Gerald Ford: Life Before the Presidency

Gerald Ford: Life Before the Presidency

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.