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Remembering a presidential transition of humility and grace

White House
Posted at 9:50 PM, Jan 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-17 23:50:06-05

ABC News reports President Donald Trump is planning a ceremonial send-off Wednesday as he exits the presidency. Trump will not follow an American tradition and will skip the swearing-in of his successor, Joe Biden. He’ll be absent for a moment that symbolizes to the nation and world a “peaceful transfer of power.” Instead, sources tell ABC, the loser of November’s election wants to leave the White House alone, a military band playing, as he walks down a red carpet lined with members of the armed forces as fighter jets fly in salute.

Trump’s refusal to follow protocol contrasts with the scene at the White House in another time of anger and distrust, after the Watergate scandal in January of 1977. Republicans were disgraced by the resignation of Republican President Richard Nixon in August of 1974. Members of Arizona's congressional delegation, including Republicans Senator Barry Goldwater and Representative John Rhodes, told Nixon to step down or be impeached and convicted for his role in trying to steal the 1972 election. Stepping up to try and unite a divided country was Gerald Ford, a congressman from Michigan, whom Nixon had appointed Vice President. The elected VP, Spiro Agnew, was forced to resign for corrupt activity unrelated to Watergate.

Two years later, Ford ran to keep the office and lost in a razor-close race, defeated by Democrat Jimmy Carter, the former governor of Georgia. Ford first fought off former California Governor Ronald Reagan for the nomination only to lose the election by 37 electoral votes.

Ford was tainted by the Nixon presidency, which was as controversial then as the Trump White House is now, full of constitutionally questionable behavior, enemies lists, and a “law-and-order” approach built on race baiting. It had been a bruising campaign. Still, he didn’t leave town on inauguration day. The nation watched as now ex-President Ford sat on the stage while Carter took the Oath of Office at the Capitol.

During his inaugural address, President Carter, who campaigned as the person who could unite the country, turned to Ford and said, “For myself and for our nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land.”

The moment of humility in victory was 44 years ago and remains most relevant today. It was remembered recently by a senior member of Carter's staff, Barry Jagoda, a press aide who had a successful career at both CBS and NBC News. As he chronicles in his book, Journeys with Jimmy Carter, Ford and Carter do not in any way compare with Trump. He said both men put country ahead of party and themselves, ensuring a smooth continuity of governing.

“You had two extraordinary gentlemen, really,” Jagoda told ABC15’s Steve Irvin. “Ford was definitely a courteous gentleman and so was Carter. It was a very different situation than we have now.”

Four years later, Carter would lose to Ronald Reagan and join Ford as a historical footnote both would rather have avoided: presidents who weren’t re-elected to a second term. The late President George H.W. Bush is in that group as is soon-to-be former President Trump.

Whatever his failings as president, Jimmy Carter is revered as a decent and honorable man known for winning and losing with grace. His post-presidency includes a Nobel Peace Prize for work around the world monitoring elections, fighting disease, and building homes with Habitat for Humanity.

Ford left the presidency and remained engaged in public policy. He died in 2006. Ford is remembered as the man who pardoned Richard Nixon for the Watergate crimes, another link to decisions swirling around last week’s unprecedented second impeachment of Trump. Still Jagoda believes peaceful transition is not dependent on the politics of the time, but rather, the character of the leader in the White House

“It's a problem, but it'll work out,” Jagoda explained. “Biden is experienced. Trump will exit the scene and Biden will have the full responsibility to lead the country.”