An unelected president shone at crucial moment
Gerald Ford is eulogized for his openness and honesty in the White House after the Nixon years.
WASHINGTON — 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.
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.
In Washington, Ford quickly developed a reputation as a loyal Republican and hard worker. He wangled a spot on the powerful Appropriations Committee, and, with the help of other young members dissatisfied with the GOP old bulls, won election to the party's congressional leadership.
In 1965 he was elected House minority leader. But his long-held goal, speaker of the House, seemed as far away as ever, as Democrats kept control of the chamber in election after election.
Some thought him stolid. Others knew better.
"There is an inscrutability about Jerry," one of his friends told the Grand Rapids newsman Bud Vestal in 1974. "You think you know him, but there's always one layer of reserve between you and Jerry's inner self."
By '74 he was tired of laboring in the minority. That term would be his last, he figured – he'd go back to Grand Rapids in 1976.
But then came the scandals of the Nixon presidency. Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973, after being accused of taking bribes in political office. Nixon knew Ford from years of service together in Congress; some newsmen had even speculated in 1968 that Ford would be his running mate. When Nixon announced his new choice for vice president at a White House ceremony, members of Congress in the audience raised a deafening cheer.
"They like you," Nixon said to Ford as they stood on the podium.
"I have a couple of friends out there," said Ford, as the applause continued.
Then the Watergate crisis deepened and, less than a year later, Nixon, too, resigned. Ex-jock, ex-model, a man who'd come home at night covered with paint after working in his father's paint and varnish factory as a boy, Ford was president of the United States.
On Sept. 14, 1974, President Ford opened a National Security Council (NSC) meeting on the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) nuclear-reduction talks with a short, cogent statement of the principles at stake.
SALT was good for the country, Ford said; the US had the "obligation" of finding common ground for agreement. Better to go in with that attitude than a cynical or skeptical one, which might itself block the way forward.
"Not any agreement is acceptable ... but reaching an agreement is in our best interests," he said. "We should proceed on the basis that this is the case."
To the cabinet, accustomed to Nixon's long, rambling harangues, these words must have seemed a revelation. They were modest, yet unarguable, and after the president delivered them, he shut up. Not entirely – he asked a question here and there. But in the main, he let his advisers convince him, rather than the other way around.
To pore through the minutes of Ford's presidential meetings is to see a leader who is far from a bumbler. In at least one NSC meeting he corrected a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff about the military's own budget. But as president he did not force decisions. He had a sense of humor, even about his infamous falls, including one he took on a state visit to Austria.
"In Austria, the president indicated he tumbled into Austria," read the minutes of a June 4, 1975, cabinet meeting, "but he really felt that Betty had tripped him, then ran away and left him to get to his feet all by himself."
But it wasn't enough to win his election to the office he'd inherited. Barely a month into his presidency, Ford pardoned Nixon for any crimes he might have committed. Eighty percent of Americans disapproved; even Ford's press secretary, Jerry terHorst, resigned.
Ford's popularity recovered, and the nation was spared a divisive trial, but the pardon remained a drag on Ford's poll ratings. In 1976, he was beaten by Democrat Jimmy Carter, who won fewer states but more electoral votes.
Ford was the only Michigander, and the first Eagle Scout, to become president. He was the first appointed vice president (the second was his own vice president, Nelson Rockefeller), and the only unelected chief executive of the US. He was the only president whose motorcade was involved in an auto accident, and he held the record for number of presidential assassination attempts (two).
Yet he may forever be best known for this: He was his own man, and not Richard Nixon. For the United States, at a crucial point in its history, that was enough.
As Donald Rumsfeld, who served as Ford's Defense secretary, said in 1986: "It was a time to heal, and Gerald Ford did it as few others could have."