Stapleton was herself an evangelist who used to minister to reporters on the back of Carter's campaign plane and wrote letters to the faithful enlisting them in her brother's cause. Carter's campaign autobiography Why Not the Best talked about his midlife conversion and was a surprise best seller. Asked once to distill his campaign message into one word, Carter said, "Faith."

Carter's religious appeal inspired Zeoli to propose a counterattack. "I said, Jerry, look, Carter's a fine guy, a fine Christian. But nobody knows you're a Christian. Let's put a book together about your faith, and about how God has used you.'"

But Ford flatly refused. "You told me a long time ago we're not going to take advantage of our faith to get elected," he reminded Zeoli. Ford declined to allow Zeoli to lend his name to Preachers' committees for Ford. "He thought he'd be using his chaplain to get votes," Zeoli recalled. Ford later revealed that he found Carter's discussion of his faith unsettling. "I have always felt a closeness to God and have looked to a higher being for guidance and support," Ford explained, "but I didn't think it was appropriate to advertise my religious beliefs."

Carter won by less than 2 million votes out of 81.6 million cast, capturing slightly more than half of evangelical voters. But Ford never had any regrets about the pardon or his refusal to name Jesus as his running mate. His oldest son Jack told him, "You know, when you come so close, it's really hard to lose. But at the same time, if you can't lose as graciously as you plan to win, then you shouldn't have been in the thing in the first place."

To which Ford noted, "I couldn't have said it better myself."

—Gibbs and Duffy's book, The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham's White House Crusade, will be published in August 2007 by Center Street.

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