A Reference Resource
Gerald Rudolph Ford
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.
The only President in the history of the United States not elected by American voters was born Leslie Lynch King, Jr., in Omaha, Nebraska, on July 14, 1913. His mother, Dorothy Ayer Gardner, soon divorced the boy's father—a wife-beating alcoholic—and moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan. There she met Gerald Rudolph Ford, the owner of a paint store, and married him in 1916. Dorothy called her son "Junie," which soon became "Jerry" out of affection for the boy's new father-figure. Leslie King, Jr., did not learn of his biological father until he was a teenager, and after graduating from college he officially changed his name to Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr. He often recalled his mother and her second husband with much affection, admiration, and love.
Sports, Studies, and Law School
The young Ford graduated in 1931 from South High School, where he excelled in history and government. He finished in the top 5 percent of his class and was named the most popular senior by his classmates. As a teenager, Ford worked at a local restaurant and took up the game of football. Playing center, he became one of the best in the state; his football talent helped him win admission to the University of Michigan.
At college, Ford majored in economics, held a series of jobs that helped him pay for school, and continued to play football. He was a solid student in the classroom and also excelled on the playing field. In his senior year, Ford started at center and was named the team's most valuable player. After graduation, both the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers offered Ford a contract. He turned them down, however, to enter law school.
Football, ironically, made that dream a reality. Yale University needed an assistant football coach and, hoping to repay various debts and find a way into Yale's prestigious law school, Ford took the $2,400-a-year job in 1935. He quickly proved himself an excellent coach; among his football charges were future senators Robert Taft, Jr., of Ohio and William Proxmire of Wisconsin. He also coached boxing—a sport with which he absolutely no familiarity. Winning admission to Yale Law School proved more difficult but Ford persisted and eventually was accepted on a trial basis in 1938. He did well in his studies, graduating in the top third of his class in January 1941.
At Yale, Ford rubbed shoulders with the sons of America's elite. His law school classmates included several future public officials, including Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, and Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver. While at Yale, Ford also met Phyllis Brown, a blonde, beautiful student attending Connecticut College for Women. The two shared a zest for life and fell in love, beginning what Ford later described as a "torrid four-year affair." The romance ended, however, when Ford decided to return to Grand Rapids to practice law and Brown stayed in New York to continue her modeling career.
Navy, Marriage, and Politics
Back in Michigan, Ford opened a successful law practice in 1941 with his friend (and future White House counsel) Philip Buchen. At the same time, he became increasingly interested in politics. A Republican, Ford had supported Wendell Willkie's unsuccessful run against President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election. Ford became active politically in Grand Rapids, joining a group of Republican reformers called the "Home Front," who opposed the local Republican machine headed by the arrogant and imperious boss Frank McKay.
Pearl Harbor put Ford's legal career and political interests on hold. Ford enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was called to duty in April 1942. He served four years, some as an officer aboard the Monterey, a light aircraft carrier stationed in the South Pacific. Ford took part in several major battles with the Japanese, winning ten battle stars and proving himself a good leader and a dependable officer. (During a typhoon, Ensign Ford came perilously close to being swept off the deck of the Monterey to his death.) Just as important, Ford came away from the war a committed internationalist, completely convinced that the United States had a significant role to play in world affairs.
Following his discharge from the Navy, Ford joined the law firm of Butterfield, Keeney, and Amberg in Grand Rapids and continued to cultivate an interest in politics. He also met and began courting Elizabeth (Betty) Ann Bloomer. A thirty-year-old woman known for her beauty and talent as a dancer, Betty worked as the fashion coordinator for a department store in Grand Rapids. She was going through an amicable divorce from her first husband when the thirty-five-year-old Ford called to ask for a date. Within months, Ford proposed and Betty accepted (although not wishing to incur the ire of the conservative Calvinists who populated his district, Ford required that they wait until his primary campaign was over before they wed). They married on October 15, 1948, in the midst of Ford's campaign for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Early Years in Congress
Ford launched his congressional bid quietly in 1948. Running in Michigan's heavily Republican Fifth Congressional District, his biggest challenge was winning the Republican primary over five-term incumbent Bartel (Barney) Jonkman, who was allied with party boss Frank McKay. A combination of dogged campaigning and an internationalist platform propelled Ford to victory. He then easily outpolled his Democratic opponent, Fred J. Barr, Jr., in the November election.
Ford's constituents sent him back to the House for an additional twelve successive terms. During that time, Representative Ford earned a seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee, which oversaw all government spending and which provided the young politician with an education in how the government (and its programs) actually worked. Ford consistently advocated for a muscular anti-Communist foreign policy, supporting both Democratic and Republican Presidents who looked to contain Soviet and Chinese power.
During his first few terms in Congress, Ford demonstrated an ability to work with members of both parties, won a reputation among his colleagues for hard work and integrity, and earned the trust of his fellow Republicans on the Hill, including a young California legislator named Richard Nixon. Ford supported General Dwight D. Eisenhower's bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1952—largely because he agreed with Eisenhower's foreign policy views—and was pleased that Nixon won the second spot on the ticket. Indeed, Ford emerged as one of Nixon's greatest defenders when, after both the nomination and the election, Nixon found himself embroiled in controversy.
Key Republican Party Player
Ford rose rapidly through the ranks of House Republicans during the 1960s. Significant party losses in the 1962 congressional races and the 1964 presidential election opened the doors to a new generation of party leaders, and Ford made the most of this development. Supported by a group of younger Republicans known as the "Young Turks," Ford became chairman of the House Republican Conference in 1963. In January 1965, he successfully challenged House Minority Leader Charles A. Halleck of Indiana for the leadership post, making Ford the highest ranking Republican in the House.
Ford staked out an interesting place in the rapidly changing Republican Party of the 1960s. The GOP had both left and right wings, the former headed by the relatively liberal New Yorker Nelson Rockefeller and the latter commanded by the very conservative Arizona senator Barry Goldwater. Ford occupied the ideological ground between these two extremes, although his political and policy views had more in common with the Goldwater faction. At the 1964 Republican national convention, Ford nominated his fellow Michigander—and anti-Goldwater candidate—Governor George Romney for President. When Goldwater won the nomination, Ford fully supported the Arizona senator even though he correctly surmised that Goldwater would lose to President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Ford quickly emerged as one of the Johnson administration's chief Republican adversaries. He opposed almost all of Johnson's domestic legislation, including the Great Society programs. Ford also attacked Johnson's handling of the Vietnam War, encouraging the President to prosecute the war more vigorously. His persistent criticism of the Johnson White House led the President to lash out at the Republican Minority Leader, a marked contrast from earlier days when Johnson named Ford as one of the two House members on the Warren Commission investigating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Ford, it should be noted, agreed with the Warren Commission's conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing Kennedy.
Ford was an ardent supporter of Richard Nixon's successful run for the presidency in 1968. Nixon's victory opened the possibility of closer ties between Republicans in Congress and the new Republican administration, but such cooperation never came to pass; Nixon's White House largely neglected the Republican minority in Congress, and they treated Ford with disdain, believing him to be an intellectual lightweight. Despite such shoddy treatment, Ford emerged as one of Nixon's most loyal allies. He supported much of the President's domestic legislation, including Nixon's innovative proposals for welfare reform. Likewise, Ford backed Nixon's foreign policy initiatives promoting détente with the Soviet Union and U.S. relations with the People's Republic of China.
Nixon easily won re-election as President in 1972, and Ford, too, was re-elected to Congress. Republicans, however, failed again to take control of the House of Representatives—a fact that Ford would later blame on Nixon's refusal to campaign wholeheartedly for the party's congressional candidates. In the aftermath of the 1972 election, Ford told his family and friends that he likely would stand for election in 1974, hopefully win, and then retire from Congress in 1977.
Nixon, however, would bask in his re-election victory only for a short time. By 1973, his presidency was beginning to collapse under the weight of the Watergate scandal. In June 1972, police caught several men burglarizing the Democratic National Committee's headquarters at Washington's Watergate Hotel. Nixon and his staff knew that a number of the burglars were political operatives working on the President's re-election campaign. The White House, under direct orders from Nixon, worked furiously to cover up this connection, going so far as to pay the burglars hush-money and to order the CIA to ask the FBI to back off its investigation. The subterfuge held through the 1972 campaign but investigators in the press and in Congress learned more about the administration's illegal activities the following year.
As details about Watergate slowly came to light, another Nixon administration scandal briefly took center stage—and brought Gerald Ford to even greater national prominence. In October 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned as part of a plea bargain with the Justice Department resulting from its investigation into Agnew's acceptance of bribes while serving as vice president and as governor of Maryland. Nixon asked Ford to be the next vice president, largely because Nixon's advisers and political allies told him that Ford was the only man on the President's short list whom the Senate and the House would support. With the Watergate scandal looming, Nixon could not afford a confrontation with Congress. The Senate confirmed Ford by a vote of 92 to 3; the House did the same by a tally of 387 to 35. Ford took the oath of office on December 6, 1973, not in the White House, as Nixon requested, but in the well of the House of Representatives.
Vice President and Watergate's Conclusion
Ford served as vice president for eight months. He was able to isolate himself from the Watergate vortex that was swallowing the Nixon presidency, although he vigorously defended the Nixon administration during his first month in office. He changed his stance somewhat in January 1974, criticizing Nixon's advisers, whom he described as "an arrogant, elite guard of political adolescents." Ford, though, never publicly criticized the President himself, even though his doubts about Nixon's innocence grew during the first six months of 1974.
Nixon's days as President were numbered. In 1973, it had become known that Nixon had an elaborate taping system in the White House. Investigators subpoenaed the tapes but Nixon claimed "executive privilege" and refused to relinquish them; Ford, in fact, urged Nixon to turn over the tapes. In late July 1974, the Supreme Court ordered Nixon to give up the tapes, which he did. They revealed that President Nixon had orchestrated the Watergate cover-up and had grossly abused the powers of his office. Congress moved quickly to impeach the President. Nixon, in turn, pondered his fate and possible resignation.
Ford broke with Nixon publicly on August 5, 1974, stating that the tapes made it impossible for the President to continue to claim that he was "not guilty of an impeachable offense." As Nixon planned his next move, Ford met with his advisers and prepared to assume the presidency. On August 8, 1974, Nixon announced his resignation in a televised address to the American people. The next day, Gerald Ford became President of the United States, the first person ever to occupy that office who had not been sent there by the electorate.
The 1976 Republican Primary
Before President Gerald Ford could take on a Democrat in the 1976 presidential election, he first needed to secure the Republican nomination. This task proved surprisingly difficult because of the primary challenge launched by former governor of California, Ronald Reagan. The ideological heir to ultra-conservative senator of Arizona (and 1964 Republican presidential nominee), Barry Goldwater, Reagan was a strong candidate for two reasons. First, conservative Republicans—Reagan's key constituency—disliked Ford's economic policies and detested the Ford-Kissinger policy of détente toward the Soviet Union. These disaffected Republicans found in Reagan a vehicle for their discontent. Second, Reagan's sunny and genial optimism made him a likable candidate. In December 1975, a national poll ranked Reagan ahead of Ford among Republican voters.
Ford and Reagan engaged in a bitter and close fight for the nomination during the first eight months of 1976, trading victories in a series of state Republican primaries. Ford entered the Republican National Convention in Kansas City with a slight lead in delegates over Reagan. As the incumbent, Ford had courted wavering Republican delegates in key states by inviting them to the White House, by offering to speak in their states, and by rewarding delegates with patronage positions. Ford won the nomination on the first ballot but only by a mere sixty delegate votes. Since Ford had removed Vice President Nelson Rockefeller from the ticket in November 1975, he was now free to nominate Senator Robert Dole of Kansas for the second spot on the Republican ticket, a choice that Reagan had vetted and approved.
The Campaign and Election of 1976
James Earl Carter, Jr., a one-term governor of Georgia who commanded only modest national attention, captured the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976. "Jimmy" (as he liked to be known) Carter was a successful peanut farmer, nuclear engineer, and retired officer of the U.S. Navy. Campaigning early and hard in the Democratic primaries, Carter sold himself as a "Washington outsider" who promised to bring morality, decency, and trust back to American politics, claiming "I will never lie to you." It was a powerful message in the wake of the American defeat in Vietnam and the Nixon administration's criminal wrongdoings associated with Watergate. Carter won the Democratic nomination on the first ballot. He chose the more liberal Senator Walter F. Mondale of Minnesota as his running mate, hoping to balance the ticket ideologically and geographically.
Ford left the Republican convention trailing Carter by thirty-four points in the polls. He tried valiantly to play catch-up during the fall campaign and did manage to close the gap. The Ford campaign stressed the President's honesty and experience—all the while questioning whether Carter possessed those same attributes—and reassured Americans that an economic recovery was underway. Carter's lead in the polls slipped after Playboy magazine published an interview in which the candidate confessed to having lusted in his heart after many women. Ford, though, committed the biggest gaffe of the campaign in a nationally televised debate between the candidates. Answering a question about Eastern Europe, Ford botched a rehearsed line in his briefing book and declared that "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration." (At the time, all the countries in Eastern Europe had Communist governments and were under the Soviet sphere of influence; some were even occupied by Soviet troops.) Despite the fact that this was not what Ford meant to say, he then compounded his mistake by refusing to admit it, and the media's treatment of this episode made his handling of the initial blunder even worse.
Only 54 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in 1976, the lowest turnout since World War II. Carter won the 1976 presidential election by a narrow margin of 57 Electoral College votes with 297 to Ford's 240. He won the South and the industrial Northeast, reassembling the old New Deal coalition of organized labor, minorities, urban liberals, and southerners, eventually winning 23 states and the District of Columbia. Ford carried 27 states: the entire West—except Hawaii—plus a number of states in New England and the Upper Midwest.
After taking the oath of office to become the thirty-eighth President of the United States, Gerald Ford forthrightly declared, "Our long national nightmare is over." With this simple statement, the new President both recognized the anguish caused by Watergate and indicated that he intended to lead the country forward.
The future, however, held many challenges and uncertainties. The American economy was sputtering, with both inflation and unemployment on the rise. Fiscal problems were hampering a number of state and city governments, and divisive social issues—such as busing, abortion, and women's rights—were splintering the American polity. Just as important, the Watergate scandal had profoundly altered the political environment. The public, by all accounts, was demanding honesty and accountability from its political leaders. And Congress was determined to take back some of the power it had ceded to the President over the previous four decades.
Ford had risen through the Republican ranks in Congress in large part because of his reputation for decency, integrity, and fairness, and his willingness to compromise. He thus was uniquely situated to lead the country in the aftermath of Watergate. Ford attempted to cultivate this image with the public by inviting the press to see his common-man, next-door-neighbor lifestyle. He toasted his own English muffins in the morning, opened doors for himself, and talked casually to White House security guards.
Ford was not entirely successful in maintaining this image, however. Within months of taking office, he had become something of a comic figure. Comedian Chevy Chase impersonated Ford every week on the popular television show "Saturday Night Live," stumbling and falling down stairs, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, and accidentally injuring himself and innocent bystanders. Journalists often joined in the ridicule, circulating Lyndon Johnson's remark that Ford had played too much football without his helmet. In fact, Ford had, indeed, fallen upon exiting Air Force One in Austria, but Chase's act—which Ford later admitted was funny—was unfair. An all-Big Ten football player, Ford was certainly one of the most athletic Presidents in history. These negative portrayals, however, tarnished Ford's image and standing with the American public.
Pardoning Richard Nixon
Ford's ascent to the presidency implicitly promised the end of the Watergate scandal. The new President, however, re-opened old wounds when, exactly one month into his tenure, he granted Richard Nixon a "full, free, and absolute pardon . . . for all offenses" Nixon committed, or "may have committed," while President. Ford told Americans on September 8, 1974, that he had granted the pardon because Nixon had suffered enough, because the threat of prosecution was damaging Nixon's health, and because a trial of the ex-President would reignite bitter and divisive passions and prevent the country from moving forward. Privately, Ford worried that a trial would seriously harm his ability to govern, and he yearned for a presidency free from daily questions about the fate of Richard Nixon. Ford clearly hoped that the pardon would bring a sense of closure to the whole sordid affair.
Instead Ford's pardon of Nixon touched off a firestorm of protest. Polls showed that most Americans wanted Nixon punished. Observers also questioned Ford's judgment in pardoning Nixon so soon after taking office, with one Republican senator asking a presidential aide, "doesn't he have any sense of timing?" Indeed, his first press secretary, Jerald terHorst, resigned in protest over Ford's decision. Ford's popularity plummeted in public opinion polls, dropping from the high sixties into the high thirties.
Just as important, members of Congress from both parties reacted angrily to the pardon. A group of liberal Democrats, in particular, wanted to learn more about the pardon—and especially whether Ford had discussed Nixon's pardon with the ex-President or his staff. The specter of a deal between Nixon and Ford hung in the background as a special subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee ("The Hungate Committee") sent Ford a set of questions about the pardon. Attempting to answer his critics, Ford agreed to appear before the committee, a decision his White House aides did not support. Ford thus became the first President since Abraham Lincoln to testify before a congressional committee of inquiry. In a nationally televised appearance on October 17, 1974, Ford admitted that a pardon was one of the many options presented for discussion by Nixon's chief of staff, Alexander Haig. But Ford denied having promised a pardon or having made any commitment at all regarding Nixon's resignation, declaring "There was no deal, period, under no circumstances." The committee voted to close the investigation shortly thereafter. While historians have generally discounted the likelihood of any "deal," the episode damaged Ford nonetheless. The presidential honeymoon—with the American public, the press, and with Congress—was over.
The Ford Administrative Team
Early in his administration, President Ford faced another challenge which threatened to burden him with the sins of his predecessor: what to do with Nixon's cabinet and staff, whose assistance he needed in the near term to run the White House effectively. Ford's closest advisers counseled that key members of Nixon's team be kept in office for a period of time after Nixon's resignation and then eventually be replaced by Ford's own appointees. Ford essentially followed this advice.
In the modern White House, the most important position was that of "chief of staff," a post that Alexander Haig held for the last eighteen months of the Nixon presidency. Haig remained in that position for the first six weeks of the new administration until Ford appointed him commander of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) in Europe. Ambassador to NATO Donald Rumsfeld, an old colleague of Ford's from the House of Representatives and a veteran of the Nixon White House, became Ford's "staff coordinator," essentially the new chief of staff. Ford kept other Nixon appointees in key positions as well, including Roy Ash as head of the Office of Management and Budget and Kenneth Cole as head of the Domestic Council. At the same time, Ford named several trusted aides to important staff positions. Unfortunately for the new President, his appointees and the Nixon holdovers (or those with ties to Nixon such as Rumsfeld) often clashed.
Ford also nominated Nelson Rockefeller, the former governor of New York and leader of the moderate wing of the Republican Party, to fill the vacant office of vice president. Rockefeller's selection alienated many conservative Republicans who would later back Ronald Reagan (then a second-term governor of California) as a Republican presidential candidate in 1976. Rockefeller assumed leadership of the Domestic Council, a position from which he often tried to play a major role in formulating the administration's domestic policies. His suggestions, for the most part, went unheeded. In addition, Rockefeller and Rumsfeld despised each other, making life difficult in the Executive Office.
During the first months of his tenure, Ford kept much of Nixon's cabinet in place as well. But throughout 1975, Ford slowly replaced his predecessor's selections with his own appointees. Indeed, on the domestic policy side, only Secretary of the Treasury William Simon and Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz remained in office into 1976—and Butz was dismissed in October of that year. Likewise, Richard Cheney, Rumsfeld's assistant, became White House chief of staff in late 1975 after Rumsfeld left to head the Department of Defense.
Ford also had his share of difficulties in working with Congress. He hoped that his long years in the House of Representatives would produce good relations between the government's executive and the legislative branches, but he was sorely disappointed. The pardon of Nixon, of course, had gotten that relationship off to a bad start. The 1974 midterm congressional elections, coming just a few months after the pardon, compounded the problem as Democrats gained 43 seats in the House, for a 291 to 144 advantage, and four seats in the Senate, for a 61 to 39 lead.
Ford not only faced significant Democratic majorities in Congress, he confronted a Democratic opposition—as well as some Republican factions—that, in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam, were determined to reassert themselves in the policymaking process. The legislature as a whole wanted to reclaim powers it had ceded to the President over the previous forty years. The newcomers to Congress who triumphed in the 1974 elections were called the "Watergate Babies" in recognition of these goals and their self-proclaimed mission to clean up Washington politics.
Stagflation and the Energy Crisis
The deteriorating American economy, however, was the key domestic issue Ford had to address. The nation's economic decline could be traced to the end of American predominance in the international economy and the rise of a low-paying service sector in the American economy. These structural factors contributed to three additional problems Ford had to confront: inflation, unemployment, and the energy crisis.
During Ford's presidency, both inflation and unemployment rose to heights not seen in the post-World War II years. The rapid growth of inflation, attributable to the aforementioned macro-economic issues as well as to the escalation in federal outlays since 1965, was exacerbated by the rising price of oil. American consumption of oil grew rapidly in the 1960s and 1970s—a need the country met by importing oil from the Middle East. By 1974, 35 percent of the oil Americans consumed came from overseas. But in 1973, the consortium of oil-exporting nations called OPEC embargoed its shipments of oil to the United States in protest of the Nixon administration's decision to support Israel in the Yom Kippur War. The embargo ended before Ford took office but the price of foreign petrol remained high. Crude oil prices skyrocketed to ten times their pre-1973 levels and gas prices doubled at the pump—conditions which, combined with severe oil shortages, made for a gloomy economic environment.
Conventional thinking about the economy held that high prices meant a growing economy, a healthy business environment, and low unemployment. America's economy in the 1970s confounded these expectations, however, as both unemployment soared and inflation grew. The rise in unemployment resulted largely from increased foreign competition that slowed economic growth and job creation, and from a larger American workforce—replete with baby-boomers—looking for work. Economists coined a new term, "stagflation," to describe this unprecedented situation.
At first, Ford's economic team advised him to attack the inflation problem. Whereas Nixon had implemented wage and price controls in an attempt to manage inflation, Ford, in October 1974, proposed a tax hike and asked for a reduction in federal spending. To build public support for his economic program, Ford asked Americans to join the fight by wearing buttons festooned with the acronym "WIN," for "Whip Inflation Now." More than twelve million buttons were produced, but only 100,000 requests for these pins came into the White House. The media, moreover, portrayed the "WIN" campaign as a silly public relations gimmick.
Additional roadblocks thwarted Ford's plans for economic recovery. First, with congressional midterm elections fast approaching, politicians had little use for higher taxes and cuts in federal government services. Second, Ford's critics accused him of ignoring the problems of the unemployed as he focused on inflation. Indeed, unemployment had grown from 5.4 percent in August to 6.5 percent by November—and White House economists soon expected that number to top 7 percent. The economy, Ford finally admitted in December 1974, was in recession with economic production falling and unemployment rising.
The President offered a new plan to deal with the nation's economic woes in January 1975. He now called for a tax cut of $16 billion to jump-start the economy. Additionally, Ford asked Congress to hold the line on government spending. Democrats responded by decrying Ford's flip-flop on taxes and by criticizing his efforts to stimulate the economy as too little, too late. In March, Congress passed a tax cut of more than $22 billion but raised spending on government programs. Ford regarded this mix of tax cuts and federal spending as irresponsible. Politically, however, he had little choice but to sign the bill, for a veto would only play into Democratic critiques that he had done too little to help the economy.
Thereafter, Ford insisted that he would not accede to any more hikes in government spending. The Democratic Congress, however, believed that economic recovery necessitated additional government expenditures; it kept sending spending proposals to the White House, most of which Ford vetoed. For the rest of his term, Ford waged a war with Congress over the appropriate balance between tax cuts and government expenditures. He won a small victory when Congress passed the Revenue Adjustment Act of 1975, which featured another modest tax cut of $9 billion and assurances that Congress would limit future spending.
Ford's travails with Congress over energy policy were no less difficult. In his January 1975 proposal, Ford asked for a tariff on imported oil, the end of price controls on domestic oil, and a new tax on domestic oil producers. His goal was to stimulate domestic oil production, which he believed would cause prices to drop in the long term as supply increased. The tax on American oil companies was a political necessity, a sop to a public that viewed oil companies as greedy profit-mongers. The political reaction was predictable: conservative Republicans were not happy with the tax on American oil companies, while Democrats believed that the tariff, the tax, and the end of price controls would only increase prices.
Ford and the Democrats argued about his energy proposal throughout 1975 before reaching a deal in December. In an Omnibus Energy bill, Ford accepted a 12-percent reduction in domestic oil prices in return for authority to end price controls on oil over a forty-month period. Ford and his advisers knew they had compromised but feared that Congress would not only override a veto, but that the political damage to the President would be too great if he did not go before the electorate in 1976 with some success in energy policy. Just as important, Ford believed that ending price controls was a worthwhile victory, one that harmonized with his small-government, free-market philosophy. Unfortunately for the President, the Democrats could also claim victory, at least in the short term, for they had secured an immediate reduction in the cost of domestic oil. The Democrats, it should be noted, worried that in the long term the end of price controls would raise the cost of oil. Conservative Republicans, on the other hand, had little to celebrate; they fumed at Ford's acquiescence to lower oil prices and his inability to win the immediate end to price controls.
By 1976, the economy had begun to recover. The consumer price index—one measure of the rate of inflation—dipped from 9.1 percent in 1975 to 5.8 percent in late 1976. Unemployment also receded; by January 1977 it was at 7.4 percent, a significant drop from the previous year, when it nearly hit 9 percent. Nevertheless, the American economy remained sluggish.
Busing and the New York City "Bailout"
The most divisive issue in American race relations in the early and mid-1970s was busing. No city dramatized the tensions and problems inherent in the busing issue more than Boston, Massachusetts. In the summer of 1974, a Boston judge ordered the city school system to integrate immediately schools that were segregated and in close proximity by busing black students to predominantly white schools, and vice versa. In the parochial neighborhood communities of Boston, this was a recipe for disaster and violence. Mobs of whites greeted black children with taunts and obscenities, and fights broke out between black and white students inside the schools. The violence only worsened throughout the fall, culminating in the stabbing of a white student and a subsequent riot. At the same time, U.S. District Court Judge Arthur Garrity, Jr., ruled that the school system was implementing his initial desegregation order too slowly.
Many Democrats—as well as the only black member of Ford's cabinet, Secretary of Transportation William Coleman—called on Ford to intervene. The President, instead, chose to stay on the sidelines and out of the political fire. Ford was in favor of integrated schools; he had attended an integrated high school in Michigan and had thoroughly enjoyed it. But Ford opposed busing, largely because he believed the federal government had an obligation only to end "de jure" (by law) segregation rather than "de facto" (by circumstance) segregation. In Boston, Ford reasoned, schools were not segregated because of legal mandate, so the federal government had no role to play.
Ford, it must be said, was ready and willing to intervene with federal troops if the Boston situation deteriorated so egregiously that it endangered public safety. The President never reached this conclusion. He did, however, direct the Justice Department to press for a more conservative approach to integration. On this score, Ford and the Justice Department had little success. But Ford's actions on the busing issue reflected his preference for a less activist federal government that let state and local governments decide local issues.
Ford faced another potentially explosive issue—and another opportunity to demonstrate his desire to rein in the power and responsibilities of the federal government—when New York City nearly went bankrupt in the spring of 1975. Quite simply, the city's budget, which provided social services for a population the size of Sweden's, was greater than its income. Throughout the spring and summer, New York City officials tried to get financial aid from the federal government, which already supplied one-quarter of the city's budget. Ford never seriously considered intervening, despite the advice of his vice president, New York's own Nelson Rockefeller. In October 1975, Ford publicly stated his opposition to a "federal bailout" of the city. The following day, the New York Daily News offered its own summation of Ford's position: "Ford to City—Drop Dead."
After the state government of New York announced in late 1975 that it had a plan to put the city on long-term stable financial ground, Ford reversed course. He offered his support for a $2.3 billion loan to the state to assist in the bailout. Ford told his advisers, "I hope they understand this is it. Come hell or high water, this is it." Ford defended his change of heart by saying it was appropriate for the federal government to lend a hand after the city and state had taken appropriate steps to put their fiscal house in order. The historian John Robert Greene suggests that Ford acquiesced on the bailout to satisfy Senator James Buckley of New York, whose support the President desperately needed in the upcoming election year. Ford's reversal, however, did not help his political standing with conservative Republicans, who saw his actions as another example of Ford's lack of fealty to conservative principles.
Gerald Ford inherited Richard Nixon's foreign policies and his foreign policy advisers. While Ford had not developed an expertise in American foreign relations as a congressman or as vice president, he was generally familiar with the major international issues facing the country. Thus, Ford was certainly more prepared to direct the nation's affairs with the rest of the world than his critics would have admitted.
Ford asked Nixon's chief foreign policy advisers to stay on in his administration. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (who also served as National Security Adviser) and Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger agreed. But in late 1975, Ford undertook a major shake-up of his foreign policy team. The President reduced Kissinger's portfolio by naming Brent Scowcroft head of the National Security Council. As important, Ford fired Secretary Schlesinger and Director of Central Intelligence William Colby, replacing them, respectively, with his chief of staff, Donald Rumsfeld, and the American envoy to China, George H. W. Bush.
Given Ford's ultimate decision to retain Kissinger, it came as little surprise that the new administration continued the foreign policies pursued by Nixon and Kissinger during the previous five years. Ford generally supported Nixon's goals of détente with the Soviet Union, of improved relations with China, and of American support for the government of South Vietnam. Nevertheless, circumstances—some beyond Ford's control—led Ford's policy prescriptions to evolve.
Détente with the Soviet Union
Ford and Kissinger made it clear to the Soviets that despite Nixon's resignation, the United States still hoped to pursue détente. Détente was an effort to lessen tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States that had existed since the end of World War II. It did not imply complete trust, nor was it a formal alliance; it was a period where the two nations began to explore ways in which they could work together for both national security and economic goals.
Ford entered the presidency with U.S.-Soviet relations on very shaky ground, however. The 1973 Yom Kippur War in the Middle East had nearly led to the massive military involvement of the superpowers. Moreover, throughout 1973 and 1974, the Soviets grew increasingly frustrated with several U.S. politicians—mainly Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson (D-WA)—who had successfully tied American trade with the Soviets to the relaxation of Soviet emigration policies. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, American relations with the Soviets during the Ford years witnessed notable failures as well as successes.
The President furthered détente in August 1975 when he joined with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and the heads of other European nations to sign the Helsinki Accords, which recognized the existing boundaries of European countries established at the end of World War II. The accords also included statements in support of human rights, to which the Soviets reluctantly acquiesced. Ford and the Soviets agreed in November 1974 to the Vladivostok Accords, which provided a general outline for a successor treaty to SALT I (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty), negotiated by Nixon and Kissinger in 1972. But for the remainder of the Ford administration, discussions among American and Soviet negotiators about the exact details of a new treaty failed, largely because of differences over limits on Soviet bombers and American cruise missiles.
Breakdowns occurred in other areas of the Soviet-American relationship as well, most notably in Africa. In Angola, three factions vied for control of the government in the wake of that nation's independence from Portugal in 1975. A civil war soon broke out between these groups, with the Soviet Union and the United States, as well as China, providing financial and military support to different factions; the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) became deeply involved in Angola, much to the consternation of a number of Democrats in Congress. The entrance into the conflict of large numbers of Cuban troops in the spring of 1975 only raised the stakes—and exacerbated tensions between the superpowers.
Ford also had to manage the domestic politics of the Cold War. In short, the criticism of détente that had begun during the Nixon administration only grew louder during the Ford years. Restive conservatives in both the Democratic and Republican parties—and sometimes members of Ford's own cabinet, such as Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger—continuously attacked détente. These critics, who included California's Republican governor Ronald Reagan, believed that Nixon, Ford, and Kissinger had underestimated the Soviet threat and had proven too willing to deal with the Soviets rather than confront them from a position of strength. Moreover, they charged that détente was a morally bankrupt policy; the Soviet Union, according to this view, was a state with evil and illegitimate goals, one that the United States should criticize rather than accommodate. In sum, détente, according to this view, was both a moral and strategic failure.
The End of the Vietnam War
The Paris Peace Agreement of January 1973 established a ceasefire between North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and Communist insurgents in the South. Nevertheless, the war between North Vietnam (with its allies in the South) and South Vietnam resumed in 1973. By 1974, American experts on Vietnam, both inside and outside the government, understood that the military, political, and economic positions of South Vietnam were deteriorating rapidly. The American public and Congress, consumed by Watergate and a desire to move beyond the Vietnam War, paid little attention and had absolutely no interest in re-introducing American troops. High-level Nixon officials understood this dynamic, but wanted to continue economic, political, and military aid to South Vietnam.
Ford confronted this difficult situation when he assumed the presidency. In late 1974, he reiterated Nixon's request for a fresh infusion of aid; Congress responded by granting South Vietnam $700 million in military and humanitarian assistance, an amount that was far less than Nixon's original request. A renewed assault by Communist forces in the first months of 1975, however, brought South Vietnam to the brink of defeat. Ford made the case for more military aid, but Congress offered only humanitarian assistance.
The end came in late April as Communist forces overran Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam. At virtually the same time, America's allies in neighboring Cambodia and Laos were also falling from power. Ford ordered the evacuation of all U.S. personnel and South Vietnamese citizens with connections to the United States. Americans watched on television as U.S. helicopters, some with South Vietnamese civilians clinging to their landing gear, departed from the roofs of various buildings, including the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. These scenes stood as an ignominious ending to America's disastrous involvement in Indochina. For his part, Ford managed to avoid being tarred by the final defeat. His administration also oversaw the admission to the United States of tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees.
Ford had one more crisis to confront in Southeast Asia. In May 1975, Cambodian Communists, known as the Khmer Rouge, seized an American cargo ship—the Mayaguez—and its thirty-eight American crew members. The President and his advisers, determined to demonstrate American toughness to both the world and the U.S. public, ordered a commando raid to free the crew. More than forty Americans died in the complicated operation, but the Khmer Rouge released the crew and abandoned the Mayaguez in the middle of the U.S. attack.
Ford and Kissinger portrayed the return of ship and crew as a great American military victory, and the American public seemed to agree: Ford's public-approval rating soared eleven points. Looking back on the incident, historian John Robert Greene has raised questions about whether the Ford administration's rescue operation was unduly risky and focused more on punishing the Khmer Rouge than retrieving the American sailors.
Reforming the CIA
The conduct of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) came under increased scrutiny during Ford's presidency. The Watergate scandal revealed that the CIA had conducted domestic operations, a violation of its mandate. When the press learned that the CIA had conducted an internal study of its activities—nicknamed the "Family Jewels"—and that the report acknowledged CIA spying on American citizens and attempted assassinations of foreign leaders, a public fury erupted.
Ford, who claimed he had not known about the "Family Jewels" while in Congress, established a blue-ribbon commission headed by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller to investigate the CIA. The Senate and the House, however, also created their own investigatory bodies; the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations, known as the "Church Committee" after its chairman, Senator Frank Church of Idaho, quickly emerged as the most prominent in the public eye. While the Rockefeller commission issued findings generally sympathetic to the CIA, the Church committee, which Ford worried might turn into a politically motivated search for scapegoats, castigated the agency for its missteps and illegal activities.
Church's findings—and their public fall-out—cost CIA director William Colby his job in late 1975. More important, Congress adopted Church's recommendation for greater congressional oversight of the CIA, altering the practices of this important arm of American foreign policy. In fact, the Ford administration sparred repeatedly with Congress over the CIA's role in Angola.
Following his defeat in the 1976 presidential election, Gerald Ford retired to Rancho Mirage, California. Thereafter, Ford appeared frequently in public as a speaker, lecturing for private audiences and on university campuses. In his post-presidential years, Ford wrote a number of books, including an account of his presidency, A Time to Heal (1979), and Humor and the Presidency (1987). Always very athletic, Ford continued to enjoy the game of golf.
However, Ford's exit from Washington did not immediately end his political ambitions. He surprised most observers when he entered into discussions with Ronald Reagan in 1980 about running on the Republican ticket with the former governor of California. However, Ford took the offer to the media (specifically to CBS anchor Walter Cronkite in a convention interview); feeling betrayed, an angry Reagan withdrew the offer, which ultimately went to George H.W. Bush. During the 1980s and 1990s, Ford emerged as an elder statesman in the Republican Party. Likewise, Ford wrote extensively on domestic and foreign policy issues of the day. He also served on a number of corporate boards and commissions, including a stint as co-chair of The National Commission on Federal Election Reform in 2001.
President Bill Clinton awarded eighty-six-year-old Ford the Presidential Medal of Freedom in August 1999, in honor of his public service in binding the nation together after "the nightmare" of Watergate. Ford died on December 26, 2006, at his home in California. After a state funeral in Washington, D.C., he was buried in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on the grounds of the Gerald R. Ford Museum.
President Gerald Ford and his wife, Betty Ford, had three sons and one daughter. The First Family struck many Americans as fun, energetic, youthful, and, above all, normal—traits that added to the American public's comfort level with Ford, a man the people had not elected as their President.
The Fords' oldest son, Michael Gerald, was born in 1950. When his father became President, Michael was a student at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary and had recently married. John "Jack" Gardner Ford, born in 1952, was a student at Utah State University during Ford's presidential years and worked during the summer as a ranger at Yellowstone National Park. Steve, born in 1956 and known as the "charmer of the family," put off going to college to work as a ranch hand in Utah, Montana, and Idaho. He later became an actor and starred on the television soap opera, The Young and the Restless.
Fords' teenage daughter, Susan Elizabeth, captured the most attention. A high school and then college student during Ford's presidency, Susan was a favorite subject for the press. She traveled with her father on his official trip to China, took up photography under the tutelage of White House photographer David Kennerly, and worked during the summer of 1975 as a news photographer with a Topeka, Kansas, newspaper.
Ford's children supported their father and even campaigned for him in 1976, but they also frequently displayed their political independence. Ford's eldest son Michael openly criticized the Nixon administration's handling of the Vietnam War as well as his father's pardon of the former President. Jack Ford made headlines by bringing a former member of the Beatles, George Harrison, to the White House. The children also chafed at the Secret Service protection assigned to them.
As President, Ford still found time to relax. He enjoyed all kinds of sports and especially liked fishing, golfing (18 handicap while President), swimming, tennis, horseback riding, and taking the family on skiing trips to Vail, Colorado. Although he took a lot of kidding from comedians for a presumed lack of physical coordination, he was in excellent health and was certainly one of the most athletic of all the nation's Presidents. He exercised with weights every day in his White House study and played tennis regularly with his family or his staff. Ford remained an avid sports fan and was especially fond of football.
Ford emerged unhurt after two separate assassination attempts in 1975, both of which occurred in California. On September 5, as Ford greeted well-wishers outside the Senator Hotel in Sacramento, California, Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme—aged twenty-six and a follower of mass-murderer Charles Manson—leveled a Colt .45 at the President and squeezed the trigger at point-blank range. The gun misfired, and Fromme was wrestled to the ground before she could attempt a second shot. A little more than two weeks later, on September 22, Sara Jane Moore—aged forty-five and a one-time FBI informer—fired a .38 revolver at Ford in San Francisco. The shot missed Ford by a few feet. Both women were convicted under the 1965 law making attempted assassination of the President a federal offense punishable by life imprisonment.
The United States observed its 200th birthday in the summer of 1976. The great celebrations that marked the occasion contrasted sharply with President Ford's assessment of the state of the union eighteen months earlier, which he described bluntly as "not good." These widely divergent snapshots of the nation's mood only hinted at the magnitude of the political, economic, cultural, and demographic changes that buffeted America during the mid-1970s.
Immigration and Demography
Population growth in the United States slowed considerably during the 1970s. The number of Americans grew from just over 203 million persons in 1970 to about 226 million persons in 1980, the smallest percentage growth in any ten-year period since the 1930s. This deceleration cast the changes then taking place in immigration in even starker relief. Nearly five million immigrants arrived in the United States during the 1970s, the greatest influx of people to America since the 1920s. Of these five million, the vast bulk came from countries in Asia, the Caribbean, and Central America; more immigrants came from Mexico during the 1970s than from any other country.
These trends resulted largely from the landmark revision of American immigration laws in 1965, the effects of which became clear only during the second half of the 1970s. First, the new immigration system permitted relatives of American citizens or permanent residents to enter the United States without being counted against the yearly immigrant quotas. Thus, during the 1970s, actual immigration outdistanced the annual limits established by Congress. Second, the 1965 law eliminated restrictions on the entry of immigrants from Asia and South and Central America. In short, more immigrants from different countries arrived in the 1970s than at any previous time in American history.
These newcomers came with a wide array of economic skills. Among the 1.5 million Asian immigrants who arrived during the 1970s were thousands of well-educated technical workers and professionals, and even more low-skilled or unskilled laborers, who found back-breaking and low-paying work in restaurants, hotels, and the garment industry. Immigrants from South and Central America generally fit this employment profile as well, although a significant number of these immigrants found work in the agricultural sector. Many of these newcomers helped revitalize depressed parts of American cities and enrich the nation's culture.
The other important demographic trend of the 1970s was the continued rise of the Sunbelt, a region stretching across the southern half of the United States from the Carolinas to southern California. The explosive population growth in this area was fueled largely by economic development. In the South alone, two million jobs were created during the 1970s, a sharp contrast to the Northeast, where one million jobs disappeared. The growth of large cities such as Atlanta, Georgia, and Charlotte, North Carolina, in the South—and Phoenix, Arizona, in the West—were indicative of the shift underway. And with larger populations and economic might came political power and prominence. Indeed, every President elected since John F. Kennedy has claimed roots in the Sunbelt. The modern Republican Party—the dominant party in American politics since the 1970s—came to power because of Sunbelt voters.
The American economy ground to a halt in the mid-1970s. President Ford spent much of his administration battling inflation and unemployment (the tandem that economists referred to as "stagflation"), as well as energy shortages (see Ford Domestic Affairs section.) But America's economic woes during the Ford years were symptomatic of a longer-term decline in the nation's economic health. The American economy had soared in the post-war years in large part because it dominated international markets. But by the 1970s, foreign competitors, especially West Germany and Japan, had recovered their economic strength, and the United States no longer retained such a commanding international position. Indeed, the United States was routinely running trade deficits, the result of Americans spending more money on foreign goods than foreigners paid for U.S. exports. As the United States position in the international economy eroded, so did profits and job creation at home.
At the same time, the U.S. economy was undergoing a serious transformation that began in the late 1960s. During the first two decades after World War II, the American manufacturing and industrial sectors provided well-paying and plentiful jobs. But because of greater international competition and questionable leadership, these sectors of the economy had moved into a serious and sustained decline by the late 1960s. The service sector replaced industry and manufacturing as the fastest growing segment of the American economy, but at a significant cost. Service industry jobs were poorer paying, offered employees fewer benefits and opportunities for advancement, and were less likely to be unionized.
The magnitude of these economic problems, though, can only be appreciated when viewed in historical context. The mid-1970s economic downturn was surely the most severe since the Great Depression. For the first time in thirty years, median family income stagnated and would have declined were it not for Americans working more hours and women and teenagers joining the labor force in larger numbers. Since World War II, Americans—and experts on the nation's economy—had always assumed that the next generation would enjoy a higher standard of living. This belief, and the confidence that accompanied it, came crashing down in the 1970s as the American economy stumbled.
American race relations entered yet another contentious period in the mid-1970s. The civil rights revolution of the 1960s had produced significant gains—greater numbers of blacks voted, attended colleges and universities, and had access to better-paying jobs—but significant problems still remained. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the nation's northern cities, where the flight of white, middle-class city dwellers that had begun in the late 1940s accelerated. In many northern cities, middle-class whites lived in the suburbs, while working-class white ethnics, middle-class and working-class African-Americans, and new immigrants lived in urban neighborhoods. The result was rigid segregation by neighborhood and school.
The Supreme Court attempted to solve the persistent problem of school segregation by mandating in 1971 that communities could and should bus students to achieve racial balance between schools (Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg County School District). The Court's decision meant that white students would be bused to predominantly black schools and black students to predominantly white schools. By the mid-1970s, as school boards and federal judges put these plans into action, working-class whites in Pontiac, Michigan, Louisville, Kentucky, and Kansas City, Missouri, were loudly voicing their opposition. In Boston, resistance took a violent turn in 1974 as anti-busing whites hurled insults at black children, rioted to protest integration plans, and sometimes attacked innocent blacks. The integrationist ideal of the 1960s civil rights movement supported by both blacks and whites—already weakened in the early 1970s by the white reaction to black nationalism—withered further.
The gains won by the women's movement in the first half of the 1970s were very real and transformed American life. Female politicians won offices at the local, state, and national levels, and by the mid-1970s women were playing a larger role in both the Democratic and Republican parties. Women were also enrolling in medical and law school in larger numbers. At the same time, the women's movement fought tirelessly to win greater protections for victims of sexual abuse. Throughout the early 1970s, feminists won a series of court decisions that made it easier to prosecute rapists. At the grass-roots level, rape crisis centers and anti-rape task forces proliferated. Finally, the women's movement won a major victory in 1973 when the Supreme Court, in Roe v. Wade, legalized abortion.
But the defining women's issue during the Ford presidency was the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The ERA would have amended the Constitution by declaring that "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged . . . on account of sex." Congress passed the ERA in March 1972 and, as required by law, sent it to the states for ratification. Feminists were optimistic—and with good reason. By 1977, thirty-five states had ratified the ERA, just three states short of the thirty-eight needed to make the ERA part of the nation's Constitution.
The Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade and the efforts to pass the Equal Rights Amendment—like the busing plans to integrate school districts—aroused the passionate opposition of millions of Americans who began organizing as effective political action groups. The highly vocal Right to Life movement denounced Roe v. Wade and won a major victory in 1977 when Congress passed the Hyde amendment, which permitted states to ban the use of Medicaid to pay for abortions. Meanwhile, conservative author and activist Phyllis Schlafly formed the group "STOP ERA" in 1972, launching a sustained and effective attack on the ERA. Schlafly warned that the ERA would drastically expand the powers of the federal government and that it would destroy women's place in American society. Schlafly's leadership was one of many social and political factors that led to the ultimate defeat of the ERA during the Reagan administration.
The Right to Life Movement and STOP ERA, along with the opponents of busing who took to Boston's streets, symbolized an important shift in American politics. Participants in these protest movements believed that liberal politicians and their interest-group allies were imposing an excessively liberal political, social, and cultural agenda on local communities. Two distinctive parts of the American polity fueled this backlash against liberalism. First, white, often Catholic, working-class people from the urban North and Midwest emerged as some of the fiercest opponents of busing and increasingly announced their opposition to abortion.
Second, American evangelicals, whose numbers grew by leaps and bounds in the 1970s, rallied in opposition to abortion, pornography, homosexuality, radical feminism, and sexual permissiveness, all of which evangelicals saw as attacks on "family values." Millions of Americans joined groups like the evangelical Assemblies of God and the evangelical faction within the Southern Baptist Convention, or tuned-in to television evangelical preachers such as Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson. These individuals found comfort in a shared religious doctrine, a sense of community, and like-minded political and social beliefs. While a large number of evangelicals supported Jimmy Carter's run for the presidency in 1976—Carter himself was an evangelical, although with a liberal cast that he disguised well—they migrated increasingly to the conservative wing of the Republican Party. During the 1980s, evangelicals were by-and-large fervent supporters of Ronald Reagan.
Gerald Ford's presidency must be assessed in light of both the exceptional circumstances under which Ford assumed office and the severe challenges he faced during those years. Ford was not elected President (or vice president) by the American public; he became President in 1974 only after Richard Nixon chose to resign rather than face removal by Congress. As President, Ford confronted a failing economy, the likely collapse of South Vietnam (an American ally that 58,000 U.S. soldiers had died to protect), and a public suspicious of its political leaders. Democrats controlled Congress, which augured ill for Ford's legislative program. Of equal importance, congressional Republicans and Democrats alike seemed intent on retaking some of the powers they had ceded to the White House over the previous forty years.
Ford understood that his most pressing task was to help the country move beyond the despair, disgust, and distrust generated by the Watergate crisis. Ford's speech upon assuming the presidency, in which he declared that "Our long national nightmare is over . . . Our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men," was met with almost universal applause. But the public's (and Congress's) goodwill towards Ford quickly dissipated when the new President pardoned Nixon a mere month into his tenure. Ford certainly believed that the pardon would help the nation, as well as his own presidency, move forward. He also understood that most Americans wanted Nixon punished. But Ford miscalculated. Instead of further salving the wound of Watergate, Ford re-opened it. The howls of protest from both politicians and the public—including questions about a "deal" between the former and current Presidents—greatly damaged Ford's popularity and ended his honeymoon.
Ford emerged from this maelstrom to achieve a mixed record. In domestic affairs, the Ford administration failed to remedy the nation's dire economic problems, although by 1976 the economy had begun to recover from the previous year's recession. In Ford's defense, rising unemployment, soaring inflation, and the energy crisis, in addition to the nation's longer-term economic decline, were complex and interrelated challenges that confounded the era's most prestigious economists.
Ford's chief economic error, however, was political in nature. He replaced his first economic program, which raised taxes and capped spending in an effort to combat inflation, with a plan that cut taxes and limited government spending in the hopes of fighting unemployment. Democrats accused him of doing too little to help Americans suffering from the unforgiving economy and of flip-flopping on the tax issue. Ford similarly revised key parts of his energy program, which opened him to attacks from both Democrats and conservative Republicans. Ford's decisions to change course in these two policy areas raised questions about his ability to address these difficult issues.
In foreign affairs, Ford amassed a solid, if mostly unremarkable, record. He continued to pursue détente with the Soviet Union, meeting with moderate success. While the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Helsinki pact, they failed to agree on a major arms control agreement. Moreover, superpower tensions remained high as U.S. and Soviet proxies clashed in Angola. At the same time, while the Vietnam War ended on Ford's watch—with the memorable, ignominious departure of the United States from Indochina—the Communist victory failed to tar the President. One month after the fall of Saigon, Ford ordered a successful military operation to rescue the crew of an American ship, the Mayaguez, captured by Cambodia's Khmer Rouge; the President's approval rating shot up accordingly. But, as was the case with the economy, Ford's biggest problems in foreign affairs came from his political critics. Conservative Republicans and Democrats complained that the administration's policy of détente acquiesced to Soviet power. Critics on the left, meanwhile, demanded that Ford rein in the nation's intelligence agencies. When some in Congress deemed Ford's plans for greater oversight of the CIA unsatisfactory, they responded with their own programs.
Ford's presidency, then, was marked by three elements. First, Ford faced extraordinary challenges, especially involving the nation's economic woes, which he struggled to solve. Second, Ford had difficulty navigating a demanding political environment in which Democrats (from across the ideological spectrum) and conservative Republicans found fault with his leadership and his foreign and domestic policies. The combination of these first two elements helped bring about Ford's defeat in 1976. Just as surely, though, a third dimension of Ford's presidency deserves recognition: 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.