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Gerald Ford

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(PD) Photo: David Hume Kennerly / Ford Library & Museum

Gerald Ford (Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr., usually called Jerry Ford, 1913-2006) was the 38th president of the United States (1974-77), the first one not elected as either president or vice-president. Ford was appointed to the vice-presidency by President Richard M. Nixon under the provisions of the 25th Amendment and became president on August 9, 1974, after Nixon was forced to resign. He received heavy criticism for pardoning Nixon. Ford watched helpless as South Vietnam fell to a Communist invasion, after all American forces had been removed. He promoted détente with the Soviet Union, incurring the wrath of the conservatives, led by Ronald Reagan. He narrowly defeated Reagan for renomination in 1976 by the Republican party, then lost narrowly to Democrat Jimmy Carter. Respected for his honesty and integrity, but marred by too many stumbles, literally and figuratively; he was one of a series of failed presidents in the 1960s and 1970s.

Early career

Ford was born on July 14, 1913, in Omaha, Nebraska, and was named Leslie Lynch King, Jr. after his father, a Montana wool trader. When Ford was two years old his parents were divorced, and his mother, Dorothy Gardner King, moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan. There she met and married Gerald R. Ford, owner of a small paint factory. Ford adopted her son, and the boy's name was changed to Gerald R. Ford, Jr. Described by biographers as a dominant athletic man and strong believer in self-discipline, Ford, Sr. later fathered three sons. It was not until until years later that he told young Gerald that he was adopted.

At South High School in Grand Rapids, the younger Ford was all-city football center for three years and also made the all-state team. He played football at the University of Michigan; in 1934 he was the Wolverines' most valuable member. He graduated in 1935 with a bachelor of arts degree. Ford declined bids from professional football teams in order to attend Yale Law School. He alternated semesters at study with work as an assistant football and freshman boxing coach. Ford graduated in 1941 in the top third of his class and returned to Grand Rapids to practice law.

In 1942 he joined the Navy as an ensign. He served 47 months, including 18 months aboard the light aircraft carrier USS Monterey (CVL-26) in the South Pacific, and was discharged in January 1946 as a lieutenant commander. Back home, Ford plunged into his law practice and community work.

Congress

Both his father, a Republican leader in Grand Rapids, and the late Republican Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg urged young Ford to run for Congress. Vandenberg, who was an internationalist, wanted to oust the isolationist Republican congressman from the Grand Rapids area district, Bartel Jonkman. Ford won the primary by more than 9,000 votes and went on to an easy victory. At this stage his basic political basic outlook was influenced by Wendell Willkie, by service in World War II, and by hostility to the dominant local machine. Ford ran as a minority reformer. Ford's view of himself as a minority reformer willing to stand up and oppose what he saw as corruption.[1]

Three weeks before that first election, on Oct. 15, 1948, Ford married Elizabeth "Betty" Bloomer, a former model and aspiring dancer. Born in Chicago, she had lived most of her life in Grand Rapids and had been married and divorced. Jerry and Betty Ford had three sons and a daughter. She became a vocal and effective spokeswoman for important social and women's issues during and after her years in the White House, appearing somewhat less conservative than Ford himself.[2]

In 1949, the year he entered Congress, Ford was selected by the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce as one of the country's ten outstanding young men. Ford's rise in the House was steady, assured by his repeated reelection from the strongly Republican district in a conservative region.

After two years in the House, Ford won a seat on the powerful [U.S. House Appropriations Committee|House Appropriations Committee]] and soon became the top Republican on its defense subcommittee. He became an expert on defense and military affairs and emerged as a strong anti-Soviet hawk in the Cold War years.

House leader

Ford headed a group of 15 House Republicans who produced an exhaustive study endorsing the Cold War policies of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1963 Ford took over as chairman of the House Republican caucus. Two years later, with the help of young turk House colleagues Melvin Laird of Wisconsin, Robert Griffin of Michigan, and Charles Goodell of New York, Ford became House minority leader by ousting Charles Halleck of Indiana by a 73-67 vote. His weekly press conferences with Everett Dirksen, the GOP Senate leader, made them the national voice of the Republican party. In 1963 was appointed by the new president Lyndon B. Johnson to the Warren Commission, which investigated the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He supported Kennedy and Johnson's involvement in the Vietnam War.

Domestically, he was consistently conservative, and led the fight against Johnson's Great Society. As long as the Conservative Coalition was intact he usually won; Johnson's landslide in 1964 over Barry Goldwater brought in scores of new Democrats and opened the door for liberal legislation. Ford's conservatism was endorsed by the voters in 1966, as the New Deal Coalition started unraveling. Ford had a good television persona, which he needed as the main spokesman for his party. He showed a knack for wooing more liberal congressmen, especially within his own party. His easygoing amiability made him widely popular. Ford had harbored only one further ambition - to become speaker of the House - but he became discouraged when the Republican Party could not gain a majority.

Vice-President

In October 1973, Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew resigned in the wake of disclosures that he had accepted illegal bribes. President Nixon, empowered by the 25th Amendment to nominate a successor, was said to favor John Connally, former secretary of the treasury. But, Laird, then a White House adviser, convinced Nixon that Connally would be unacceptable to Congress, which had to confirm the nomination, and recommended Ford. Nixon nominated Ford on Oct. 12, 1973. Ford then underwent an intensive investigation of his personal life by the FBI and by Congress.[3] Charges by a lobbyist that Ford had done political favors for contributors were found to be fabricated. Ford's leadership of an effort in 1970 to impeach liberal Supreme court Justice Wiliam O. Douglas was attributed to soldierly loyalty to the White House. Ford was confirmed by Congress and was sworn in as vice-president on Dec. 6, 1973.

As vice-president, Ford called inflation "Public Enemy Number One," promoted the "WIN: Whip Inflation Now" slogan, and urged budget cuts. He was an ardent foe of busing to achieve racial integration. He repeatedly defended President Nixon's innocence in the Watergate Scandal and its cover-up. Ford dropped that defense only when Nixon, on August 5, 1974, released tapes that showed his complicity in the cover-up and made his impeachment and conviction inevitable. Nixon then resigned, and Ford became president on Aug. 9, 1974.

Presidency

"The long national nightmare is over!" Ford proclaimed to widespread relief from all sides. The Watergate tragedy had dragged on for two years and grievously undermined public confidence in core national institutions, as both the president and vice president, and many top aides, had been forced to resign. Many went to prison. Ford's role was to start fresh again. He nominated Nelson Rockefeller for vice-president and kept Henry Kissinger as secretary of state. Rockefeller was approved but was ineffective and unhappy in the new role. Ford's honeymoon suddenly ended on September 8, 1974, when he gave Nixon an unconditional pardon for all federal crimes he might have committed in office. The timing was bad, and the Democrats had an issue they used to score massive gains in the November Congressional elections.[4]

Economy

Ford's vision for America were grounded in conservative principles that emphasized fiscal responsibility, decreased federal involvement in the economy, lower taxes, and long-term sustainable growth with low inflation. Inflation was the economic terror of the 1970s, and its reduction was Ford's overriding domestic priority. Throughout his presidency his favored means for combating inflation was the conservative stand-by: a combination of fiscal austerity and a tight federal monetary policy. He scored the heavily Democratic 94th Congress for wasteful spending, and 66 times wielded the presidential veto to kill costly congressional bills. His refusal to help New York City's financial crisis was briefly popular in the hinterland.[5]

The initial goodwill toward Ford steadily eroded as the numbers turned sour. Unemployment went from 4.8% in 1972 to 8.0% when he took office; consumer price inflation jumped from 3.4% to 11.0%. Unexpectedly high inflation, fueled by soaring oil prices, made it difficult to plan for the future; cheap imports from Germany and Japan for the first time became a threat to autos and electronics; high unemployment troubled industrial areas. By early 1975 the jobless rate was the worst since the Great Depression. Ford insisted that inflation was the greater problem. He sought to slow it, as Nixon had, by severe restraints on government spending for social programs. He also tried to curb private spending by asking Congress to raise the taxes on personal incomes. But the Democratic majority refused, and in congressional elections in November 1974 Democrats increased their majorities to three-fifths in the Senate and two-thirds in the House. In January 1975 Ford finally yielded to liberals' demands for a program to stop the economic slump and promote hiring. He proposed personal income tax rebates, especially to higher-income people, who might spend extra money on durable goods such as automobiles. Liberals criticized Ford's proposal for offering little relief for the poor, so they pushed through Congress a modified, though modest, tax rebate bill favoring lower-income people. Ford signed it reluctantly. He continued to resist liberal demands for massive public works spending to employ the jobless, and vetoed many bills.

Ford also wanted to make the domestic energy industry more profitable, even at the cost of inflation, in order to encourage more private investment in it and thereby reduce the dependence on oil from abroad. He proposed huge public subsidies for developing new energy sources.

Deregulation - that is, the removal of the old New Deal controls on transportation, communications, finance and other businesses - began under Ford (Nixon was more of a New Dealer who liked federal regulations), and continued under Carter and Reagan until most of the New Deal controls on business had ended.

When an opening occurred in the Supreme Court in 1975, Ford was determined to use the appointment not as a vehicle for his own political or ideological goals, but to help restore confidence in government. He did this by placing a premium on professional considerations and relying on his attorney general, Edward Levi. In nominating John Paul Stevens, Ford chose someone he saw as a nonpolitical choice, someone he could allow independence from White House supervision, and someone who reflected a nonideological, nonpartisan selection process, although Stevens over the years emerged as the most liberal justice.[6]

Foreign affairs

In foreign affairs, Ford preserved the détente forged by Nixon and Kissinger. The Helsinki Treaty, ratifying the postwar borders in Europe and supposedly committing the Soviets to hiuman rights, was signed in August 1975. Republican conservatives, led by Ronald Reagan, bemoaned détente as another indicator of the slippage of American power and prestige, and laid plans to defeat Ford's bid for reelection.

Vietnam

Ford blamed Congress for Communist North Vietnam's conquest of American ally South Vietnam in April 1975, because it had banned the renewed use of U.S. military forces there and refused his request for more aid to the crumbling resistance. In May 1975, when Cambodia seized a U.S. merchant ship, the SS Mayagüez, sailing close to its coast, he demonstrated that he could still act with secrecy and haste by sending U.S. marines to help recover the vessel and planes to bomb Sihanoukville (see Mayagüez incident). In 1975-1976 he sanctioned secret U.S. aid to the anti-Soviet factions in the civil war in Angola, which ended in a leftist victory.

But by late 1976 the United States was not involved in any war, but the détente policy was rapidly losing political support, with Kissinger a scapegoat. Inflation had moderated. Business had recovered from the deep slump, though unemployment was still high.

Reelection fails

In the 1976 presidential campaign, Ford-the-insider was challenged by a complete outsider, Jimmy Carter, a former Georgia governor who promised to restore trust in government, reduce unemployment, and shrink the federal bureaucracy. Ford, after overcoming a strong challenge for the Republican nomination from conservative Ronald Reagan, replaced liberal Rockefeller with conservative Senator Robert Dole of Kansas, as his running mate. He campaigned on his record of having blocked expensive social programs and thereby slowed inflation. He also accused Carter of being fuzzy on issues and of lacking experience in foreign affairs. However he agreed to nationally televised debates - the first between presidential candidates since 1960 and in one debate Ford blundered badly by insisting falsely that "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe." In a close election Ford lost, thus remaining the only president who never won a national election.

Legacy

The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum in Ann Arbor, Michigan, opened in 1981. Administered by the National Archives and Records Administration it possesses the official records of Ford and many aides. A separate museum in Grand Rapids chronicles Ford's life.

Bibliography

  • Abramowitz, Alan I. "The Impact of a Presidential Debate on Voter Rationality, " American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Aug., 1978), pp. 680-690, advanced analysis of debate with Carter on unemployment, showing voters shifter their opinion to agree with Ford or Carter. in JSTOR
  • Cannon, James. Time and Chance: Gerald Ford's Appointment With History (1998), the major biography
  • Greene, John Robert. The Presidency of Gerald R. Ford (1995), 272pp, the standard scholarly survey. excerpt and text search
  • Greene, John Robert. The Limits of Power: The Nixon and Ford Administrations (1992)
  • Greene, John Robert. Betty Ford: Candor And Courage In The White House (2004) excerpt and text search
  • Hayes, Stephen F. Cheney: The Untold Story of America's Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President (2007). pp 70-122 on role as senior aide to Ford; excerpt and text search
  • Mieczkowski, Yanek. Gerald Ford And The Challenges Of The 1970s (2005), 455pp; excerpt and text search
  • Schapsmeier, Edward L. and Frederick H. Schapsmeier. Gerald R. Ford's Date With Destiny: A Political Biography (1989), strongest on Congressional years.
  • Suri, Jeremi. Henry Kissinger and the American Century (2007)
  • Werth, Barry. 31 Days: Gerald Ford, the Nixon Pardon and A Government in Crisis (2007), 416pp

Primary sources

  • Council of Economic Advisors, Economic Report of the President (annual 1947- ), complete series online; important analysis of current trends and policies, plus statistcial tables
  • Ford, Gerald R. A time to heal: the autobiography of Gerald R. Ford (1979)
  • Greenspan, Alan. The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World (2007), memoir by senior economics advisor
  • Kissinger, Henry. Years of Renewal (2000). 1152pp; in-depth memoirs of the Ford years; excerpt and text search
    • Zelikow, Philip. "The Statesman in Winter: Kissinger on the Ford Years" Foreign Affairs (1999) 78(3): 123-128. Issn: 0015-7120 Fulltext: Ebsco
  • Laird, Melvin R. "A Strong Start in a Difficult Decade: Defense Policy in the Nixon-Ford Years." International Security (1985) 10(2): 5-26. Issn: 0162-2889 Fulltext: in Jstor

See also


  1. William A. Syers, "The Political Beginnings of Gerald R. Ford: Anti-bossism, Internationalism, and the Congressional Campaign of 1948." Presidential Studies Quarterly 1990 20(1): 127-142. ISSN 0360-4918.
  2. Maryanne Borrelli, "Competing Conceptions of the First Ladyship: Public Responses to Betty Ford's 60 Minutes Interview." Presidential Studies Quarterly 2001 31(3): 397-414. ISSN 0360-4918.
  3. A microscopic audit of his taxes showed only one mistake - he had deducted the cost of renting a tuxedo for inauguration ceremonies.
  4. Soon after, Ford offered Vietnam War military deserters and draft dodgers a conditional amnesty, with penalties. Most war resisters in exile ignored the offer.
  5. Yanek Mieczkowski, Gerald Ford And The Challenges Of The 1970s (2005).
  6. David M. O'Brien, "The Politics of Professionalism: President Gerald R. Ford's Appointment of Justice John Paul Stevens." Presidential Studies Quarterly (1991) 21(1): 103-126. ISSN 0360-4918.