Gerald Ford

Gerald Ford (born 1913) served as Republican leader in the House of Representatives before being selected by President Nixon to replace Spiro Agnew as vice president in 1973. A year later he replaced Nixon himself, who resigned due to the Watergate crisis. In the 1976 presidential election Ford lost to Jimmy Carter.

Gerald Ford was born Leslie Lynch King, Jr., in Omaha, Nebraska, on July 14, 1913. Shortly afterward, his mother divorced and moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan. After she remarried, he was adopted by and legally renamed for his stepfather, becoming Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr.

Ford's personality and career were clearly shaped by his family and community. Though not wealthy, the family was by Ford's later account "secure, orderly, and happy." His early years were rather ideal: handsome and popular, Gerald worked hard and graduated in the top five percent of his high school class. He also excelled in football, winning a full athletic scholarship to the University of Michigan, where he played center and, in his final year, was selected to participate in the Shrine College All-Star game. His football experiences, Ford later contended, helped instill in him a sense of fair play and obedience to rules.

Ford had a good formal education. After graduation from the University of Michigan, where he developed a strong interest in economics, he was admitted to Yale Law School. Here he graduated in the top quarter percent of the class (1941), which included such future luminaries as Potter Stewart and Cyrus Vance. Immediately after graduation, Ford joined with his college friend Philip Buchen in a law partnership in Grand Rapids; in early 1942 he enlisted in the Navy, serving throughout World War II and receiving his discharge as a lieutenant commander in February 1946.

Early Political Career

Ford was now ideally positioned to begin the political career which had always interested him. His stepfather was the Republican county chairman in 1944, which was certainly an advantage for Ford. A staunch admirer of Grand Rapids' conservative-but-internationalist senator Arthur Vandenberg, young Ford re-established himself in law practice and took on the Fifth District's isolationist congressman, Bartel Jonkman, in the 1948 primary for a seat in the House of Representatives. He won with 62 percent of the primary vote and repeated that generous margin of victory against his Democratic foe in the general election.

From the outset of his House career Gerald Ford displayed the qualities—and enjoyed the kind of help from others—which led to his rise to power in the lower house. His loyal adherence to the party line and cultivation of good will in his personal relations was soon rewarded with a seat on the prestigious Appropriations Committee. When Dwight Eisenhower gained the White House in 1952, Ford again found himself in an advantageous position since he had been one of 18 Republican congressmen who had initially written Eisenhower to urge him to seek the nomination.

Rise to House Leadership

During the 1950s Ford epitomized the so-called "Eisenhower wing" of the GOP ("Grand Old Party") in both his active support for internationalism in foreign policy (coupled with a nationalistic and patriotic tone) and his basic conservatism on domestic issues. He also developed close associations with other young GOP congressmen such as Robert Griffin of Michigan and Melvin Laird of Wisconsin who were rising to positions of influence in the House. Meanwhile, he continued to build his reputation as a solid party man with expertise on defense matters.

In 1963 he reaped the first tangible rewards of his party regularity, hard work, and good fellowship as he was elevated to the chairmanship of the House Republican Conference. Two years later, at the outset of the 89th Congress, a revolt led by his young, image-conscious party colleagues (prominent among them Griffin, Laird, Charles Goodell of New York, and Donald Rumsfeld of Illinois) propelled Ford into the post of minority leader.

Minority Leader

In a sense, Ford was fortunate to be in the minority party throughout his tenure as floor leader, for those years (1965-1973)—dominated by the Vietnam War and Watergate—presented nearly insurmountable obstacles to constructive policymaking. He tried to maintain a "positive" image for the GOP, initially supporting President Johnson's policies in Vietnam while attempting to pose responsible alternatives to Great Society measures. Gradually he broke from Johnson's Vietnam policy, calling for more aggressive pursuit of victory there.

During the Nixon years, Ford gained increasing visibility as symbol and spokesman for GOP policies. His party loyalty as minority leader made him a valuable asset to the Nixon administration. He was instrumental in securing passage of revenue-sharing, helped push the ill-fated Family Assistance (welfare reform) Plan, and took a pragmatic, essentially unsympathetic stance on civil rights issues— especially school bussing. He made perhaps his greatest public impact in these years when in 1970—seemingly in retaliation for the Senate's rejection of two conservative Southerners nominated by Nixon for seats on the Supreme Court—he called for the impeachment of the liberal Justice William O. Douglas, claiming Douglas was guilty of corruption and inappropriate behavior. The impeachment effort was unsuccessful, and when the ailing Douglas eventually retired from the Court in 1975 Ford issued a laudatory public statement.

Ford also enhanced his reputation as a "hawk" on defense matters during these years. He was one of the few members of Congress who was kept informed by Nixon of the bombings of Cambodia before the controversial invasion of that country in the spring of 1970. Even after the Watergate scandal broke in 1973, Ford remained doggedly loyal long after many of his party colleagues had begun to distance themselves from President Nixon.

Ford retained his personal popularity with all elements of the GOP even while involving himself deeply in these controversial areas. His reputation for non-ideological practicality ("a Congressman's Congressman," he was sometimes labeled), coupled with personal qualities of openness, geniality, and candor, made him the most popular (and uncontroversial) of all possible choices for nomination by Nixon to the vice presidency in late 1973, under the terms of the 25th Amendment, to succeed the disgraced Spiro T. Agnew.

Loyal Vice President

The appropriate congressional committees conducted thorough hearings on even the well-liked Ford, but discovered no evidence linking him to Watergate. He was confirmed by votes of 92 to three in the Senate and 387 to 35 in the House, becoming the nation's first unelected vice president on December 6, 1973. At his swearing-in, Ford charmed a public sorely in need of discovering a lovable politician, stating with humility, "I am a Ford, not a Lincoln." He promised "to uphold the Constitution, to do what is right …, and … to do the very best that I can do for America."

Nixon and Ford were never personally close, but the latter proved to be a perfect choice for the job. His characteristic loyalty determined his course: during the eight-plus months he served as vice president, Ford made approximately 500 public appearances in 40 states, traveling over 100,000 miles to defend the president. He was faithful to Nixon to the end; even in early August of 1974, after the House Judiciary Committee had voted a first article of impeachment against the president, Ford continued to defend Nixon and condemned the committee action as "partisan."

Always a realist, however, Ford allowed aides to lay the groundwork for his possible transition to the White House. When Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974, the unelected vice president was prepared to become the nation's first unelected president.

The White House Years

Once in the White House, Ford displayed a more consistently conservative ideology than ever before. While holding generally to the policies of the Nixon administration, he proved more unshakably committed than his predecessor to both a conservative, free market economic approach and strongly nationalistic defense and foreign policies. In attempting to translate his objectives into policy, however, President Ford was frequently blocked by a Democratic Congress intent on flexing its muscles in the wake of Watergate and Nixon's fall. The result was a running battle of vetoes and attempted overrides throughout the brief Ford presidency.

Ford made two quick tactical errors, whatever the merits of the two decisions. On September 8, 1974 he granted a full pardon to Richard Nixon, in advance, for any crimes he may have committed while in office, and a week later he announced a limited amnesty program for Vietnam-era deserters and draft evaders which angered the nationalistic right even while, in stark contrast to the pardon of Nixon, it seemed to many others not to go far enough in attempting to heal the wounds of the Vietnam War.

Gerald Ford governed the nation in a difficult period. Though president for only 895 days (the fifth shortest tenure in American history), he faced tremendous problems. After the furor surrounding the pardon subsided, the most important issues faced by Ford were inflation and unemployment, the continuing energy crisis, and the repercussions—both actual and psychological—from the final "loss" of South Vietnam in April 1975. Ford consistently championed legislative proposals to effect economic recovery by reducing taxes, spending, and the federal role in the national economy, but he got little from Congress except a temporary tax reduction. Federal spending continued to rise despite his call for a lowered spending ceiling. By late 1976 inflation, at least, had been checked somewhat; on the other hand, unemployment remained a major problem, and the 1976 election occurred in the midst of a recession. In energy matters, congressional Democrats consistently opposed Ford's proposals to tax imported oil and to deregulate domestic oil and natural gas. Eventually Congress approved only a very gradual decontrol measure.

Ford believed he was particularly hampered by Congress in foreign affairs. Having passed the War Powers Resolution in late 1973, the legislative branch first investigated, and then tried to impose restrictions on, the actions of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In the area of war powers, Ford clearly bested his congressional adversaries. In the Mayaquez incident of May 1975 (involving the seizure of a U.S.-registered ship of that name by Cambodia), Ford retaliated with aerial attacks and a 175-marine assault without engaging the formal mechanisms required by the 1973 resolution. Although the actual success of this commando operation was debatable (39 crew members and the ship rescued, at a total cost of 41 other American lives), American honor had been vindicated and Ford's approval ratings rose sharply. Having succeeded in defying its provisions, Ford continued to speak out against the War Powers Resolution as unconstitutional even after he left the White House.

Ford basically continued Nixon's foreign policies, and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was a dominant force in his administration as he had been under Nixon. Under increasing pressure from the nationalist right, Ford stopped using the word "detente," but he continued Nixon's efforts to negotiate a second SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty), and in 1975 he signed the Helsinki Accords, which recognized political arrangements in Eastern Europe which had been disputed for more than a generation.

The 1976 Election

Ford had originally stated he would not be a candidate on the national ticket in 1976, but he changed his mind. He faced a stiff challenge for the nomination, however; former Governor Ronald Reagan of California, champion of the Republican right, battled him through the 1976 primary season before succumbing narrowly at the convention. Running against Democrat Jimmy Carter of Georgia in November, Ford could not quite close the large gap by which he had trailed initially. He fell just short of victory. He received over 39 million popular votes to Carter's 40.8 million, winning 240 electoral votes to his opponent's 297. At the age of 63 he left public office—at the exact time he had earlier decided that he would retire.

Gerald Ford prospered as much after leaving the White House as any president had ever done. Moving their primary residence to near Palm Springs, California, he and his popular wife Betty (the former Elizabeth Warren, whom he married in 1948) also maintained homes in Vail, Colorado, and Los Angeles. Besides serving as a consultant to various businesses, by the mid-1980s Ford was on the boards of directors of several major companies, including Shearson/American Express, Beneficial Corporation of New Jersey, and Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation. Estimated to be earning $1 million per year, Ford shared a number of investments with millionaire Leonard Firestone and busied himself with numerous speaking engagements. Some criticized him for trading on his prestige for self-interest, but Ford remained clear of charges of wrongdoing and saw no reason to apologize for his success. Long a spokesman for free enterprise and individual initiative, it is somehow fitting that he became a millionaire in his post-presidential years.

In December, 1996 Business Week said that the former President had amassed a fortune of close to $300 million over the past two decades, largely from buying and selling U.S. banks and thrifts. Still, his fiscal success didn't diminish his concern over Congress's decision to cut off funds for all living former Presidents as of 1998. In July 1996 Ford paid a visit to several Congressmen, in the hope of urging a Congressional change of heart. Unfortunately for Presidents Carter, Reagan, and Ford, it appears that the Congressional decision is firm, especially in this era of scrutinizing every item in the Federal budget.

In 1997 Ford participated in "The Presidents' Summit on America's Future," along with former presidents Bush and Carter, and President Clinton, as well as General Colin Powell, and former first ladies Nancy Reagan and Lady Bird Johnson. The purpose of the gathering was to discuss volunteerism and community service, and marked the first occasion when living former presidents convened on a domestic policy.

Further Reading on Gerald Ford

Richard Reeves's A Ford Not a Lincoln (1975) and Jerald F. ter Horst's Gerald Ford and the Future of the Presidency (1974) provide interesting coverage of his pre-presidential years; the former is more critical than the latter. Ford's autobiography, A Time to Heal (1979), is the best source available on his early life, while Robert Hartmann's Palace Politics: An Inside Account of the Ford Years (1980) and Ron Nessen's It Sure Looks Different from the Inside (1978) give interesting glimpses of Ford as president. The most systematic treatment of Ford's presidency is in A. James Reichley, Conservatives in an Age of Change: The Nixon and Ford Administrations (1981). Also see Robert Hartman's Palace Politics: An Inside Account of the Ford Years (1990).

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