This nation's list of good and decent living patriots is always too short. On Thursday, with the news of the death of Rev. James D. Ford, 70, the chaplain of the U.S. House from 1979 until last year, that list got a lot shorter.
Like his father and grandfather before him, Jim Ford, a South Dakotan, was a Lutheran pastor. He left his Minnesota parish for the United States Military Academy, where he became at 33 the West Point chaplain. Daily, Ford put the lie to any unflattering caricature of the dour Scandinavian Lutheran. He never concealed his love of life. He always revealed his love of people.
Let me tell you why I liked and admired House chaplain Jim Ford, who was appointed to his position in the wake of Watergate during the presidency of Jimmy Carter, who had run and won as the anti-politics outsider. The Congress then fairly teemed with Watergate babies, most of whom offered as their most compelling credential, with all the joylessness of a Cotton Mather, testimony of just how much they disliked this city and the job they were elected to do. Let it be noted that this was never the attitude of Massachusetts Democrat Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, the House speaker when Jim Ford was chosen chaplain.
Like Tip O'Neill, Ford rejected that dark view of public office and humankind. He liked politics, and he liked politicians and their families, whom he generously counseled and consoled. Jim Ford was always consistent: The public business was important, and public service was honorable. When I congratulated him for sticking to that minority and, in Newt Gingrich's Washington, increasingly lonely position, he thanked me, and we ended up laughing about the silliness of somebody spending two years of his life and a million dollars to win a House seat where he would be in the company of colleagues he had loudly decried as ethical eunuchs, to lead a federal government he judged to be a menace to the nation.
It is true that in no other line of work would we consider hiring anyone who savaged the very work he sought. Would any of us choose for a personal physician someone who ranted about the evil and stupidity of medicine, and who maintained that every other doctor was a quack or worse? No more than we would want our own Sally or Sam in the classroom of a teacher who expressed his loathing for schoolchildren and schools.
Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., succeeded her husband, Walter Capps, in the House. Capps had been a minister, and Ford presided at his funeral. Lois Capps told of remembering James Ford quoting Martin Luther: "Send your good men into the ministry, but send your best men into politics." Then, according to the Lutheran theologian Martin Marty, Lois Capps added: "Our chaplain is both. He is a good man, and he is one of the best men."
Jim Ford who celebrated the nation's 200th birthday in 1976 by crossing the Atlantic from Plymouth, England, to West Point with two crewmen in a 31-foot sailboat and who rode a Harley-Davidson motorcycle with his son delighted in life. He believed that fallible man was still capable of self-government for the common good. And because he believed we were better than we had been, we sometimes actually became better than we were. Jim Ford will be missed.
Mark Shields is a columnist for Creators Syndicate.