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Though he didn’t campaign to be either vice president or president of the United States, Gerald Ford was the 38th President of the United States, serving from 1974 to 1977. Nixon’s Watergate scandal had deeply scarred the nation and brought much condemnation on the land’s highest office. With President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974, Ford gave up his position as the 40th vice president of the United States and assumed the presidency. Before being appointed as vice president under the terms of the 25th Amendment, he had a prolific political career of 25 years, serving as U.S. Representative from Michigan’s fifth congressional district.
Gerald Ford was born Leslie Lynch King Jr. on July 14, 1931, in Omaha, Nebraska. His parents, Dorothy Ayer Gardner and Leslie Lynch King Sr. lived with his paternal grandparents. His paternal grandfather was a prominent banker, yet Ford’s father worked as a wool trader. His parents separated when he was only a few days old and later they divorced. Dorothy obtained full custody, took her son and moved back home to her parents in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The child support was paid by Ford’s grandfather. Ford later confessed that the reason for his parents’ divorce was the violent behavior of his father, who went as far as threatening to kill his wife with a butcher knife.
After spending more than two years in her parents’ home, Dorothy married Gerald Rudolff Ford, a businessman who owned a paint and varnish company. They decided to call her son Gerald Rudolff Ford, Jr. even though he was never adopted legally. On December 3, 1935, Dorothy’s son with Leslie King Sr. legally took the name of Gerald Ford. Ford became aware of the circumstances of his birth when he was 17 years old. Over the years, his contact with his biological father was very sporadic.
During his teenage years at the Grand Rapids South High School, Ford was the captain of the football team and a star athlete, which attracted the attention of several college recruiters. He attended the University of Michigan for his undergraduate studies. To pay for his college expenses, he washed dishes at the fraternity house where he was a member. Ford continued to play football in college and he rapidly became the team’s star. Throughout his life, he maintained his interest in football and often visited his former school.
In 1935, Ford graduated with a B.A. degree in economics. Soon after graduation, he started to work as a boxing coach and assistant football coach at Yale University. Around the same time, he enrolled at Yale’s law school. He earned his LL.B. degree (Juris Doctor) in the top 25% of his class in 1941. During his time at Yale, Ford became involved in politics and in the summer of 1940 he ended up working in Wendel Willkie’s presidential campaign. After finishing his studies, he opened a law practice with one of his best friends, Philip W. Buchen, in their hometown, Grand Rapids.
World War II
Like many patriotic young men of that era, when Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941 by the Japanese, Ford enlisted in the navy. He became an instructor at Navy Preflight School in North Carolina, where he taught first aid, military drill, but also elementary navigation skills. He also served as a coach in swimming, football, and boxing. In March 1943, he was promoted to lieutenant and two months later, he applied for sea duty.
Ford went through many difficult missions while stationed on board the Monterey. The ship was caught in many operations, yet the most damaging incident was a typhoon that almost destroyed it. Ford narrowly escaped death during the fire than ensued. Monterrey was later declared unfit for service and Ford was sent back to the Navy Pre-Flight School where he took charge of the Athletic Department. He was on the staff in several other military facilities until January 1946. Ford received many military awards for his accomplishments and left the army as lieutenant commander.
Early Political Career
After being released from army duty in 1946, Ford returned to Grand Rapids where he became actively involved in local politics, choosing to side with the Republicans. After a successful campaign in 1948, he became a member of the House of Representatives, where he would remain for the next 25 years. From 1949 to 1973, he held the Grand Rapids congressional district. His long career, however, led to modest results, as Ford did not have any major legislation initiative during these years. At the beginning of his career, he declined offers to run for the Senate or for the Michigan governorship, as he would have preferred to become Speaker of the House.
In 1948, Ford married Elizabeth Bloomer Warren in a small ceremony at Grace Episcopal Church in Grand Rapids. Elizabeth had been previously married to another man and she was divorced at the time of their meeting. She was a former fashion model and dancer collaborating with Martha Graham Dance Company. When she met Ford, she was working as a department store fashion consultant. The couple had four three sons and a daughter.
An important accomplishment of this period is Ford’s appointment in the Warren Commission, where his duty was to investigate the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. From 1965 to 1973, Ford served as a House Minority Leader, after he was nominated by other members of the House. As Minority Leader, his reputation as a politician began to grow, and he became known for criticizing the way the United States handled the Vietnam War. He repeatedly made an appearance on a series of televised press conferences to propose Republican alternatives to the unpopular policies of President Johnson.
When Richard Nixon assumed presidency in 1968, Ford showed his support for the White House agenda. Due to his fair leadership and amiable personality, Ford made many friends in the House during the time he served as Minority Leader. After Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned under charges of tax evasion and money laundering, Ford was the obvious choice for replacement. Ninety-two senators voted for Ford’s confirmation while only three voted against it. Ford became the Vice President of the United States and the first vice president to take office in accordance to the 25th Amendment.
President of the United States
As Ford assumed vice presidency, the Watergate scandal was taking over the White House. As the evidence against President Nixon grew stronger, Ford realized that he would have to replace Nixon in case of an impeachment or resignation. Shortly after, it turned out that he was right. On August 9, 1974, Nixon resigned and Ford took the presidential office.
Ford chose former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller to fill the vice presidency vacant position. A month later after taking office, he issued Proclamation 4311 to officially give Richard Nixon a full and unconditional pardon for the crimes he committed against the country while President. Excerpt from Ford’s September 8, 1974 speech to the nation: “My conscience tells me clearly and certainly that I cannot prolong the bad dreams that continue to reopen a chapter that is closed. My conscience tells me that only I, as President, have the constitutional power to firmly shut and seal this book. My conscience tells me it is my duty, not merely to proclaim domestic tranquility but to use every means that I have to insure it. I do believe that the buck stops here, that I cannot rely upon public opinion polls to tell me what is right. I do believe that right makes might and that if I am wrong, 10 angels swearing I was right would make no difference. I do believe, with all my heart and mind and spirit, that I, not as President but as a humble servant of God, will receive justice without mercy if I fail to show mercy.” The decision led to a wave of controversies and accusations as many people attacked Ford for corrupt bargaining. Many people considered that he and Nixon had made a deal to grant the pardon in exchange for the resignation that allowed Ford to become President. Some officials of Ford’s staff resigned in sign of protest after the pardon. Many observers later concluded that the major reason why Ford did not win the election of 1976 was his decision to pardon Nixon. Ford also agreed to this observation. The media was right in proclaiming that the act destroyed Ford’s credibility and led American to mistrust him entirely. In 2001, Ford received the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award from the John F. Kennedy Foundation for his decision to offer a pardon to Nixon. The justification of the award was that history proved the pardon had been a correct decision. Shortly after the Nixon pardon, Ford also announced an amnesty program for military deserters and Vietnam War draft dodgers under the condition that they serve two years in a public service job.
Another controversial decision of Ford’s early days in the White house was the replacement of almost all members of the Nixon’s Cabinet. The reorganization of the Cabinet was criticized heavily by political observers.
National Economic Problems
Besides the delicate situation on the political scene, Ford’s administration was greatly concerned with the state of the economy, which was going through a rising inflation. Ford launched the “Whip Inflation Now” program and urged Americans to spend and consume less in order for the inflation to stabilize. The efficiency of the program remained debatable for a long time. However, Ford’s main interest was to introduce a new tax reform that demanded an income tax increase on wealthy individuals and corporations.
Every year that Ford was President, the United States suffered from a deficit in the federal budget. Moreover, the country went through the worst recession since the Great Depression. The Ford administration’s main task became blocking the rise of the unemployment rate. To stimulate economic growth, Ford changed his plans of launching a tax increase plan to launching a one-year tax reduction that would avoid inflation. Ford received harsh criticism for his decision, yet the Tax Reduction Act of 1975 promulgated the income tax changes. As a result, the federal deficit grew to almost $53 billion in 1975 and to an even larger sum in 1976. Concerning other domestic issues, Ford proved to be a supporter and advocate of legal equality for men and women. He was also pro-choice in the abortion debate.
Our inflation, our public enemy number one, will, unless whipped, destroy our country, our homes, our liberties, our property and finally our national pride as surely as will any well-armed wartime enemy.
— Gerald Ford
At the time of Ford’s administration, the United States was facing challenges not only on the national scene, but also at an international level. Ford decided to continue the détente policy of his predecessors with Soviet Union and China, in an attempt to alleviate the tension caused by the Cold War. In 1975, he visited communist China and signed the Helsinki Accords with the Soviet Union, which would later give rise to the independent non-governmental organization known as Human Rights Watch.
Ford’s focus was promoting international cooperation to solve world issues. Despite his well-meaning agenda, the world was facing two major crises in the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean, the Cyprus dispute caused by Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus and Greece’s withdrawal from NATO. The relations between Turkey and the United States were disrupted for several years. However, this were minor incidents compared to the situation in Vietnam and Korea, where Ford had to handle a continuous crisis, making sure that the United States would leave the war with as few casualties as possible.
Two Attempted Assassinations of President Ford
During his presidency, Ford was the target of two assassination attempts. The first incident happened on September 1975, when a female follower of Charles Manson, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, pointed a gun at Ford in Sacramento, California. The attacker managed to pull the trigger, yet a Secret Service agent grabbed her gun. No more than seventeen days later, in San Francisco, another woman named Sara Jane Moore, from a crowd of onlookers pointed her gun at Ford and fired. She missed both her rounds and Ford escaped unharmed, yet a taxi driver was hurt in the incident. Despite the two attempts on his life in such a short period of time he refused to alter his schedule, saying that, “I think it’s important that we as a people don’t capitulate to the wrong element.” Both women were sentence to life imprisonment.
1976 Presidential Election
In 1976, Gerald Ford won the Republican nomination for the presidential election. He was reluctant to receive the nomination and to run for the office. The conservative wing of the party attacked him for failing to solve the issues in South Vietnam and for other decisions of his administration. Nevertheless, Ford finally agreed to enter the race. His election campaign benefited from his role as incumbent President because he took part in significant events of national interest, which were often televised, promoting a positive image of him among the American voters.
Ford ran against former governor of Georgia Jimmy Carter. Despite his efforts, Ford could not fight people’s lack of trust in the White House after the Watergate scandal and the Nixon pardon. The race proved to be very tight and both candidates had their shortcomings. Even though Ford’s performance during the televised presidential debate had been excellent and most polls suggested him a winner, he made a controversial claim during the second debate that crushed his rating. Eventually, Ford lost the election and Jimmy Carter became the 39th President of the United States. Carter received 50.1% of the popular vote and Ford only 48.0%.
Life After the Presidency
After his presidency, Ford remained active on the political scenes and he was often present at important events of ceremonial and historical significance. In 1979, he published his autobiography, A Time to Heal, which most reviewers described as utterly honest and unpretentious. Ford developed a close friendship with Jimmy Carter and the two often had lunch together at the White House. Carter and his wife visited Ford and his family at their home frequently.
In 1980, Ford wanted to re-enter the main scene of U.S. politics by seeking the Republican nomination to the presidential election. However, he lost to Ronald Reagan.
Ford spent his retirement years devoting time to his hobbies, especially playing golf. On December 26, 2006, he died due to his severe health problems. He was 93 years old. His wife, Betty Ford, died five years later. She was also 93 years old at the time of her death.
Coming of Age with Gerald Ford. December 27, 2006. Huffington Post. Accessed March 20, 2017.
Clumsy image aside, Ford was Accomplished Athlete. December 28, 2006. Los Angeles Times. Accessed March 20, 2017.
Gerald R. Ford Biography. Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum. Accessed March 20, 2017.
Gerald Ford: Steady Hand for a Nation in Crisis. December 27, 2006. Time. Accessed March 20, 2017.
The 38th President: More Than Met the Eye. Newsweek. Accessed March 20, 2017.
DeGregorio, William A. The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents: From George Washington to George W. Bush. Barnes & Noble Books. 2004.
© 2017 Doug West
Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on March 30, 2017:
Sherrie Weynand from San Francisco, CA on March 26, 2017:
It's always nice to go back and read something you had forgotten. In this case, the Manson follower responsible for the assassination attempt. Thanks for writing this, we learned about him in school, but I do believe there was more detail in this single article.