Gerald Ford's rise to the Presidency in 1974 was quite remarkable, considering that he had not gotten elected to either positions (the only person so far to hold that distinction.) He had wanted to become House Speaker, and had worked to help Republicans across the country get a majority in the chamber, often traveling to speak in their districts. After failing to do so for over a decade, he promised his wife Betty that he would try again one last time in 1974 and then retire in 1976. As John Lennon once said, life is what happens to us when we're busy making other plans, and that certainly was true for Ford.
On October 10, 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned and later pleaded no contest to criminal charges of tax evasion and money laundering. This was the result of his having accepted $29,500 in bribes when he was Governor of Maryland. Incumbent President Nixon sought advice from senior Congressional leaders about a replacement, knowing that he needed to find someone who could gain enough support within the Democratic controlled Congress. House Speaker Carl Albert later said, "We gave Nixon no choice but Ford" and Ford agreed to the nomination. He told his wife that the vice presidency would be "a nice conclusion" to his political career.
Ford was nominated to take Agnew's position on October 12, 1973, two days after Agnew's resignation. It was the first time that a vice-presidential vacancy was filled under the provision of the 25th Amendment. The United States Senate voted to confirm Ford on November 27 by a margin of 92 to 3. On December 6, 1973, the House confirmed Ford by a vote of 387 to 35. After the confirmation vote in the House, Ford took the oath of office as vice president.
At the time, the Watergate scandal was unfolding and things were getting worse for President Richard Nixon. On Thursday, August 1, 1974, Chief of Staff Alexander Haig contacted Ford to tell him to get ready to become President. Ford and his family were still living in suburban Virginia and hadn't yet moved into the newly designated vice president's residence in Washington, D.C. Ford recalled:
"Al Haig asked to come over and see me to tell me that there would be a new tape released on a Monday, and he said the evidence in there was devastating and there would probably be either an impeachment or a resignation. And he said, 'I'm just warning you that you've got to be prepared, that things might change dramatically and you could become President.' And I said, 'Betty, I don't think we're ever going to live in the vice president's house.'"
Ford was correct about that. Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974, and Ford assumed the presidency, making him the only person to become the nation's chief executive without having been previously voted in either as president or vice-president by the Electoral College. Immediately after Ford took the oath of office in the East Room of the White House, he spoke to those assembled in a speech that was broadcast live to the nation. He said:
"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. I have not sought this enormous responsibility, but I will not shirk it. Those who nominated and confirmed me as Vice President were my friends and are my friends. They were of both parties, elected by all the people and acting under the Constitution in their name. It is only fitting then that I should pledge to them and to you that I will be the President of all the people...
"My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here, the people rule. But there is a higher Power, by whatever name we honor Him, who ordains not only righteousness but love, not only justice, but mercy... Let us restore the golden rule to our political process, and let brotherly love purge our hearts of suspicion and hate."
On August 20, Ford nominated former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller to fill the vice presidency he had vacated. Rockefeller underwent extended hearings before Congress. Conservative Republicans were not pleased that Rockefeller was picked, but most of them voted for his confirmation, and his nomination passed both the House and Senate. His old conservative nemesis Barry Goldwater was one of the Republicans who voted against him.
Probably nothing hurt Republican chances in the upcoming mid-term and presidential election than Ford's most controversial act. On September 8, 1974, Ford issued Proclamation 4311, which gave his predecessor Richard Nixon a full and unconditional pardon for any crimes he might have committed against the United States while president. Ford tried to explain his action in a televised broadcast to the nation, but much of the nation was unconvinced, including many Republicans. Ford said that he felt the pardon was in the best interests of the country. He called the Nixon family's situation "a tragedy in which we all have played a part. It could go on and on and on, or someone must write the end to it. I have concluded that only I can do that, and if I can, I must."
Ford's critics called the pardon a "corrupt bargain" that had been struck between Ford and Nixon. Many believed that Ford's pardon was granted in exchange for Nixon's resignation. Ford's first press secretary and close friend Jerald terHorst resigned his post in protest after the pardon. According to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, Nixon Chief of Staff Alexander Haig had proposed a pardon deal to Ford, but that Ford later decided to pardon Nixon for other reasons, primarily the friendship he and Nixon shared. Whatever the truth was, the controversy was certainly one of the major reasons that so many Republicans lost their seats in the mid-term elections that year and why Ford later lost the 1976 presidential election. Ford himself agreed with these conclusions. A New York Times editorial called the Nixon pardon a "profoundly unwise, divisive and unjust act" and added that it had destroyed the Ford's "credibility as a man of judgment, candor and competence".
On October 17, 1974, Ford testified before Congress about the pardon, making him the first sitting president since Abraham Lincoln to testify before the House of Representatives.
On September 16 (shortly after he pardoned Nixon), Ford also issued Presidential Proclamation 4313, which introduced a conditional amnesty program for military deserters and Vietnam War draft dodgers who had fled to countries such as Canada. The conditions of the amnesty required that those receiving the amnesty must reaffirm their allegiance to the United States and serve two years working in a public service job or a total of two years service for those who had served less than two years of honorable service in the military. The program for the Return of Vietnam Era Draft Evaders and Military Deserters established a Clemency Board to review the records and make recommendations for receiving a Presidential Pardon and a change in Military discharge status. Full pardon for draft dodgers would not come until the administration of Ford's successor, Jimmy Carter.
The 1974 Congressional midterm elections took place less than three months after Ford assumed office. The Democratic Party used voter anger over Watergate and the Nixon pardon to their advantage and won large gains in the House elections, taking 49 seats from the Republicans, increasing their majority to 291 of the 435 seats. Only 290 seats were needed for a two-thirds majority, the number necessary to override a Presidential veto or to propose a constitutional amendment. The 94th Congress went on to overrode the highest percentage of vetoes since Andrew Johnson's presidency. Republicans even lost the seat that Ford had held for many years, once considered reliably Republican, to Democrat Richard Vander Veen. In the Senate elections, the Democratic majority rose to 61 seats from 57. Republicans would not retake control of Congress for another 20 years.