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"An Ordinary Man," the title of a new biography of Gerald Ford, refers to how he saw himself, biographer Richard Norton Smith said in an interview. More telling, said Smith, is the book's subtitle: "The Surprising Life and Historic Presidency of Gerald R. Ford."

America's 38th president "minimized his own qualities, and he certainly minimized his historical significance," said Smith. But Ford's personal and political lives were actually extraordinary, as Smith's definitive account reveals.

It wasn't just Ford minimizing his significance. Many Americans did, too. They've often considered the only U.S. leader to serve as both vice president and president without election an afterthought, even a footnote, attached to the names of the tragic Richard Nixon and the comic Chevy Chase.

Politically, Ford was the "Un-Nixon," Smith writes. And far from Chase's "Saturday Night Live" sendups of presidential pratfalls, Ford was the most athletic president ever: A skilled skier and fit swimmer well beyond his White House years, and a University of Michigan football player who turned down offers to play professionally. (Characteristically, the jock was jocular about Chase's bit.)

The All-American center was an all-American centrist in politics, too, bridging, Smith writes, "the Republican pragmatism of Dwight Eisenhower and Nixon with the more doctrinaire conservatism of Ronald Reagan."

Shedding his prewar isolationism for internationalism now spurned by many contemporary Republicans, Ford — forged by World War II naval combat — tightened ties with Atlantic allies and set the stage for U.S.-U.S.S.R. arms agreements in a summit in subzero Vladivostok (giving new meaning to the "Cold" War).

Smith also effectively argues that Ford's backing of the Helsinki Accords — initially considered a diplomatic coup for the Kremlin — was instead a precursor to the eventual end of the Soviet era. In the same way his backing of the Sinai II Agreement sowed the seeds of the Camp David Accords, while his support of the end of white-minority rule in Rhodesia presaged the end of apartheid in South Africa.

Domestically, Smith demonstrates how Ford's deregulatory stance and fight against inflation led to eventual economic growth during the Reagan administrations.

But inherited challenges abroad and at home dogged — and defined, at least at the time — Ford's presidency.

As the latest (and mercifully, last) president to preside over the Vietnam War, Ford was unable to stop the inevitable fall of Saigon, which seared into American psyches images of U.S. helicopters retreating from rooftops, abandoning allies.

The epic exodus that followed was met with Ford's untiring, inspiring advocacy of refugee resettlement. When Congress balked, press secretary Ron Nessen heard Ford curse for the first and only time. Appealing directly to Americans, Ford said that Congress contradicted "the values we cherish as a nation of immigrants. … It reflects fear and misunderstanding rather than charity and compassion." Confronting this nation's nativism, Ford changed, even saved, countless lives.

Ford was admirable regarding another character-defining issue: race relations.

Silas McGee, a Black high-school friend, later said that what separated Ford from his contemporaries was that "He was color blind. Gerald Ford was my brother." When Ford's friend and road-game roommate, Willis Ward, then Michigan's only Black player, was barred from playing at Georgia Tech, Ford considered quitting, but was talked out of it by Ward, among others. When a Georgia Tech linebacker used a racial slur to taunt the Wolverines, Ford and another lineman blocked him so hard he left on a stretcher.

"You know what respect is, son?" a former Ford teammate rhetorically asked Steven Ford when the Wolverines retired his father's number. "Respect is what you do when nobody's watching. And nobody was watching your dad as a young kid at the University of Michigan."

Ford wouldn't go unnoticed for long, including in Congress, where civil-rights icon Andrew Young, to loud applause, broke with the Congressional Black Caucus to vote for Ford for vice president. "Decent men, placed in positions of trust, will serve decently," said Young. "I believe Mr. Ford is a decent man."

He was — in his treatment of everyday people and his presidential predecessor, whom he pardoned, perhaps ending Ford's hopes for re-election. Smith delves deep into the enduring controversy, which Ford later declared was needed because one person was consuming one quarter of his time, which he felt he owed to the American people. Ford's approval plummeted, but in 2001 he received the Profile in Courage Award from the John F. Kennedy Library. "Time has a way of clarifying past events, and now we can see that President Ford was right," said then Sen. Ted Kennedy.

Ford was right, and forthright, about other matters, including his family. Especially First Lady Betty Ford during her battles with cancer and addiction. He supported his kids, too, never negating their outspokenness for political purposes. And in his own way, Ford was outspoken, too, including in his 1974 inaugural speech, featuring his famous phrase: "My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over."

Later, he broke presidential precedent in his State of the Union address. Instead of the standard "strong," he honestly said that "the state of the union is not good."

Were Ford assessing the U.S. today, he might say the same thing. Consider western Michigan, which in Smith's book emerges as its own character, building character in Eagle Scouts like Jerry Ford. Lately, however, the Grand Rapids resident making news is Adam Fox, considered the ringleader of a militia's plot to kidnap Michigan's Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

And just days after "An Ordinary Man" was released, nearby Ottawa County, Mich., was profiled in the Washington Post under the headline: "In a thriving Michigan county, a community goes to war with itself." The article, describing eight new County Board members who ran for office to "thwart tyranny," reports that the county "offers a glimpse of what happens when one of the building blocks of American democracy is consumed by ideological battles."

Beyond Ford's home region, of course, the country is convulsing itself in similar ideological battles. The survivor of real battles (and two assassination attempts), Ford sought to unite, a virtue reflected in the title of Ford's autobiography: "A Time to Heal." It's an ethos starkly in contrast to the most recent Republican to lose a re-election bid, who has said "I am your retribution" as he campaigns to return to the White House.

In some sense, America seems to have entered another long national nightmare. And once again, the nation needs healing.

So it could use more modern-day leaders like the extraordinary "ordinary" Ford.