Wednesday, November 02, 2011

A Ford Not A Lincoln: The Accidental Presidency of Gerald R. Ford

I am coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled “American Dreams and Reality: A Retelling of the American Story.” Here, I describe the improbable rise of Gerald Rudolph Ford to the American Presidency and his image problems after his pardon of his predecessor Richard Nixon.

A generally quiet man who spoke in a slow monotone, Gerald Ford was born Leslie Lynch King in 1913, but was renamed after he was adopted by his stepfather. An all-football center at the University of Michigan, Ford received contract offers from two National Football League teams, the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers, but decided instead to attend Yale Law School. There, he worked as an assistant football and boxing coach and graduated in the top third of his class before seeing combat duty in the United States Navy during World War II. He won his first race for the United States House in 1948 and never carried less than 60 percent of the vote in his home district.

By 1950, he won a spot on the House Appropriations Committee. Ford voted against Medicare, and against President Lyndon Johnson’s Medicare and public housing programs. Genial, well-liked and seen as honest, he nevertheless acquired a reputation among liberals as someone out of touch with the poor and as being sub-par intellectually. Johnson famously put him down as someone who played “too much football without a helmet.” Nevertheless, Johnson appointed him to serve on the Warren Commission that investigated President Kennedy’s assassination and Ford became a vigorous defender of its controversial conclusions. In 1965, he rose to the position of House Minority leader and from that point on his ambition was to become House Speaker, which he described as the “greatest job in the world.” By 1973 he gave up hope that Republicans would ever gain a majority in the House and decided that he would run for only one more term and return to Michigan. Then the vice presidency became open when Spiro Agnew was forced to resign as a result of a bribery scandal from his days as governor of Maryland. Nixon selected the genial Ford to be to be the controversial Agnew’s replacement.

Ford won easy confirmation in December 1973 and, jokingly contrasting himself with a luxury car, said at his swearing in that he was, “a Ford, not a Lincoln.” Exhausted by Vietnam and Watergate and the lies that surrounded both issues, Americans responded with relief when Nixon stepped down and Ford assumed the presidency. “The outpouring of goodwill towards Ford in the first week of his presidency was immense,” wrote Bob Woodward. “There was a sense of cleansing and simplification. Nixon’s crisis had created the feeling of national siege. Ford had punctured the tension.” On the morning Ford assumed the office, the press extensively wrote about how the new president toasted his own English muffins. He asked the Marine Corps Band to not play “Hail to the Chief” at his swearing-in, saying that he would prefer the University of Michigan fight song. His words were also winningly humble. “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over,” he said. “Our Constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here, the people rule.” With a few short words and simple gestures, Ford generated a lot of support. His first major act as president, however, would inspire cynicism and anger.


Ford worried that the continuing controversy surrounding Nixon, and the prospect of a criminal trial for the former president, would consume the country and make governing a nation already buffeted by scandal, high inflation, and the continued conflict with the Soviet Union even more difficult. He later said that he spent about 25 percent of his time “listening to lawyers argue what I should do with Mr. Nixon’s papers, his tapes, et. cetera.” Ford’s honeymoon with the press and the American public came to a crashing halt on September 8, 1974, on a Sunday morning when he announced on television that he had granted Nixon a “full, free, and absolute pardon” for “all offenses against the United States” Nixon “has committed or may have committed.”

The reaction was immediately angry and harsh. Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post called his writing partner Bob Woodward and said, “The son of a bitch pardoned the son of a bitch.” Many saw the pardon as a corruption of justice, that Nixon had been allowed to escape the legal consequences of his actions when, by 1974, 18 men connected to the White House and/or the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP) had been indicted, convicted, or pleaded guilty to felonies. Ford faced accusations that he had agreed to pardon Nixon in return for gaining the White House. In October, Ford appeared before a House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice to deny any corrupt deal had been made related to the Nixon pardon, but the damage was done. As Time Magazine put it, “the exhilarating atmosphere of honesty and belief that surrounded Gerald Ford in his first month in office . . . that unreal glow is gone, and it will probably never return.” After the pardon, Ford’s approval rating seldom climbed over 50 percent.

His political problems deepened with the fall elections in 1974. The Democrats picked up 43 seats in the House where they would hold a better than 2-1 margin, 291-144, and picked up three more seats in the Senate, which they now commanded by a 61-39 edge. Democrats now served as governors in 36 states. It was the Republican Party’s worst performance since the 1932 landslide when Franklin Roosevelt crushed Herbert Hoover. Even Ford’s old congressional district went to the Democrats. Although the results could be traced to Nixon’s misdeeds, Washington insiders saw Ford as politically weakened.

An athletic man, Ford’s image took another hit in June of 1975 when during a trip to Europe and following a mostly sleepless night, Ford slipped down the metal steps leading from Air Force One, falling to the tarmac. Photographs and film footage of the event filled newspapers and television coverage, and soon every Ford stumble caught media attention. By the time Ford fell while skiing in Vail, Colorado, the president’s alleged clumsiness, added to his reputation as an intellectual lightweight, became a running joke and a staple of a popular new TV variety series that debuted in the fall of 1975, Saturday Night Live.

In a series of running sketches, comedian Chevy Chase portrayed Ford as wildly stumbling across the Oval Office, using his tie as a Kleenex, and putting a glass filled with water to his ear when a phone rang. In his weekly parody of a news broadcast, “Weekend Update,” Chase said in 1976 that during the New Hampshire primary, “Gerald Ford kissed a snowball and threw a baby.” The support from his first month in the White House long gone, Ford could not shake the image of a dimwitted stumbler.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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