Gerald Ford: Impact and Legacy
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.