May 18th, 2020

Ford

The Obscure Presidents: Gerald Ford

As I post this, I am about 275 pages into Daniel Williams' excellent analysis of the 1976 US Presidential election entitled The Election of the Evangelical: Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and the Presidential Contest of 1976. (I'll post a review when I finish). It reminded me what a political roller coaster ride Gerald Ford had following his succeeding Richard Nixon as President, initially appearing to be a breath of fresh air following Nixon's dysfunctional and dishonest presidency, and then plummeting in popularity for his pardon of Nixon. Ford is the only person to hold the offices of Vice-President and President of the United States without ever having been elected to either position. He was appointed to the Vice-Presidency and approved by the Senate because he was considered to be squeaky clean when it came to scandals. Congress was controlled by the Democrats, and they also believed that the wooden-mannered Ford wouldn't be much of a threat in an election campaign. They were almost wrong about this. Ford succeeded Richard Nixon as President following Nixon's resignation in August of 1974 and completed the remainder of Nixon's term. He might have won election in his own right, were in not for the most controversial decision of his presidency, Nixon's pardon.

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Ford was born with the name Leslie Lynch King Jr. on July 14, 1913, but he would later formally change his name from that of his abusive biological father, to that of his stepfather, a much kinder man and a better father. Ford was born in Omaha, Nebraska, but was raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He attended the University of Michigan and played center on the school's football team. He was offered a tryout with the Green Bay Packers, but wisely chose to attend Yale Law School instead. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve, serving from 1942 to 1946. He left the service with the rank of lieutenant commander. Ford began his political career in 1949 as the U.S. representative from Michigan's 5th congressional district. He served in this capacity for 25 years, the final nine of them as the House Minority Leader. While in Congress, he was picked by Democratic President Lyndon Johnson to serve as a member of the Warren Commission, the group that looked into the assassination of John F. Kennedy and produced its controversial report.

When Vice-President Spiro Agnew resigned, Ford became the first person to be appointed to the vice presidency under the terms of the 25th Amendment. After the resignation of Richard Nixon, Ford immediately assumed the presidency. His 895 day-long presidency is the shortest in U.S. history for any president who did not die in office.

During is time in office as president, Ford signed the Helsinki Accords with the Soviet Union, moving toward détente in the Cold War. With the collapse of South Vietnam nine months into his presidency, U.S. involvement in Vietnam came to an end. Domestically, Ford inherited the worst economy in the four decades since the Great Depression, with growing inflation and a recession during his tenure. But by far, his most controversial act was the presidential pardon that he granted to President Richard Nixon for his role in the Watergate scandal. His approval ratings dropped sharply following this act. Ford has promised an open and accountable government when he took his oath of office, and may people saw this as a betrayal of that promise.

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In the Republican presidential primary campaign of 1976, Ford faced a formidable challenge from former California Governor Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination. He won that contest, but narrowly lost the presidential election to his Democratic challenger, former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter. The race was much closer than many had predicted however.

After leaving the presidency, Ford remained active in the Republican Party. In the conservative era that followed his departure, his moderate views on various social issues increasingly put him at odds with a large portion of his party. He lived out his lengthy retirement as an elder statesman. Ford Passed away on December 26, 2006, at his home in Rancho Mirage, California. He was 93 years and 165 days old. On December 30, 2006, Ford became the 11th President to lie in state in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. His state funeral and memorial services were held at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on January 2, 2007. After the service, Ford was interred at his Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan. About 400 Eagle Scouts were part of the funeral procession as an honor guard. The University of Michigan Marching Band played the school's fight song for his last ride from the Gerald R. Ford Airport in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The State of Michigan commissioned and submitted a statue of Ford to the National Statuary Hall Collection, replacing Zachariah Chandler. It was unveiled on May 3, 2011 in the Capitol Rotunda. Inscribed on the stand to the statue is a quotation from Tip O'Neill, Speaker of the House at the end of Ford's presidency: "God has been good to America, especially during difficult times. At the time of the Civil War, he gave us Abraham Lincoln. And at the time of Watergate, he gave us Gerald Ford—the right man at the right time who was able to put our nation back together again."

In spite of his having been a college athlete and an accomplished skier, Ford acquired a reputation as a clumsy, accident prone klutz. This originated with a 1975 incident in which he tripped while exiting Air Force One in Austria. This clip spawned the imitation of Ford by Saturday Night Live cast member Chevy Chase, and this impression of Ford grew.

But Ford will always be remembered for the pardon. 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. In the months following the pardon, Ford would never mention President Nixon by name, referring to him in public as "my predecessor" or "the former president." When White House correspondent Fred Barnes asked Ford why this was, a candid Ford replied, "I just can’t bring myself to do it." After Ford left the White House in January 1977, he carried a portion of the reasons for judgement in the 1915 US Supreme Court decision of Burdick v. United States, in which the court said that a pardon indicated a presumption of guilt, and that acceptance of a pardon was tantamount to a confession of that guilt.

In 2001, the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation awarded the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award to Ford for his pardon of Nixon. In presenting the award to Ford, Senator Edward Kennedy said that he had initially been opposed to the pardon, but later concluded that history had proved Ford to have made the correct decision.

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Polls of historians and political scientists have generally ranked Ford as a below-average to average president. A 2018 poll of the American Political Science Association's Presidents and Executive Politics section ranked Ford as the 25th best president. A 2017 C-Span poll of historians also ranked Ford as the 25th best president. One historian, John Robert Greene, sums up Ford's presidency as follows: "Ford had difficulty navigating a demanding political environment. Americans, by and large, believed that Gerald Ford was an innately decent and good man and that he would (and did) bring honor to the White House. Although this sentiment proved too little to bring Ford to victory in 1976, it is an assessment that most Americans and scholars still find valid in the years after his presidency."
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Potus Geeks Book Review: The Election of the Evangelical by Daniel K. Williams

In an act of humility, author Daniel K. Williams credits another author (Jules Witcover) for writing the best analysis of the 1976 Presidential Election, the closest presidential election since 1916 (up until Bush v. Gore). After reading Professor Williams' chronicle of the contest in The Election of the Evangelical: Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and the Presidential Contest of 1976, it's hard to imagine that there could be a better post mortem of this remarkable chapter in Presidential election history.



This book is another in the American Presidential Election Series published by the University of Kansas Press. This volume is longer than the average, but still a very reasonable and readable length at 354 pages. Williams does an outstanding job of describing the historical and political setting in which this election took place. It was the post-Watergate era, when Richard Nixon had resigned in disgrace, and Gerald Ford appeared to be an honest breath of fresh air in a stale White House, for a few months at least, until Ford's controversial pardon of his predecessor seemed to cost him whatever goodwill he might have had. After the Republicans were soundly thrashed in the 1974 mid-term elections and Ford trailed badly in the polls (by as much as 40% according to some surveys). Williams adeptly explains why the presidential election that should have been a cakewalk for the Democrats turned out to be anything but, with the candidates scored almost even in election day polls.

The author describes who the major contenders for the presidency were in the time leading up to the election, and why the expected front runners such as Ted Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey decided to sit this one out, why others like Henry "Scoop" Jackson and Birch Bayh failed to gain traction, and how a little known governor of a southern state gathered momentum to become the front runner for the Democratic nomination. It was a year of intra-party squabbling and schisms as both Republicans and Democrats attacked their own. As Carter won primaries by promoting himself as a Washington outsider, those in his own party turned their attack on him for being an insincere panderer who changed his message depending on his audience. Republicans also experienced a bitter nomination fight between conservatives supporting Ronald Reagan and moderates and liberals (yes, there once was such a thing as a liberal Republican) supporting Ford.

Williams gives a very thorough and intelligent description of these contest and of the strategies of all of the campaigns as well as their stumbles and gaffes. He provides an excellent description of the nominating process, the general election campaign, and the various voting demographics that the candidates courted, successfully or otherwise. He also examines the historical significance and impact of this election, and how its events shaped the state of modern politics.

One minor nit-picky criticism: unlike most books in this series, this one lacks the usual tables showing the primary and election results. But this is minor. The author deserves very high marks for his detail, his clear explanation of complex political issues and trends, and his objectivity in fairly assessing the strengths and weaknesses of both of the candidates. There is no adulation, hero worship or brand loyalty apparent in this scholarship. That's a remarkable feat for these times and Professor Williams deserves credit for his accomplishment in producing such an outstanding work.