Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Presidential Athletes and Popular Perceptions

A trivia question: Who is the only president of the United States who ever had the chance to make a living as a professional athlete? Gerald R. Ford was an all-American center on the University of Michigan football team. When he graduated from college, he got an offer from the green bay packers to play in the NFL. The offer however was for something like a thousand dollars (present day, an all-American center drafted by an NFL team could expect a contract of close to eight figures). In 1975, when President Ford gave a commencement address at Ohio State University, Woody Hayes met Ford and later related that he had resisted the temptation to say, “Gee Mr. President, if you had just stuck with football, can you imagine what you might have accomplished?”

Instead, Ford went to Yale law school, which then and now has the reputation of being the best in the country. I think that’s a very impressive record. However, shortly after taking office, President Ford stumbled while descending the stairs off of Air Force one in Vienna. Ford himself commented that Vienna was certainly the right place to make a Fordian slip.

It’s understandable that President Ford took a certain amount of ribbing for that gaffe, but Chevy Chase made a career out of depicting Ford as clueless stumblebum.

“President Ford has his weekly accident today,” announced Chase in one Saturday Night Live segment of “Weekly Update.” “Ford’s Lincoln was hit by a Buick. The Buick was grabbed by alert secret service agents and wrestled to the ground. When he got out of the car to see what happened, Ford stuck his thumb in his eye. The thumb was grabbed and wrestled to the ground by secret service agents.”

Chase never let up on Ford’s alleged clumsiness and outright stupidity. In one sketch, Chase portrayed Ford as being unable to do simple addition. After Ford’s death, Chevy Chase wrote a column in which he praised Ford’s good nature. President Ford had met Chase on a number of occasions and was quite a good sport. It was only later that Chevy Chase heard that some of his material had really hurt Ford’s feelings, and thirty years later, Chase commented that having been the target of some cruel jokes himself (Chevy Chase’s extremely short lived series on Fox was a punch line in show business for many years), he regretted that he had been so hard on Ford.
I think it’s a good idea to remember that story anytime a politician is the target of personal invective. The popular perceptions can frequently be 180 degrees from reality.

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