A Reference Resource
A Life in Brief
Gerald R. Ford became President of the United States on August 9, 1974, under extraordinary circumstances. Owing to the Watergate scandal, Ford's predecessor, Richard Nixon, had resigned under the threat of congressional impeachment. Ford assumed leadership of a nation whose domestic economy and international prestige—both seemingly sound in the decades after World War II—had deteriorated considerably. Just as important, Watergate, as well as the debacle of the Vietnam War, had profoundly shaken the American public's confidence in its leaders. Gerald Ford stepped into the breach opened up by these converging dynamics and achieved mixed results in addressing the twin problems of economic and geopolitical decline.
Born in Omaha, Nebraska, on July 14, 1913, Ford grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He distinguished himself as both a student and football player in high school and at the University of Michigan. Ford then gained admittance to Yale University's law school, from which he graduated in 1941. Following his graduation, he returned to Grand Rapids to practice law. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor officially brought the United States into World War II, Ford joined the U.S. Navy. He saw action aboard the Monterey, a light aircraft carrier in the South Pacific, winning ten battle stars for his service.
Politics and Marriage
After the war, Ford returned home to Grand Rapids, where he practiced law, got married, and entered politics. In 1948, he unseated Congressman Bartel (Barney) Jonkman in the Republican primary and then easily defeated Democrat Fred J. Barr, Jr., in the general election. During that same year, he married Elizabeth (Betty) Ann Bloomer, whom he had met in Grand Rapids. Ford and his new bride moved to Washington, D.C., where he would represent Michigan's Fifth Congressional District for the next twenty-four years.
In Congress, Ford's solid conservatism, his warm personality, his knowledge of the budget and appropriations process, and his willingness to accommodate his opponents propelled his rise to the Republican leadership. In 1965, Ford became Minority Leader, the highest-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives. As leader, he opposed much of President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society legislation and urged the President to prosecute the Vietnam War more vigorously. When Ford's friend and colleague Richard Nixon became President in 1969, Ford hoped for greater cooperation between Republicans in Congress and the Nixon White House. A good working relationship never came to pass, however.
Vice President and Watergate
Despite being treated as a lightweight by Nixon's staff, Ford came to the President's aid in the fall of 1973 after Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned. Nixon, who was under increasing pressure due to the Watergate scandal, surprised many by nominating Ford for the vice presidency. This was not out of any belief that Ford would play a role in policymaking that was compatible to Nixon's goals; rather, Nixon chose Ford because Congress would easily confirm him. Indeed, undertaking for the first time its confirmation role under the 25th Amendment, Congress did mount an exhaustive investigation of Ford but eventually gave the nomination its overwhelming approval. Ford took the vice presidential oath of office on December 6, 1973.
Ford traveled extensively as vice president, defending Nixon at every stop. The revelations surrounding Watergate, however, only grew more damning. During the summer of 1974, it became clear that President Nixon had grossly abused the power of his office by directing a cover-up of crimes committed by his subordinates. Nixon resigned as President on August 8, and Ford took the oath of office the next day, becoming the thirty-eighth President of the United States.
The Limits of Power
President Ford took office with the support of much of the American public, the media, and politicians from both parties. His decision—after only one month in office—to pardon former President Nixon ended this honeymoon. Domestically, Ford's greatest challenge was the country's slumping economy. The Ford administration battled repeatedly with Congress over tax cuts, federal spending, and energy policy, weakening the President politically. While the economy had begun to turn around by 1976, it still was sluggish as Ford entered the 1976 presidential election season.
In foreign affairs, Ford worked hard to maintain détente with the Soviet Union but was unable to deliver the major arms agreement he sought. Nevertheless, on Ford's watch, the United States, the Soviets, and more than thirty other nations signed the Helsinki Accords, a hallmark of détente. Ford also presided over the evacuation of Americans (and their Vietnamese allies) from defeated South Vietnam in 1975. That same year, Ford ordered the successful rescue of nearly 40 American sailors captured by Cambodia's Khmer Rouge. His biggest headaches in foreign affairs, though, often originated in domestic politics. Ford was never able to quell complaints from conservatives in the Democratic and Republican parties regarding his leadership of American foreign policy. His critics were most vocal in rejecting Ford's pursuit of détente with the Soviet Union.
1976 Election and Retirement
Ford's road to the 1976 presidential election was surprisingly difficult. Ronald Reagan, the leader of the conservative wing of the Republican Party, battled Ford throughout the primary season for the GOP presidential nomination. After surviving Reagan's challenge, Ford faced Democrat and former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter in the general election. Carter ran as a "Washington outsider" who promised to restore decency and honesty to governance in the wake of Watergate. It was an effective message and one that, along with several problems from within the Ford campaign itself, brought Carter to victory in November.
Gerald and Betty Ford retired to California after leaving the White House. The former President remained active in American political life after leaving Washington, D.C., commenting on events of the day and serving on a variety of corporate boards. Betty Ford, after battling her own problems with alcohol and pain medication, emerged as a leading advocate for the treatment of addictions. Ford died on December 26, 2006, at his home in Rancho Mirage, California.
Gerald Ford's presidency ended after only two and a half years. His record during that time was decidedly mixed; his domestic and foreign policies were neither spectacular successes nor disastrous failures. He faced considerable political opposition from Democrats in Congress and from conservative Republicans. But scholars largely agree on Ford's greatest contribution: as President, Ford's decency and honesty did much to restore the American public's faith in its political leaders.