October 06, 1986 12:00 PM

Gerald R. Ford, the President elected by none of the people but beloved by most of them, recently presided at a symposium on “Humor and the Presidency” attended by political cartoonists, presidential advisors, wise-guy speechwriters and professional comedians. No public figure was safe, for the participants were all semi-serious believers in the Washington credo: If you haven’t got anything nice to say, let’s hear it. They took apart political lobbyists (humorist Art Buchwald: “As Mike Deaver put it, ‘Ask not what you can do for your country…’ “), presidential hopefuls (entertainer Mark Russell: “I call Pat Robertson the dark horse of the apocalypse”) and a certain Democratic ex-President (author Gerald Gardner: “It was said of Jimmy Carter that his idea of self-deprecating humor was to insult his staff”).

The symposium, held in Grand Rapids, Mich. at the Gerald R. Ford Museum, was intended to elevate political humor from a laughing matter to a topic worthy of serious rumination. It turned out to be mostly a retrospective of Ford’s falls, goofs and gaffes. Recalled with particular pleasure were Lyndon Johnson’s remark that Ford played football too long without a helmet. Ford’s ignominious tumble as he arrived in Salzburg, Austria and his statement that the people of Poland would never come under Communist domination as long as he was the President.

Let history record that our incident-prone ex-President didn’t think any of it was all that funny at the time. “I winced a bit,” he says, remembering the mockery that accompanied, but hardly hindered his career. Betty Ford says she often took it even harder. “Sometimes our children would see the humor where we couldn’t,” she said. “That helped a lot.”

Ten years have passed since Gerald Ford last struck his head in an official capacity, and today he laughs easily at it all. He sat through every minute of the symposium, never grimacing, proving his dedication to fund-raising efforts for the museum and the Ford Library in Ann Arbor, beneficiaries of the $5,000-a-table formal dinner, the “entertainment gala” and the sale of broadcast rights to HBO. Ford’s role in all this was to tell a few stories in his uniquely warm, if awkward, way and to laugh a lot. He laughs wonderfully, rocking forward, shaking his head, looking around to share the joke.

Usually, he was laughing at himself, which he does with unmatched good humor. “I’ve always been secure,” he explained. One reason so many jokes were about him was that he was the only presidential figure on hand, the others having sent their regrets.

That didn’t protect them from some very profound anecdotes, the best of which came from Lyn Nofziger, former aide to Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. “Nixon said funny things by accident,” recalled Nofziger. “I was talking to him after Reagan was shot and he said, ‘Don’t let the President make any major decisions when he’s sick. You don’t make good decisions then. I decided not to burn the tapes when I was recovering from pneumonia.’ ”

Throughout the symposium, comedian Chevy Chase, who has been parodying Ford so long he is developing an identical bald spot, kept popping up and falling down. Chase has always reminded us that while Ford was healing the nation after Watergate, he was usually hurting himself. Sometimes, Ford did the reminding. For two days he gave demonstrations of the clumsiness for which he is held dear.

He leaned unsteadily on a lectern and nearly fell.

He introduced his former press secretary, Ron Nessen, as “Don.”

He stumbled into a serving tray of dishes and later insisted that he did it deliberately, as a joke. Disbelief was widespread.

He did deliver one triumphant line, though. After Nessen showed film clips of every dumb thing his ex-boss had ever done, Ford stood up and said, in flawless Jack Benny deadpan, “Thank you, Ron.”

Well, the audience roared.

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