President #38, C-SPAN ranking 22
Gerald Ford had a unique presidency. He was not elected to be vice president. He was not elected to be president. His vice president was not elected either. He was the first president to born with an entirely different first and last name than what he used while in office. He was a remarkably successful politician who never lost an election, until he ran for president on his own.
But what will history remember Gerald Ford for? He was the man who pardoned Richard Nixon. And that one act, something which Ford did not regret, is like that big blemish on someone’s face that you just can’t help staring at.
Douglas Brinkley, who has written a biography of Jimmy Carter among his many other books, writes the Gerald Ford obituary and does a good job of presenting the two sides of Ford. One side was the grandfatherly, pipe-smoking calm leader who led America out of the dark years of Watergate. The other side was the man who spent most of this adult life in politics and based many of his decisions based on what was feasible in a hostile political climate.
Ford came into the world with the name Leslie King, but his mother took her son away from her abusive husband and moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she remarried a successful local business man, who adopted young Leslie King and renamed him Gerald R. Ford, Jr. The R stands for Rudolph, which was originally Rudolf, but Ford changed that spelling too.
Ford was an All-America center for the University of Michigan’s football team in 1934. That Michigan squad went 1-7 and scored just 21 points.
Eventually Ford went on to Yale Law School, served in the Navy in World War II, and then came back to Grand Rapids and started a law practice and went into politics and won a House seat in 1948 and held it until he resigned to become the replacement for Spiro Agnew as Vice President in 1973.
Ford remained loyal to Nixon for as long as he could, but even he had his limits. When it became clear that Nixon had to resign, White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig came to Ford with a series of scenarios. One of them was that Nixon would resign in exchange for a pardon from Ford. Did Ford agree to this? According to Brinkley, Ford didn’t. But he also didn’t explicitly say he wouldn’t pardon Nixon. And in such gray areas, Ford’s legacy was made.
The rest of Ford’s presidency featured events such as an attempt to end inflation by getting people to wear WIN (Whip Inflation Now!) buttons and telling people that it was their patriotic duty to spend less, the signing of the Helsinki accords on human rights (which made Ford a pariah to the Republican right, aka Ronald Reagan), watching South Vietnam fall into the hands of Communists, sending Marines to rescue a captured U.S. freighter in Cambodia, and getting to look very presidential during the Bicentennial.
One aspect of Ford’s presidency that Brinkley mentions is Ford’s role in East Timor. When the Timorese tried to break away from Indonesia, Ford, upon advice from his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, gave the Indonesians free rein to suppress the insurgency. Hundreds of thousands died in a conflict that lasted over 20 years. In his memoirs, Ford pointed to his actions in this matter as one of his biggest mistakes.
Ford lost his chance to be elected in his own right in 1976. Reagan almost denied Ford the nomination and did little campaigning for him in the general election against Jimmy Carter. And despite having the stain of the Nixon pardon and making a huge gaffe in a debate (“There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.”), Ford narrowly lost in 1976, 50.1%-40.8% 48.0%.
Gerald Ford, unlike the other presidents with official libraries, opted to have the museum attached to it in a different city. Ford’s papers are at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, while a museum dedicated to his life is in his home town of Grand Rapids (I’ve been to it. TWICE!). Ford’s widow, Betty, is of course better known for the rehab clinic she and her husband helped to open in Rancho Mirage, California.
Rancho Mirage is where Gerald Ford passed away on December 26, 2006 at the age of 93. Ford lived longer than any other President, 45 days longer than Reagan.