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When the news broke late Tuesday that former President Gerald Ford had died at age 93, the broadcast and cable news networks were handed a task of how to remember a president who was never elected and only served a little more than two years in office, 30 years ago.
As plans solidified Wednesday for a state funeral in Washington, followed by another service and burial at the Ford Presidential Library in Grand Rapids, Mich., the networks said they will cover the funerals and other appropriate aspects of the nation’s farewell to the 38th president.
But it’s unlikely to be the deep coverage afforded 2004’s state funeral of Ronald Reagan, who served two terms and was an enormously popular and sometimes controversial president.
That distinction became clear early, when ABC and NBC broke into programming shortly after 11:30 p.m. EST but CBS covered the news with a crawl over “Late Night With David Letterman” on the East Coast. The cable news channels went into crisis mode, with Fox News Channel staying on live all night with coverage.
CNN’s Anderson Cooper announced Ford’s death shortly before the two-hour show was to end, while the MSNBC telecast included NBC anchor Brian Williams plus Chris Matthews and Andrea Mitchell, who covered the Ford White House and knew him well.
Ford’s death still was the top story all day Wednesday on the morning and evening newscasts as well as on cable, though to varying degrees depending on the network. Plans weren’t immediately firm but the networks expected to carry at least some coverage of the former president’s lying in state under the Capitol Rotunda and his state funeral, expected Tuesday at the National Cathedral in Washington.
“It will not be on the magnitude of Ronald Reagan who had two terms and was a dominant figure in American politics,” former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw said. “I think the Ford family knows that. But it (Ford’s tenure) was vitally important because he not only said ‘our long national nightmare is over’ but he dedicated himself to the case in the next two years, I think historians will judge him very well.”
But Ford’s legacy will continue to be covered by the networks. Several anchors, including CBS’ Katie Couric and Fox News Channel’s Shepard Smith, are returning from vacation. Both NBC’s Brian Williams and ABC’s Charles Gibson weren’t on vacation and anchored their respective newscasts Wednesday.
“You did not have the experience of millions of Americans making him president,” Fox News Channel’s Chris Wallace said. “I don’t think there’s the connection that the public had with Ronald Reagan or other former presidents who in effect rose to power through their votes. He was only president for a little over two years.”
CNN analyst Jeff Greenfield said there was no time in Ford’s short tenure as president to establish a “Ford doctrine” or an overarching vision.
“He has to be understood in reference to history. He came in after this amazingly unprecedented public scandal that drove a president from office,” Greenfield said. “He came in and in his first weeks sounded the right note that lowered the temperature politically.”
Greenfield noted Claire Booth Luce’s observation that “every president gets one line” in history.
“Ford’s is going to be that he helped heal a nation in crisis,” Greenfield said.
Fox News’ Wallace agreed.
“He had a consequential presidency. I think over the coming days Americans will be surprised to see how influential he was, domestically and in foreign affairs,” Wallace said. “He was the president who brought Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Alan Greenspan, James Baker to national prominence.”
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