Two men who had the most unenviable task in presidential history are Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Both men had to follow the implosion of Richard Nixon’s presidency. Both men were honest, likeable, and from humble beginnings. Of the two, Ford probably had the hardest job.
Gerald Ford began life as Leslie King, Jr. When he was two months old, his mother fled Omaha, Nebraska, tired of dealing with the abusive Leslie King, Sr. She married a man named Gerald Ford, who adopted the future president and gave him his name. Ford would learn enough about his biological father to make the elder King one of the very few people he would openly despise. How badly did he resent his biological father’s treatment and later neglect of his mother? Early in his law career, a rookie lawyer needed a case to build his resume. Hearing the normally pleasant and amiable Ford rail on Leslie King’s nonpayment of support, the lawyer offered to handle a lawsuit against King. King, who had a hard time understanding that his son now called Gerald Ford, Sr., “Dad,” pleaded with Ford to call off his mother. Ford’s response.
“That’s your problem. Settle it with her.” Mrs. Ford took him for $4000.
Ford joined a generation of politicians who came to prominence in the late 1940’s that included future presidents John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, shepherded along by Congressional stalwarts in both parties like Sam Rayburn.
Though Ford, to date, the only unelected president in US history, served less than 900 days in the White House, his is probably one of the most important presidencies in the Cold War era. Beginning with his vice presidency, in which he was the first vice president appointed under the Twenty-fifth Amendment, he had to walk a fine line between defending Nixon and keeping his party together. As late as a week before Nixon’s resignation, Ford believed Nixon had another six months before he would have to resign. (That it would have shortened his own term as president to less than two years, making him eligible for two elected terms in his own right, might have crossed his mind.) The first thing out of his mouth after taking the oath of office was “I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your President by your ballots, and so I ask you to confirm me as your President with your prayers.”
A wise move. After the abuses and subterfuge of Watergate, the last thing Americans were in the mood for was having an unchosen president foisted upon them. For the most part, Ford was well-liked and enjoyed high approval ratings. However, when he pardoned Nixon unconditionally, he likely cost himself a chance to win an election in his own right. Also, Ford, like Eisenhower, George H. W. Bush, and Robert Dole, came from the moderate segment of the Republican Party. The liberal wing, represented by Ford’s own vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, was in rapid decline while the right wing, led by Ronald Reagan, began asserting more and more power. Reagan’s bid for the 1976 nomination likely weakened Ford to the point where he could not overcome the pardon. His successor, Jimmy Carter, would meet a similar fate when Ted Kennedy mounted what became the last serious attempt to wrest a party nomination from a sitting president.
The final nail in his political coffin, however, came during the debates with Carter when he said, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” It’s one of those gaffes that you can’t take back once it’s out, especially on camera in front of the entire nation.
Ford reluctantly retired from politics and opted against running against Carter in 1980 in favor of Ronald Reagan. Unfortunately, it relegated him to the role of interim president. On the other hand, he and George H. W. Bush (Ford’s CIA director and one-time considered to be a possible vice president) would later become some of the most accessible former presidents in recent history. Ford kept busy in his post-presidency, serving on several corporate boards and raising money for worthy causes. Of all the former presidents alive when George W. Bush came to power, Ford had the most even-handed assessments of his more recent successors. He felt George Bush, Sr., was better than Reagan but ran a horrible campaign against Clinton. He admired Clinton’s flexibility, but did not think he had much depth. More surprisingly, upon meeting the Clintons for the first time, Ford remarked to friends and quite a few reporters that he thought Hillary Clinton would become America’s first female president. To biographer Thomas DeFrank, he remarked that Bill Clinton had stolen the young Hillary Rodham from the Republican Party. (Quite likely, it was a little envy on the part of Ford, who met her when she was a young intern in the early 1970’s.) He found George W. Bush too stubborn for his own good, and thought that Bush should have dumped Dick Cheney in 2004. This last assessment is remarkable as Ford named Cheney his chief of staff for a time and felt he was the perfect running mate for Bush in 2000. However, while Ford would not come out and say it, he seems to confirm Bob Woodward’s conclusion that Bush only wanted to hear an echo chamber.
Ford’s career, which almost lead to the role of Speaker of the House, is quite remarkable. It’s also rather low-key, which is why he’s often overlooked.