Before there was a Malia Obama or a Chelsea Clinton, there was Steve Ford.
The third son of President Gerald Ford and Betty Ford, Steve Ford was 18 when his father took office following the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974.
He spent his post-White House life far from politics – he was an actor for nearly three decades, racking up small roles on movies and TV shows from “When Harry Met Sally” to “Baywatch,” and is best known for the nearly a decade he spent on the cast of the CBS soap, “The Young and the Restless.”
Ford stepped away from the cameras eight years ago to devote more time to the foundation that supports his father’s presidential library and museum, mostly quiet, behind-the-scenes work, though now he’s promoting a new documentary about his father’s life and legacy: on May 27, the National Geographic Channel will debut “Gerald R. Ford: A Test of Character.”
Ford said the film, which is narrated by fellow Michigander and actor Jeff Daniels and includes interviews with Ford cabinet members Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Henry Kissinger, comes at an apropos moment in American politics.
“I have to laugh about the timing, because there couldn’t be a bigger difference between what’s going on today and when Dad ran against Reagan and Carter – he knew how to disagree with someone without being disagreeable,” Ford said.
“Disagreeable” doesn’t begin to describe the current status of the presidential campaigns, of course.
“The name calling, the rudeness, the loudness – and this is on both the left and right,” Ford said, is all a far cry from his father’s ethos of respecting – and famously socializing with – his political enemies. “Dad used to say, ‘How can I work with someone if I don’t know his dog’s name or where his daughter is going to college?'” Ford said.
The film, he said, coincides with a new learning center for students at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, which will aim to teach young people about civics and leadership, Ford-style. “They’ll learn how to be a leader with integrity,” he said.
He noted that his mother, who drew attention by publicly discussing her battles with breast cancer and alcoholism – both subjects rarely talked about at the time – had been the subject of several films. But his father, a mild-mannered former Boy Scout, hasn’t assumed nearly the place in pop culture that many other former presidents in modern history have.
But who knows – perhaps the fickle winds of culture might shift, and Gerald Ford could have a moment (hey, there’s an opera about two Supreme Court justices, so anything’s possible).
In case that happens, who might Steve Ford pick to play his father on the big screen?
“I’m not sure,” he said, sounding thoughtful. “I think if Dad would want to be remembered, it would be as just a humble public servant.”