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An unelected president shone at crucial moment

Gerald Ford is eulogized for his openness and honesty in the White House after the Nixon years.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 28, 2006


On Aug. 8, 1974, shortly before 11 a.m., President Richard Nixon entered the Oval Office to meet with Vice President Gerald Ford. President Nixon's face was ashen, but he was set on his course, so he shook hands and motioned Mr. Ford to sit in a chair beside him.

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An awkward silence followed. Then Nixon broke it.

"You'll do fine," he said.

The formalities were yet to come, but at that moment, like a shock, the powers of the presidency leapt from one man to the other. Nixon, wounded by Watergate, was resigning; Ford was about to become the first, and so far only, unelected chief executive of the United States.

Ford, who died Tuesday at his home in California, had spent decades in Washington preparing himself for higher political office. The problem was, that office was speaker of the House. Now, in 1974, this product of Congress had to sit where Nixon had sat – and Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy before him – and lead a dispirited and divided nation.

Watergate was only part of it. Ford inherited the Vietnam war, and inflation, and the cold war, too.

Did he do fine, as predicted? Ford's pardon of Nixon was deeply unpopular, and probably cost him the '76 election. His Whip Inflation Now campaign seemed all lapel buttons and no bite. The comedian Chevy Chase's imitations of his pratfalls remain legendary, however unfair.

But Ford was more, somehow, than the sum of his policies. Decent, fair, modest, and – truth be told – shrewd, he made Washington seem normal again. It was a time for healing, as he himself later said. And heal he did, steadying the economy and keeping to a moderate foreign-policy course.

The Nixon years had been as dramatic and taxing as Wagnerian opera. This political theater ended under Ford. The US could relax, and refocus on the future.

"On behalf of the entire nation, thank you for restoring the nation's confidence in itself," said President Jimmy Carter to Ford, moments after taking the oath of office in 1976.

Ford was born July 14, 1913, in Omaha, Neb. He was named Leslie Lynch King Jr., after his father, Leslie King, a Montana wool trader. His parents divorced shortly after his birth, and two years later, his mother married a Michigan paint salesman named Gerald Ford, who gave his stepson his name and raised him as his own.

Stocky and blond, Gerald Rudolph Ford Jr. grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan's second-largest – and most conservative – city. Even in those days, boys generally wore sports shirts and sweaters to school. Jerry Ford usually wore a suit and tie.

He studied hard and got decent grades but was best known as the star center of the South High School football team. "Back then I had absolutely no interest in politics or a career in government," he later said.

Recruited by its football coach, Ford entered the University of Michigan in 1931. He played on undefeated teams in 1932 and 1933, and was named the Wolverines' "most valuable player" in 1934. The Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers offered him pro contracts when he graduated in 1935, but Ford, a solid "B" student, had set his sights on another line of work: the law.

He took a coaching job at Yale, and eventually talked his way into Yale Law School. He worked hard – perhaps unsurprisingly, his best grades were in legal ethics – but had time to found a modeling business on the side.

Yes, modeling. Urged on by Phyllis Brown, a girlfriend who was herself a model, Ford backed a New York agency for several years. Eventually he himself starred in a Look magazine photo spread about a weekend in the life of sports-oriented young people.

Then World War II intervened. Shortly after receiving his law degree in 1941, Ford enlisted in the Navy. Serving on the aircraft carrier USS Monterey, Ford was witness to many of the biggest naval battles in the Pacific. But his only close call came during a typhoon, when he slipped on deck and flew like a toboggan over the edge – only to drop neatly onto a catwalk.

After the war, Ford returned to Grand Rapids to practice law.

And like another young Navy vet in California, Richard Milhous Nixon, Ford's interests and experience made politics a natural career choice.

He began his political life as a reform candidate dedicated to sweeping out the prewar old guard of Michigan politics. In 1948, he beat incumbent Rep. Bartel Jonkman in the Republican primary for Michigan's Fifth Congressional District.

Eventually, the people of the Fifth District elected Jerry Ford to Congress 13 times.