Gerald Ford was not ready to be president on Aug. 9, 1974, but that is precisely what history forced upon him. In fact, it was only four days earlier when the now infamous "smoking gun" tape of Richard Nixon orchestrating a cover-up of the Watergate break in did it dawn on Ford that he might become president. Articles of impeachment had already been passed by the House Judiciary Committee.
Ford was the first man to arrive at this high office via the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. The first man to neither ask for the votes of the American people as either a presidential candidate or a vice presidential candidate.
As decades go, the 1970s were pretty lousy. We saw the sorry spectacle of the resignations of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, America lost it’s first war, gas lines, high inflation, high interest rates, disco, polyester suits and pet rocks. Into this messy maelstrom stepped the reluctant but resolute Gerald Ford.
His presidency was bedeviled by staff infighting, mistakes, missed opportunities, the appointed of conservative antagonist Nelson Rockefeller as vice president and personal pratfalls. Ford fell down stairs, bumped his head several time getting onto Marine One, once famously dove into the shallow end of a pool and put a lump on his forehead, earning him horrible media coverage.
It was all terribly unfair as Ford had bum knees from his football days at Michigan and, because quite frankly, he’d never had a time to "rehearse" being president. He had to learn on the job, in full view of the media and the world community. It was also unfair as he may have been the most athletic man ever to occupy the Oval Office.
Ford had never sought the presidency and in fact his highest aspiration was to become Speaker of the House but when it was clear that the GOP would not gain majority control in 1972, despite Nixon’s landslide win, he promised his wife he would retire from politics. Betty Ford, at the time, was struggling mightily with alcohol and drug dependency.
Ford knew his most important job was to heal the nation after the 10 miserable years that started with the assassination of JFK. Americans were coming to understand that their government was not working … it could not protect Kennedy; it could not win the Vietnam War or solve the woes of the awful economy. It was into this vacuum came one Ronald Reagan. Indeed, Reagan told the American people, "don’t trust me … trust yourself."
What Reagan did in 1976 was unprecedented and Ford was infuriated. Only in 1912, when Teddy Roosevelt came out of retirement to challenge incumbent William Howard Taft in 12 GOP primaries … and won all 12 … had an incumbent president be so forcefully challenge from within his own party.
Reagan did not succeed but came remarkably close, losing by only 57 votes at the Kansas City convention. In so doing, however, he laid the foundation for his successful run in 1980 but also built a rift between the two men that never really healed. Of course, the Ford White House treated Reagan badly, and this as much as policy got Reagan into the campaign.
Since Gerald Ford had no mandate from the American people, he had no program other than to continue Nixon’s policies, especially Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s disastrous détente which conservatives saw as Soviet appeasement, especially the signing of the Helsinki Accords, which sanctioned Soviet domination of the Warsaw Pact and Baltic nations.
He was better than Nixon on domestic policy, vetoing nearly 70 spending bills. Still, he described himself as a "moderate to conservative."
Ford’s presidency was uneven at best, but this does not mean he was not a good man. In fact, Ford was a great man. His calming presence in the moments after Richard Nixon departed Washington did much to restore American belief in their system of government.
The GOP was changing right from underneath Gerald Ford and he did not understand this as Ronald Reagan did. Ford was not a visionary. Ford did not think about the future the way Reagan did. But he was a good man who served his country well in a time of great national peril.
Historians will forever debate Ford’s presidency but this is not the true measure of the man. The only way to measure a man is if he was courageously there for his country, his family, his faith and his friends. And Gerald Ford earned the love and affection of his countrymen because he was there when we needed him the most.
God bless Gerald Ford.
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