Decent and dependable Republican who helped to steady the United States after the shocks of Watergate and Vietnam
Gerald Ford was unique in the history of the United States as being the only man to occupy both the vice-presidency and the presidency without being elected to either office. Nevertheless, he played an indispensable role in guiding the country’s political life back to solid ground when the Vice-President, Spiro Agnew, and the President, Richard Nixon, had been forced from office after being exposed as having broken the law of the land.
By contrast with his predecessors, Ford frequently conveyed the impression of verbal clumsiness. (He never really lived down Lyndon Johnson’s cruel gibe: ”The trouble with Jerry Ford is that he used to play football without a helmet.”) But he provided a reassuring solidity and stability in one of the most serious crises of confidence that has shaken the body politic and the people of the US.
His succession as Vice-President to Agnew on the latter’s resignation in the autumn of 1973 gave the political authorities in Congress and in the country sufficient confidence in the succession to grapple with the Watergate affair, to face the issue of the impeachment of the head of the executive and, ultimately, to force President Nixon’s resignation.
By the time Ford came to the presidency in August 1974 America was reeling from a series of blows to its sense of direction and identity in the world unprecedented, perhaps, since the Civil War. The conclusion of a ”peace” in Vietnam in 1973 confronted the US public with a humiliating and costly military defeat and the spectre of a complete failure of foreign policy, one which at the same time cast a large question over the fundamental morality of American actions overseas.
And when the President of the United States, in the person of Richard Nixon, stood exposed as being guilty of malfeasance over the break-in by Republican campaign workers at the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel, Washington, public confidence was further shaken in an Administration that seemed capable of descending to such reckless and wanton thuggery.
It was Ford’s task to confront the fall-out from the first of these crises, mopping up the dregs of the withdrawal from Vietnam, and looking that failure squarely in the face. After Watergate his Presidency provided the country with an image of honesty and reliability, without which confidence in US institutions might well have evaporated completely.
Like many Presidents before him Ford matured into the position until he had clearly established his dominance over Congress and over his potential challengers for the leadership of the Republican party. He generally maintained the trust and respect of professional politicians for the understanding of Congressional politics that he had built up during his long service in the House of Representatives — although for much of his presidency he was trying to preach and practise a fiscal conservatism very much to the right of what was then the central consensus in Congress.
But to his great chagrin, he was unable to vindicate his Presidency at the polls. Although he had managed in a remarkably short time at least to give the impression of steadying the foreign-policy ship after Vietnam, Watergate had inflicted grave damage on the Republican Party. A new kind of radical Democrat had come on the scene in Jimmy Carter, peanut farmer and Governor of Georgia. With his informal manner Carter seemed to have irresistible appeal and started with an immense lead in the opinion polls. As the campaign went on and voters increasingly looked for substance to match the Carter style, Ford, remarkably, looked like closing the gap on him. But it was not to be. Although the result on election day was much closer than might have been expected at the outset, it was a defeat, nevertheless, and it marked the end of Ford’s political career.
Gerald Rudolph Ford was born Leslie Lynch King Jr in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1913, the only child of Leslie and Dorothy King. Two years later his parents divorced, and he moved with his mother to Grand Rapids, Michigan. There she married Gerald R. Ford, a paint maker and local leader in the Republican party, and her child was adopted by her new husband, and renamed Gerald Rudolph Ford, after him.
Ford captained his high school football team and won a football scholarship to the University of Michigan where he became a star of its undefeated national football champion teams of 1932 and 1933. He went on to Yale University Law School where he paid his way as a coach to the Yale football and freshman boxing teams.
On the outbreak of war in 1941 he abandoned his recently founded legal practice and enlisted in the US Navy. He was commissioned and served throughout in the Pacific on aircraft carriers, rising to the rank of lieutenant-commander.
After the war he returned to legal practice in Michigan. In 1948 at the initiative of the moderate internationalist Republican, Senator Arthur H. Vandenburg, he won the Republican nomination in his home constituency from its isolationist incumbent, and was elected to the House of Representatives.He joined the House Appropriations Committee, specialising in military budget and foreign appropriations, and gained a reputation as a hard-working, hard-nosed conservative.
In 1959 he took part in the overthrow of the Republican leader in the House, the aged Joe Martin Jr of Massachusetts, and in 1965 he won the leadership from Martin’s successor, Charles Halleck Jr, on a programme of conservative activism and a conservative ”alternative” to President Johnson’s reform legislation.
The weekly press conference which he shared with the Republican leader in the Senate, Senator Ev Dirksen, in a joint effort to arouse public opinion against, and to advance alternatives to, the President’s legislative proposals, was known to the irreverent as the ”Eve and Jerry Show”. But Ford retained the respect of his fellow congressmen as a man who could understand and operate constructively the conventions of congressional consensus politics.
Ford first made Nixon’s acquaintance in 1949 when both were junior congressman. They remained close friends and political allies throughout Nixon’s career. In 1968 Ford served as chairman of the Republican Party national convention which nominated Nixon as the party’s candidate for the presidency. On Nixon’s electoral victory, Ford showed himself a full-blooded supporter of the new President, even on some of the President’s most controversial nominations to the Supreme Court. He opposed the bussing of children in the name of school integration, refused to cut defence spending and remained hawkish on Vietnam. In 1970 he led the unsuccessful campaign to impeach Justice William O. Douglas of the Supreme Court.
When the Watergate issue first emerged he concentrated on defending the President’s position in Congress and holding a conservative coalition together to resist Democratic overriding of the Presidential veto. In this he succeeded without attracting any of the limelight or attaching to himself any taint of corruption when Agnew’s resignation as Vice-President, after pleading guilty to tax evasion charges, forced Nixon to find a successor.
Ford was the first man in American history to succeed to the vice-presidency in the middle of an administration, this having been made possible by procedures established by the 25th Amendment passed in 1967.
On nomination by Nixon, Ford was subjected to an unprecedented investigation: by the FBI, by his fellow Congressmen in both Houses, and by the press. He survived with flying colours. His swearing-in as Vice-President caused satisfaction both on Wall Street and in US labour circles, as well as among blacks and Catholics. By February 1974, polls showed that 46 per cent of the electorate favoured his replacing Nixon for the remaining three years of the President’s term.
Before taking office Ford saw his main task as the restoration and maintenance of co-operation between Congress and the White House; but this task became increasingly difficult as opinion in Congress moved steadily towards impeachment of the President, and his every public utterance came under the most intensive scrutiny of press and public for the light it might shed on his own attitude to the strengthening picture of political corruption among the President’s personal entourage revealed by the Watergate investigations. Ford fell back therefore on his most basic instincts, that politics was a matter for elected and seasoned professionals not the ”arrogant elite guard of political adolescents” who had been responsible for Nixon’s re-election campaign.
On Nixon’s resignation on August 8, 1974, Ford saw his primary job as being to restore good administration to the country and to try to heal the wounds caused by Vietnam and Watergate. In his inaugural speech as President he announced that the ”national nightmare was over”. But it would take more than a single speech to justify this statement.
Initially Ford commanded an enormous wave of public support for his manifest possession of all those virtues in which his predecessor seemed so obviously deficient. But his action in pardoning Nixon from the putative charges which had been in preparation during the period before his resignation, caused an abrupt plunge in his popularity. And his offer of amnesty to the deserters and draft-dodgers of the Vietnam period won little support. His press secretary, Gerald ter Horst, resigned. His appointment of Nixon’s former Chief of Staff, General Haig, as Commander-in-Chief of Nato was widely criticised. His nomination of Governor Nelson Rockefeller as Vice-President led to a long and disagreeable investigation by Congress before it was finally approved. The mid-term elections in November 1974 greatly increased the hostile Democratic majority in Congress.
Besides problems of national morale, Ford faced the threefold problems of inflation, unemployment and the energy crisis stemming from the massive rise in oil prices initiated by the oil-producing countries in November 1973. In philosophy and outlook Ford was greatly opposed to Keynesian-style remedies for unemployment, and against inflation his tendency was to cut public spending as much as possible. He hoped, too, to rely on the market mechanisms to force energy conservation upon the consumer and had no inclination to hold oil product prices down. In this he was at constant loggerheads with Congress and the presidential veto had frequently to be employed.
His popularity slumped steadily, reaching its nadir in March, 1975, when the governments of Cambodia and South Vietnam collapsed under the weight of North Vietnamese military pressure, deprived as they had been by Congressional action of the lavish flow of arms and aid on which they depended. In April that year it was his unpalatable task to address the nation on the occasion of the final conquest of Vietnam by the Communist North.
The interception and arrest in the South China Sea of an American merchantman, the Mayaqüez, by the new government in Cambodia offered him the chance of speedy, resolute, and dramatic action. The ship and cargo were recaptured and the crew speedily released by the bemused and shaken Cambodians. It was a very small triumph. But it seemed an answer to the widely expressed fears of America’s allies in Europe and dependents in Israel and elsewhere that American resolution could, after the collapse in South-East Asia, no longer be relied upon.
In fact, Ford had already been active in the field of foreign relations to try to repair the damage of Watergate. In November 1974 he had welcomed the West German Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, to Washington and had met Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader, in Vladivostock to conclude a new agreement on the limitation of strategic arms. In December he had met President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing of France in the French West Indies and had eliminated much of the disagreement on international energy policy which had divided the two countries. In January 1975 he welcomed Harold Wilson in Washington. A meeting with President Anwar Sadat of Egypt did much to consolidate the dominant American position in the Middle East.
Ford’s increasing domination of Congress and the disarray among the Democratic majority was so dramatic an alteration of the position in March 1975 that he came under strong pressure to abandon his original pledge not to seek election in 1976. In July 1975 he announced his candidature for the Republican nomination, in which he was challenged by Ronald Reagan, Governor of California, as the candidate of the conservative wing of the Republican party.
Ford now embarked on a series of visits to the US West Coast. In a single month during these campaign travels he narrowly escaped two assassination attempts by pistol-carrying women. To the increasing pressure on him to abandon the campaign and to adopt a less open style of government he returned a resolute refusal.
In the event, after early setbacks, Ford won his party’s nomination in the first ballot. On the way he had shed Rockefeller, and his eventual running-mate was chosen from the loyal right, Senator Bob Dole of Kansas.
At the outset of the election campaign opinion polls showed him to be way behind his Democratic rival. He seemed to find if difficult to escape from his public image as a bumbling if decent man all too prone to accidents. All the same, on election day he was to come within two per cent of Jimmy Carter, in what was a very low poll.
Ford conducted himself in defeat with much the same decency and commonsense as had distinguished his presidency. As a man he personified those virtues of rugged honest, tough masculinity, lack of imagination and solid judgement — ”squareness” in a word — most prized by conservative Americans of all classes.
Ford married, in 1948, Elizabeth (Betty) Bloomer, whose marriage to a Grand Rapids salesman had been dissolved the previous year. Her cancer, diagnosed not long after she had become America’s first lady, was openly discussed, and became a focus for national interest in the analysis and treatment of cancer, leading specifically, to an increase in the number of check-ups for breast cancer in America.
As First Lady she was a strong supporter of women’s rights, calling for greater career opportunities for women. She also worked for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, to give women and man equality by law.
She had previously developed an addiction to drugs prescribed to alleviate the pain caused by a pinched nerves in her neck and in the 1960s had become dependent on alcohol. She subsequently underwent treatment for these problems, and in 1982 she helped to found the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Califcornia, to treat people with alcohol and drug addictions.
Ford himself lived relatively quietly after his period in the limelight. But he kept himself busy lecturing to universities and Republican party organisations. He published A Time to Heal, an account of his Presidency, in 1979, and Humor and the Presidency in 1987. Outdoor sports continued to be his favoured recreation.
In 1999 he was awarded both the Congressional Gold Medal (with his wife) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
He is survived by his wife, Betty, and by their three sons and a daughter.
Gerald Ford, President of the United States, August 1974-1977, was born on July 14, 1913. He died on December 26, 2006, aged 93