GERALD FORD DIES AT AGE 93…. I’m afraid I was a little young to have any memories of Gerald Ford’s presidency — when he took the oath of office, I was a year old — and, regrettably, I’m more inclined to think of Chevy Chase’s Saturday Night Live impression of a bumbling president than Ford’s actual performance in office.

That said, I think it’s fair to say that Ford will be remembered as a modest, decent man thrust into leadership under the most difficult of conditions.

Mr. Ford, who was the only person to lead the country without having been elected as president or vice president, occupied the White House for just 896 days — starting from a hastily arranged ceremony on Aug. 9, 1974, and ending after his defeat by Jimmy Carter in the 1976 election. But they were pivotal days of national introspection, involving America’s first definitive failure in a war and the first resignation of a president.

After a decade of division over Vietnam and two years of trauma over the Watergate scandals, Jerry Ford, as he called himself, radiated a soothing familiarity. He might have been the nice guy down the street suddenly put in charge of the nation, and if he seemed a bit predictable, he was also safe, reliable and reassuring. He placed no intolerable intellectual or psychological burdens on a weary land, and he lived out a modest philosophy. “The harder you work, the luckier you are,” he said once in summarizing his career. “I worked like hell.”

I suspect today will include plenty of debate about whether Ford was wrong to pardon Nixon, speculation about whether there was some kind of “deal” that may have elevated Ford in exchange for a promise to issue that pardon, and consideration of Ford’s controversial decision to back the 1975 Helsinki Accords, but I think it’s also noteworthy that Ford was the last moderate Republican president.

As the GOP shifted further and further to the right over the last generation, Ford, who was not considered a particularly progressive Republican in the 1970s, looked less and less conservative. Indeed, the former president and his wife both acknowledged in the 1990s that they were pro-choice, and more recently, expressed their support for gay marriage.

Upon joining the Advisory Board of the Republican Unity Coalition, a group of moderate Republicans hoping to drag the party to the left by more than a few degrees, Ford said, “I have always believed in an inclusive policy in welcoming gays and others into the party.”

I suspect that these positions will tarnish his memory in the eyes of some of today’s Republican leaders and activists, but that’s a shame. The GOP would be wise to honor Ford’s tolerant, inclusive approach.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.