Flashback Friday – Gerald R. Ford
On New Year’s Day 2006 I was reading my local newspaper and one of the features was a psychic’s predictions for the coming year. One of the things she included was a list of people who were going to die in 2006. At first I found this quite disturbing, but quickly pushed that aside to read who was on the list. It was nothing more than a list of most of the old(er) famous people of the world, many of whom did not stick out for me. The one name which did peak my interest was Gerald R. Ford. I knew President Ford was in his 90’s, but I hoped for his sake that this psychic was not good. All year I kept my eye on the news for any mention of the former president. Nothing came up all year, and I was feeling relieved that by Christmas he was still around. Then on Boxing day 2006, the news broke the President Ford has passed away. In the end, she had unfortunately been right, and the next week of my life was consumed with watching every tribute, memorial and funeral service held for him. I do happen to remember some of the other names which were on the list, who happen to still be living, so obviously her predictions were not one hundred percent accurate. Nevertheless, today’s Flashback Friday is dedicated to President Ford, a president that history largely forgets about.
Gerald R. Ford is the only president to have served unelected as both president and vice president. His succession to the vice presidency was as a result of Spiro Agnew’s scandal driven resignation. Then less than one year later, Richard Nixon’s scandal driven resignation put him in the presidency. His loss to Jimmy Carter in 1976 meant that he was never elected as president, something that pained him deeply, and caused many to refer to him as the ‘Accidental President’. While his decisions as president were controversial, and ultimately cost him reelection in 1976, looking back Ford was doing the country a favour, even if it hurt any political future he wished to have.
Ford was born Leslie Lynch King, Jr in 1913. He was named after his father Leslie Lynch King, who by most accounts was not a good man. Ford’s mother and Mr. King separated weeks after Ford’s birth, later divorcing. Ford’s mother remarried Gerald Rudolff Ford in 1916. From that point on, his mother and stepfather referred to him as Gerald Rufolff Ford. It was not until he was an adult, that Ford learned of his birth name, and changed the spelling of his middle name to Rudolph to make it more conventional.
A very athletic man, Ford was involved in football from a young age. He attended the University of Michigan, then went on to graduate from Yale Law School. He also courted offers from the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers, but turned those down. Upon graduation from Yale, Ford served in WWII in the Navy. When he returned to Michigan, he became involved in local politics, which eventually led him into the House of Representatives. He was first elected in 1948, and spent most of his honeymoon campaigning. He had earlier married Elizabeth “Betty” Warren in October 1948. Ford was elected in November of that same year and later went on to serve thirteen terms as a congressman.
He competently worked in the House with other members and earned a reputation for being an honest and down to earth guy. He became House Minority Leader in 1965, which he served in until he was selected as vice president. Nixon’s current vice president, Spiro Agnew, was forced to resign as part of a scandal which alleged he had committed tax evasion in his home state of Maryland. Ford was seen as the only agreeable choice, due to the integrity and respect he had earned. He quietly slipped into the position, unaware of the turmoil that Nixon was getting himself into. The Watergate scandal was in full swing, and Nixon did not inform Ford of just how serious the situation was. It was not until Nixon called Ford into his office to let him know he was resigning, that Ford truly understood what was going on. Nixon announced to the nation his resignation via live television, and on August 9, 1974 Ford became the 38th president of the United States. Since Ford succeeded to both the vice presidency and presidency and was never elected to his own term, he is the only president to never have been elected on a national ticket by the American people.
Ford inherited quite a mess from Nixon. The country was gripped by Watergate, and the media was set on getting Nixon’s head on a platter. Ford was a very common sense man, but unfortunately this common sense did not necessarily translate well to president. He was not helped by his decision to give Nixon a “full, free, and absolute pardon” on all the charges he had. This let Nixon go a free man. It completely enraged people, who were set on seeing Nixon punished. Looking back, Ford did an amazing thing for the country. He had spared the country a long, drawn out trial which would have left Watergate on their minds for years. Ford had realized this was the best thing for the country, even though it cost him greatly. People saw this as a backroom deal and it hurt Ford’s credibility.
Ford also had to deal with many other issues prevalent during the late 1970’s. The economy was not in good shape, as inflation continued to hurt many families. Ford was unable to effectively deal with this. He also continued to pursue many of the policies of Richard Nixon with regards to international relations. During his short presidency, Ford even faced two assassination attempts, both of which were fortunately unsuccessful.
When 1976 arrived, and Ford had to face an election, he was well behind his Democratic opponent, Jimmy Carter. Carter skillfully tapped into the anti-Washington sentiment which was present thanks to the Watergate scandal. Ford was unable to distance himself from this, as he had served in Washington for over two decades. Ford also blundered during the debates, and the images of him tripping, and bumping his head made him seem like a clumsy buffoon and not a president. Ford’s booming oratory was also notoriously boring and he was unable to inspire any confidence in the American people about their future. Of course, nobody can deny that the Watergate pardon was fresh on everyone’s minds still. While Carter’s own stumbles narrowed the polls by election day, Ford still lost and was unable to secure his own term.
Another problem that Ford faced in 1976 was a man named Ronald Reagan. We all know Reagan himself was president in the 1980’s, but in 1976 he challenged Ford for the Republican nomination. This was very damaging, as Ford had to fight off Reagan, before he could fight off Carter. The decision went all the way to the Republican convention, where Ford narrowly won. In an awkward moment, Ford called Reagan up on stage to make some remarks after he secured the nomination. Reagan (who had prepared nothing) made some very inspirational remarks, and it was clear to many in the room that they had nominated the wrong person.
When Jimmy Carter took the oath of office in 1977, the first words of his inaugural address were “for myself and for our Nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land.” Those words could not be more true. Although it had cost him his political life, Ford had saved the country by pardoning Nixon. Ford essentially retired after leaving the White House, although the idea of him being on the ticket with Ronald Reagan in 1980, as the vice presidential nominee was floated. However, it was decided that would not be a good idea, as it would be more like having two presidents, than a president and vice president. It likely did not help that Ford and Reagan never did forgive each other for the events of 1976, despite what media reports said.
Ford went on to enjoy retirement in California with his wife Betty. He was an avid golfer, who was active well into his nineties. He often conferred with other presidents, who appreciated his point of view. Interestingly enough, Ford and Jimmy Carter later became very good friends. Carter states there has been no closer bond between two former presidents. They made a promise to each other that one would give a eulogy at the other’s funeral. Thus at Ford’s funeral, Carter gave a very emotional eulogy, which he closed with the words “for myself and for our Nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land.” At his death, Ford is the oldest president, living to be 93 years old.
His legacy has not been very kind to him. The unfortunate reality is that Ford was in office for such a short time, that he was unable to make a lasting impression on it. He was anchored down by the shadow of Watergate and was never afforded the luxury of a fresh start as president. But through it all, it was evident that Ford was a plain, humble and honest man, who was perhaps too kind for the job he inherited.
I will admit that I have a soft spot for Gerald Ford. The three presidents that served in the 1970’s (Nixon, Ford and Carter) are among the most interesting to me. Don’t ask me why, as I don’t know the reason, but I have written several papers, watched countless documentaries and read dozens of books on these three men. Something about this time period and how that affected their presidencies provides me hours of entertainment. Some of you early readers might remember that Richard Nixon was the first individual featured on Flashback Friday. I resisted the urge to devote the next two weeks to Ford and Carter. However, I felt this an appropriate time to cover President Ford, as each Boxing Day, I think back to the day in 2006 when I learned of the passing of Gerald R. Ford.