Herbert S Parmet. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
At noon on 9 August 1974, the day on which President Nixon resigned, everyone in the East Room of the White House rose as Chief Justice Warren Burger entered. Then came Vice President and Mrs. Gerald Ford. She held the Bible, opened to the Book of Proverbs, as Ford placed his right hand on it and was sworn in as the thirty-eighth president of the United States. He told the audience that “our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works. Our great Republic is a Government of laws and not of men.” Then he urged, “Let us restore the golden rule to our political process, and let brotherly love purge our hearts of suspicion and of hate.” Three days later, the new president addressed a joint session of the Congress and said, I do not want a honeymoon with you. I want a good marriage.” He stressed opposition to “unwarranted cuts in national defense” and gave the control of inflation as his first priority. His foreign policy would be a continuation of Nixon’s: working toward a cease-fire in Vietnam and a negotiated settlement in Laos, détente with the Soviet Union, and continuation of the “new relationship” with the People’s Republic of China. Addressing himself directly to the ethics of government, he promised no “illegal tapings, eavesdropping, buggings, or break-ins by my Administration.”
Ford was the first president of the United States to reach the White House by way of the Twenty-fifth Amendment. He thereby became more a designated, rather than an “accidental,” president. Even at the moment of his nomination, mounting revelations about the Watergate scandal had made his ultimate rise to the presidency a distinct possibility. In naming him to replace Spiro Agnew, Nixon had little choice other than to heed the advice of the Democratic leadership that the former House minority leader was the only Republican they would agree to confirm. Ford was simply not viewed as a potent candidate for the presidential nomination in 1976. His elevation made him, in effect, the first congressional president. Contrary to the expectations of its sponsors, the Twenty-fifth Amendment created a presidency that considerably reduced the distance between Capitol Hill and the White House. Ford had not been in office very long before the amendment’s implications became obvious. A Ford speechwriter, Robert Hartmann, later wrote that Congress “will never knowingly select the strongest possible Presidential prospect as their opposition. They will pick, at best, someone they see as a competent caretaker until the next election.” Ron Nessen, Ford’s second press secretary, observed that no other president was routinely described as “’acting presidential’ instead of simply being president.” Ford never fully recovered from that burden.
Jerry Ford’s career had always exemplified the Sam Rayburn dictum that “the best way to get along is to go along.” As Charles W. Colson told Seymour Hersh, “Nixon knew that Ford was a team player and understood how to work with a wink and a nod.” His rise had obviously more to do with availability than with ability. He was the perennial good guy, a product of traditional American midwestern conservatism. That included all the exhortations upholding virtue, patriotism, and individualism, as well as old prejudices against government spending. Jerald terHorst, the newspaperman who became Ford’s first presidential press secretary, has written that if Ford “saw a school kid in front of the White House who needed clothing, he’d give him the shirt off of his back, literally. Then he’d go right in the White House and veto a school-lunch bill.”
Ford’s own beginnings were in the best Horatio Alger tradition. Born Leslie King, Jr., in Omaha, Nebraska, on 14 July 1913, he became Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr., when his divorced mother married a Grand Rapids, Michigan, paint salesman who legally adopted the boy. His athletic abilities at the University of Michigan helped him reach Yale Law School, where he finished in the top third of his class. “He’s not dumb,” one of his teachers, Eugene Rostow, later recalled. “He got high grades and he coached the freshman football team on the side.” His athletic career continued in the navy during World War II, when, after indoctrination at Annapolis, he became director of physical training on a ship that joined the Third Fleet in the South Pacific. He saw combat during many naval engagements and almost lost his life when a typhoon struck the area on 18 December 1944, killing eight hundred men.
Along with many war veterans, the young lawyer became involved in local politics. Even before the war, his own internationalism had led him to work for the nomination of Wendell Willkie in 1940. His continuation of that position inevitably led to support for President Harry S. Truman’s programs for European recovery. Nor did he have any doubts about the need to block Soviet expansionism. A conservative who liked to consider himself a centrist, he first won elective office in a 1948 primary contest by defeating a veteran Republican congressman by 23,632 to 14,341. In that overwhelmingly Republican district, he had little trouble against his Democratic opponent that November.
His ambition was to become Speaker of the House, and he seemed to rise toward that quickly, more rapidly, in fact, than Republican progress toward obtaining a congressional majority. Ideologically, he was flexible, more concerned with winning, although he did manage to wind up backing Dwight D. Eisenhower for the Republican nomination in 1952. Making friends as he went along, he also made progress on Capitol Hill, and that included a senior spot on the Appropriations Committee. He joined the “Young Turks” against the continued leadership of Congressman Charles Halleck by becoming chairman of the House Republican Conference during the Eighty-eighth Congress. His prime qualification was that he had made few enemies and was compatible with all elements in the House. That positioned him for the final assault against Halleck, the Hoosier conservative. On 4 January 1965, the Republicans caucused and chose Ford as their new minority leader by a vote of 73–67. As vice president under Nixon, he demonstrated his loyalty and began to hedge only when the Watergate defenses became shaky. His swearing-in as president was accompanied by a national feeling of relief. It was, as Ford put it, “a time to heal.”
The First Month
For a while, the new president managed to convince Americans that he could salvage what was best from the past. Ford liked to boast that he had many rivals but no enemies, and this was the most telling mark of his strength. Not only would he keep intact the domestic and foreign policy staffs of the preceding administration—including, of course, Henry Kiss-inger—but Alexander Haig, who had virtually run the government during Nixon’s final days, would remain for the duration as chief of the White House staff. At the same time, the contrast between Ford and his predecessor was emphasized by the creation of a “good old Jerry” image. And Betty Ford, unlike the more reticent Pat Nixon, quickly began to receive a major share of media attention. She became known as an independent, urbane, and sophisticated personality, an image that caught the public’s fancy. Indeed, that August was characterized by a collective sense of relief: the American people were eager to admire the human qualities of their first unelected chief executive.
Just about the only discord came from the Republican party’s right wing. First, there was Ford’s disclosure on 19 August 1974, at a Chicago convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, that he would institute a conditional amnesty program for young men who had been draft evaders or military deserters during the Vietnam War. He followed that announcement the next day by nominating Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York as the second man to fill the vice presidency under the provisions of the Twenty-fifth Amendment. The New Yorker had long been anathema to the party’s conservatives. Many disliked him as the prime symbol of the wealthy “eastern establishment.” Although his policies as governor had shifted to the right in recent years, he was still associated with liberal attitudes on such issues as social services and civil rights. A nightmarish prospect was the specter of Ford stepping down after 1976 to make way for “Rocky.” His presence accelerated the rebellion from what Kevin Phillips called the “new right.” Ford quickly attempted to allay such horrors by saying he would probably seek the nomination for himself. As one who could hardly avoid conflict-of-interest involvement, the multimillionaire New Yorker was subjected to lengthy and intense scrutiny instead of a pro forma proceeding. Not until December was Rockefeller confirmed.
Ford was making the most of his presidential honeymoon. By late August, a Gallup poll commissioned by the New York Times showed that 71 percent of the American people approved of his performance. Perhaps even more significant was the fact that only 3 percent had unfavorable impressions. The ratings were significant not only for Ford but for the Republican party as well. The midterm elections were hardly more than two months away. How badly would the voters punish GOP candidates for Watergate? Although not yet perceived, there were already hints of what was to come.
The Nixon Pardon
During Ford’s first press conference, correspondent Helen Thomas, asking the opening question, wanted to know whether Ford agreed with Rockefeller that Richard Nixon should have immunity from prosecution. In retrospect, it seems surprising that more significance was not given to the new president’s response: he expressed the “hope that our former President, who brought peace to millions, would find it for himself,” words received as coming from a healer wanting to avoid controversy. Nevertheless, just before the conference ended, he refused to rule out the possibility that he might grant a pardon even before a trial could take place. That, too, seemed reasonable: he wanted to avoid saying anything that might impede the legal process. Newsweek magazine soon reported that 58 percent of the American people polled in its survey opposed any special immunity for Nixon.
Without any advance warning, Ford announced an unconditional pardon for Nixon on Sunday morning, 8 September. That one stroke destroyed the credibility of Ford’s presidency. One immediate result was the resignation of Jerald terHorst as press secretary. (TerHorst was replaced by television newsman Nessen.) Overnight, according to a Gallup poll commissioned by the New York Times, Ford’s level of popular approval dropped from 71 percent to 50 percent. It was virtually impossible to convince the public that the pardon had not resulted from a secret, if not corrupt, deal. Not only did public opinion surveys reflect powerful anger about pardoning Nixon before he could even be indicted but, by Ford’s own admission, there were only seven hundred favorable letters among the four thousand received by the White House within the next few days. The Ford honeymoon was over.
In October, Ford himself testified before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Criminal Justice in what may have been an unprecedented presidential visit to Capitol Hill. The televised hearing, chaired by Congressman William Hungate of Missouri, was clearly his forum for taking his case to the American people. Ford revealed that the matter had been discussed with General Haig before the resignation but denied that he had made any commitment. “I want to assure you, members of this subcommittee, members of Congress, and the American people, there was no deal, period, under no circumstances,” he exclaimed at one point, pounding on the table. “I wanted to do all I could to shift our attentions from the pursuit of a fallen President to the pursuit of the urgent needs of a rising nation,” he explained. Nixon, he held, had already paid a sufficient price, and his poor health had been another consideration. And, furthermore, the nation could ill afford a legal circus that might go on for several years. It was time to leave all that behind and go on with the nation’s business.
Serious questions have been raised about Ford’s denial of a “deal” or “understanding.” There is no doubt about the attention given to the pardon option both before and after Nixon’s resignation, with Alexander Haig in charge of the arrangements. Ford was a central figure in helping to derail the inquiry by Congressman Wright Patman into the connection between the money found on the Watergate burglars and the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CREEP).
“Nixon had Ford totally under his thumb,” Alexander P. Butterfield, a former Nixon White House appointments secretary, told Seymour Hersh. But Ford held out before he would deliver: he wanted, as Hersh reports, “some concessions from Nixon on the relocation of his papers and tape recordings.” Some White House aides also pressed for an act of contrition from Nixon as a prerequisite to a pardon. Hersh also reported that Nixon, impatient and concerned that the understanding would collapse, telephoned Ford on the night of 7 September to warn that he would make public a claim that he had been promised the pardon in exchange for relinquishing the presidency. The new president made his announcement the following morning. The arrangement also involved giving Nixon custody of the papers and tapes, which would be housed in a government storage facility near San Clemente, California.
In what was a masterful example of bad timing, Ford announced the specifics of his amnesty proposal for Vietnam draft evaders only eight days later. Evaders who wanted vindication would have to swear allegiance and perform some low-paid alternate service. Comparisons with the Nixon pardon were inevitable. The discredited ex-president had gotten off scot-free; he had not even been compelled to admit his guilt. A more conservative view was expressed by Barry Goldwater, who charged that Ford’s amnesty plan was a “step that is like throwing mud in the faces of the millions of men who had served this country.”
Congress, Inflation, and Energy
Rather abruptly, it seemed, Republicans faced the first post-Watergate congressional elections without their newfound buoyancy. Instead of confidence that the past would be safely forgotten, the failure of their credibility loomed as a major problem. With few weeks remaining before November, it hardly seemed possible for the White House to rejuvenate itself by stemming the serious inflation, but nevertheless, that became the major target during the fall of 1974.
All indicators were discouraging: inflation was still in the double digits, unemployment was rising, and the gross national product was in decline. The auto industry was laying off tens of thousands of employees. During Ford’s first month in office, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average dropped ninety-nine points, and it fell another fifty in the week after the Nixon pardon. Nations heavily dependent on oil, including the United States, were still reeling from the impact of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries’ (OPEC) control of the market. Nixon’s proposed “Project Independence,” which aimed at making the United States self-sufficient in the production of energy, had never gotten beyond the public relations stage, and prospects of much forward movement were gradually reduced when the supply of fuel returned to more nearly normal levels. A new strategy for coping with the energy situation suddenly seemed less urgent.
Ford’s response to the economic difficulties evoked more ridicule than respect. On 8 October he went before the Congress with a program to combat inflation. He proposed a tight lid of $300 billion on the federal budget. To absorb excess purchasing power, he asked for a $5 billion surtax on corporations and on individuals in the higher income brackets. But the centerpiece was a “Whip Inflation Now” plan. Ford introduced it by the acronym WIN and said, “There is one point on which all advisers have agreed: We must whip inflation right now.”
Ford thought inflation could be whipped by the simultaneous efforts of little people to inhibit pressure on prices. He advised volunteers in the WIN program to “take all you want but eat all you take.” Each family should also make a one-hour “trash inventory” to find waste. Within little more than a week after he had introduced the idea, 101,420 citizens announced themselves as recruits by mailing WIN enlistment papers to the White House. By the end of the year, that number had doubled. Some 12 million WIN buttons were in production. All good intentions notwithstanding, the program was soon viewed as more of a public relations gimmick than a serious assault against inflation.
Ford did not have an easy time on Capitol Hill. The heavily Democratic Congress largely disregarded the Ford incumbency. Ford’s tax surcharge went nowhere. Congressmen sensitive to Greek-American constituents persistently opposed his desire to continue military aid to Turkey in the face of Turkey’s recent use of American arms to invade Cyprus. Ford’s veto of a veterans’ education bill was easily overridden. Despite another veto threat, Congress passed a bill regulating strip-mining, which Ford managed to pocket veto; the Congress had no opportunity to undo the president’s action. Before the second session of the Ninety-third Congress came to an end, Ford had suffered more setbacks on Capitol Hill than any president since Harry Truman (with whom Ford liked to compare himself). In his first three months, he vetoed more bills than had Nixon in eighteen. Furthermore, according to the Congressional Quarterly, Ford won only 58.2 percent of the congressional votes on which he took a position, the lowest level of support for any first-year president since that publication had begun keeping records twenty-two years earlier.
The atmosphere created by continued inflation, economic malaise, impotence in the White House, and the uncertainty of what price the GOP would have to pay for Watergate led Democrats to call for the election of a “veto-proof” Congress in the 1974 elections. The real damage to the administration was in the House, where Democrats picked up 43 seats (plus 5 more in special elections) to bring their commanding total up to 291 seats in the Ninety-fourth Congress. A more emphatic result was the ability of the Democrats to take most of their new seats by winning districts with entrenched Republican incumbents. They also won Senate victories in four states and a fifth seat in a special election. Even more disturbing for the Republicans was their performance in the South, where, reversing the trend of recent years, they lost 10 House seats while winning only 2. Also contrary to prevailing perceptions of party growth, Republicans fared poorly in the suburbs. While Democrats fell short of achieving anything resembling the simplistic idea of a veto-proof Congress, the setback to Ford and his party was a dramatic reminder of the great distance to recovery. The locus of power was sufficiently removed from the White House to create a deadlock between Ford and the Ninety-fourth Congress. No issue was more central to this progress, and nothing else had as many implications for both the domestic economy and foreign policy, than energy.
For a year and a half, reaching well back into the Nixon administration, a three-point program had expressed administration policy: developing domestic energy resources, limiting domestic energy consumption, and forging “effective consumer-nation unity.” None of the platitudes or vows implicit in something like Project Independence had yet been translated into action. There could not be much optimism when the nation was led by a “congressional president” and a legislature torn between regional and vested interests.
Unlike the crisis that began in 1973 with the oil embargo, the new situation stemmed from a glut on the market. No success had come from efforts to convince OPEC that high oil prices could wreck the international financial system and trigger a global economic recession. Instead, Libya, Kuwait, and Venezuela responded by curtailing output prices, and the Saudi oil minister, Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani, revealed that his government, which alone was responsible for 60 percent of OPEC’s production, was raising its prices. The implications of the latest manifestation of OPEC’s power hardly differed from its use of the embargo, and the situation was fraught with all the dangers of economic nationalism. The latest hard-line response from Washington sounded like brinkmanship and provoked speculation about a desperate resort to military action. In the United States, expressions of frustration inevitably yielded to the realization that the only reasonable alternative was reduced dependence on foreign oil.
But that was more easily said than done. It was easy to find agreement in principle for the notion of belt-tightening, but where would the burden fall most heavily? Further complicating the establishment of any consensus was the widespread suspicion that the major oil companies either had had a hand in creating the situation or were using the crisis to bolster their own profits. Calls for deregulation of petroleum products so that prices could be raised, further exploration of new domestic oil sources could be encouraged, and existing supplies could be conserved only brought more skepticism about motivations. The era that immediately followed the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandals was not the easiest time for a president of the United States to dispel doubts.
Ford’s circumstances complicated the effort. First, his February proclamation to increase import fees on petroleum to $3 a barrel over a three-month period required a presidential veto when Congress passed a bill barring the imposition of the new taxes for ninety days. The veto stood, but that was less important than the spectacle of challenges flying back and forth between 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and Capitol Hill. They became especially shrill when Ford coupled his energy proposals with criticism of congressional failure to act responsibly. The Democratic Senate majority whip, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, struck back by attacking the president’s political legitimacy. “After all,” said Byrd, “he doesn’t have a national constituency, and his is an inherited Presidency, and it’s unique in this regard. It doesn’t have the national support that it should have.”
It readily became clear that the Democrats themselves could not agree on what should be done. Obviously, there was no consensus on issues that pitted one region against the other; furthermore, as the Congressional Quarterly pointed out, “divided producer and consumer states had set oil, gas, coal, nuclear and hydroelectric advocates against each other.” Others placed the blame squarely upon the White House for failing to provide national leadership. Congress later turned down two Ford proposals for phasing out the federal ceilings on the price of most domestic oil, and the president, in turn, vetoed bills that would have extended the life of those controls past 31 August 1975.
Finally, in December, Ford signaled the end of the debate by signing the Energy Policy and Conservation Act. “The measure was a compromise,” Ford has written, “but half a loaf was better than none, and I decided to sign it.” In doing so, Ford swallowed much of what he did not want, including a forty-month period to phase out government price controls on domestic oil and rolling back the price of domestic crude by about 12 percent per barrel. But Frank Zarb, who had replaced John Sawhill as “energy czar,” felt it retained sufficient merits to be considered a start toward adoption of a federal energy policy.
That first session of the Ninety-fourth Congress was most notable for a series of confrontations between the administration and the legislature that had mixed results and was largely characterized by stalemate. The Democrats insisted on tax cuts accompanied by programs that they viewed as socially desirable and as potential stimulants for the economy: housing construction subsidies and make-work programs for the unemployed. Ford, repeatedly placing himself in the position of appearing indifferent about mitigating the plight of those who were most helpless, insisted that fighting inflation was the greater priority. This led to his veto of a Democratic bill to create more than a million jobs. Despite an unemployment rate of 9.2 percent, his veto was sustained. Finally, Ford had to make a mild retreat by agreeing on a modified jobs program. He later presented his own package for cutting taxes but linked it to a program for an equivalent reduction in spending.
Irritating some of his own people, especially Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger, Ford went along with a defense appropriations bill that fell short of the Pentagon’s original request by about $7 billion. In March, Ford retreated from his requested anti-inflationary tax increase and accepted a package proposed by the Democrats for a reduction retroactive to the start of 1975. Instead of emerging from the congressional session with a $16 billion one-shot tax rebate to counter the worsening recession, he had to be satisfied with a $22.8 billion tax reduction.
In all, during that session, the president vetoed seventeen bills. The Congress, despite the numerical advantage, was able to override only four. Underlining the philosophical differences between Ford and the Democrats, the overturned vetoes included such social welfare measures as health care funds, appropriations for education, and money for school lunches. The country had neither strong presidential leadership nor viable “Congressional government,” which had been the hope of Democrats on Capitol Hill. Speaker Carl Albert finally conceded that Congress would be unable to enact “programs and policies that will return us to full employment, economic prosperity and durable social peace and progress.”
What had begun with so much hope after Nixon’s resignation yielded to frustration and hard times. Monthly unemployment figures continued to climb, reaching a peak of 9.2 percent by May. The twin forces of inflation and layoffs among such a large portion of the work force added up to the most discouraging figures for the economy since World War II.
The New York City Crisis
Adding to the controversies over both congressional and presidential impotence was the question about the looming financial default of New York City. For eight months, the nation’s most populous city, paying the price for attempting to cope with overwhelming economic and social forces, without budgetary discipline, stood at the brink of economic collapse. Only in later months did it become apparent that the New York predicament merely epitomized the problems faced by the nation’s older urban centers. Meanwhile, with default virtually a certainty, those with traditionally rural biases against big-city evils found satisfaction that, at last, the “chickens had come home to roost” because of “misguided liberalism.” Ford, the conservative, Middle American president, assumed the support of that constituency and kept his distance from the situation even as harried local officials searched for ways to avoid fiscal disaster.
Ford’s position was never a mystery. Yet, when he delivered a stern rebuke to the city on 29 October 1975, promising to veto any “bailout” of the nation’s premier city, the finality of his statement came as a draconian blow. In one of those journalistic feats that convert a political leader’s comments into pungent rhetoric, the New York Daily News reported the president’s position with the headline FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD. The Ford rationale, of course, was simple: only by his display of firmness would the city tidy its financial house.
In the days that followed, there was a growing realization that the administration’s position had underestimated how much others throughout the country feared the implications of permitting the collapse of New York City. Vice President Rockefeller openly began to suggest that the government might indeed have to play a role. From within the White House itself came similar signals, especially from Treasury Secretary William Simon.
Ford held to his stern justification that he was forcing New York to restore its own fiscal viability, but at the same time, his retreat had become inevitable. Within the city, frantic negotiations took place involving all parties, including banks that had funded the city’s short-term securities. Under the pressure, all interested parties came together during additional weeks of negotiations. Drastic reductions were made in the city’s work force. Bankers restructured bond issues. The new Municipal Assistance Corporation was established to sell securities. Union pension funds were committed to their purchase. One near disaster after another was averted in a series of cliff-hanger scenarios.
Finally, with the city seemingly acting to repair the damage and the broader consequences of a default becoming clearer, Ford changed his stance when he met the press on 26 November. “I have, quite frankly,” he announced, “been surprised that they have come as far as they have.” Ford then asked Congress to approve federal loans to the city on a seasonal basis through 30 June 1978. He covered his own retreat by emphasizing that New York had “bailed itself out.” Finally, by a narrow margin in the House, Congress approved Ford’s request for a seasonal financing act to provide up to $2.3 billion for short-term loans during the next three years at 1 percent above the federal cost of money. To further fortify the city against default, in case that assistance failed to work, additional legislation was enacted to facilitate municipal bankruptcy proceedings so that New York and other cities could adjust repayment of their debts. Ford’s position, combined with local and federal measures, induced some painful cutbacks but did start the process of rehabilitating New York’s finances.
With the coming of the presidential election year, the status of the economy acquired a new urgency. Fortunately, by early 1976, inflation was easing off, and there were tentative signs of recovery, but unemployment would continue to fluctuate throughout the year at undesirably high levels. In his State of the Union message, Ford again urged a slowing down of government spending coupled with incentives for the private sector. “We thought we could transform the country through massive national programs, but often the programs did not work, he said, sounding a theme that became heard more frequently and with varying degrees of stress from Republican critics of the Democratic past. “Too often they only made things worse,” he added, and called for a “new realism that is true to the great principles upon which this nation was founded.”
In the message and in his budget proposal he was clear about his spending priorities: reductions in a variety of social programs, which would be achieved by a consolidation of fifty-nine programs into four block grants, and a “significant increase” in defense spending. While proposing a comprehensive program of catastrophic health insurance for everybody covered by Medicare, he flatly ruled out any action on a comprehensive national health plan and proposed potentially controversial changes in the federal health programs. His budget also aimed to phase out the emergency public service jobs program for the unemployed as well as extended unemployment benefits. Arguing that the money saved would make feasible tax cuts on a “dollar-for-dollar basis,” he renewed his 1975 proposals for permanent tax reductions. In short, Ford had prepared the way not only for his own election but to meet any challenge from the GOP right wing.
Vice President Rockefeller, the former New York governor, was viewed as a “wayout” liberal, which was, of course, one important indication of the direction of the Republican party. In early summer of 1975, the jettisoning of Rockefeller had already been designed when Howard (“Bo”) Callaway of Georgia resigned as secretary of the army to head Ford’s election campaign. Callaway lost no time in telling reporters that Rocky was the “number-one problem”: “You and I both know that if Rockefeller took himself out it would help with the nomination.” When the president met with Rockefeller in the White House on 28 October 1975, only days after the vice president had hinted that something might yet be worked out for New York City, what Rockefeller heard could hardly have been surprising. “I didn’t take myself off the ticket, you know,” he told Robert Hartmann. “You know—he asked me to do it.”
Only a few days later, Rockefeller found ample confirmation of his suspicion that he had been sacrificed as part of a grander design. Rocky, and just about everybody else, was convinced that the real architect of the plan was Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld was a Nixon holdover, a not unusual pedigree in the Ford administration. “Never once, until he left the White House,” Hartmann has written, “were there more new Ford faces than there were old Nixon faces.” But Rumsfeld, who began to be known by the staff as “a smiling Haldeman” (referring to H. R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff), was more crafty than most. He had served four terms as a congressman from Illinois and had compiled a voting record indistinguishable from Ford’s. Fortunate at having been away from the wrong spot at the right time as ambassador to NATO during the Watergate trauma, he joined the Ford staff as Haig’s replacement. After six weeks as chief of staff, Haig was eased out with an appointment as commander of NATO. “Six weeks of poisonous leaks to reporters and private complaints to the president from Hartmann and other Ford loyalists,” said Ron Nessen, finally helped to get rid of him and to install Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld’s opportunity to reach for the brass ring was supplied by the obvious need to create some order within the chaotic Ford staff.
John Osborne, the close “White House watcher” for the New Republic, wrote that Ford was being “served by the weakest staff in recent White House history.” Ford’s own ineptitude had created the opening for Rumsfeld’s machinations. A more polite view is that, as Nessen puts it, he “was too much Mr. Nice Guy.” Hartmann, often dyspeptic and, more charitably, an “abusive pragmatist,” was convinced that Ford had made the fatal error of opting for continuity by taking over Nixon’s people; they became Ford’s Praetorian Guard, a “fifth column dedicated to Ford’s failure” and to an eventual restoration of the old regime. To them, Ford was merely a caretaker. Having moved to the top so suddenly via the Twenty-fifth Amendment, Ford reached the White House without his own time-tested loyalists. Consequently, the staff was composed of four separate groups that never became unified. The squabbling became endemic; so did news leaks about disorders. At one point, after getting his fill of stories about Kissinger losing his power, Ford pounded his desk and said, “Goddamn it, I don’t want any more of this,” and threatened “dire consequences” for anyone continuing the practice.
This effort also involved getting his own house in order. The “Halloween Massacre” of a few months earlier exposed the disorder within the White House that had continued to plague the designated presidency. If Ford moved to strengthen the image of his administration, he must have been distressed by the Gallup poll that showed his subsequent level of approval dropping from 58 percent to 36 percent. If his move was designed to placate Republican rightists, as nearly every White House observer assumed, then he was hardly more successful. Governor Ronald Reagan of California, who was still not viewed by Ford’s people as ready to risk splitting the party by competing for the presidency, responded in a rather majesterial way, “I am certainly not appeased.”
On 3 November 1975, Rockefeller withdrew his name from the 1976 ticket. The announced realignment left the Nixonians in basic control. Rumsfeld was the new majordomo. Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, whose enemies included Ford and Kissinger, was dropped altogether. Kissinger had apparently helped to push Schlesinger overboard by convincing the president that the secretary of defense had sabotaged the possibility of achieving any new strategic-arms limitations agreement with the Russians at Helsinki the preceding summer. Schlesinger, whose strongest support was from the Republican right, was replaced by Rumsfeld. George Bush, who had been the liaison to the People’s Republic of China, took over from William Colby as head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). At a time when controversies were swirling about the role of the agency, Bush’s new position was not seen as increasing his attraction for higher office.
Among the remaining changes was the downgrading of Henry Kissinger from his dual role as secretary of state and special adviser on national security affairs. The latter post went to Lieutenant General Brent Scowcroft, the intellectual soldier. One objective was to downplay Kissinger’s primacy in the area of foreign affairs, but another was to appease conservatives upset by the firing of Schlesinger. Ford’s failure to emerge from all this with enhanced presidential stature seemed to leave Rumsfeld the sole potential beneficiary. Indeed, grumbled Hart-mann, “There still was no Ford Administration.”
That much had been done to reduce Kissinger’s real power is doubtful. His authority had grown rather than decreased. Ford’s dependence on his secretary of state dismayed White House insiders. Ron Nessen thought Kissinger was a man who had a “lack of commitment to the truth as a matter of morality. Kissinger bent the truth to serve what he believed were worthwhile foreign policy maneuvers.” He dominated the president, noted Hartmann, and “monopolized” him, “sharing the news spotlight and sometimes shouldering him offside” on overseas trips. “This President,” John Hersey reported on his privileged view of life within 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, “who had had a minimal exposure to foreign affairs before he came to office, heard, I was told, only one voice, and a mercurial voice it was, Henry Kissinger’s. Yes, this was the most alarming thought I had had all week.”
Not surprisingly, Ford’s brief presidency was more notable for the continuation of a Kissingerian view of balance-of-power relationships. With the American role in Vietnam having concluded in 1973 and the final victory of Hanoi bringing the war to its real end by April 1975, one remaining concern was the credibility of United States power. Détente, which had come to mean “openings” to both Beijing and Moscow, existed side by side with schemes on the international chessboard to continue Cold War containment and reaffirm the credibility of American power. There was no reason to suppose that such concerns would interfere with the proper noises that had to be made about arms control and peaceful coexistence. Consequently, Ford’s brief presidency at no point deviated from its predetermined global course.
An earlier affirmation of continuity was the new president’s travels abroad during November 1974. He became the first incumbent American president to visit Japan; he met with the emperor and pledged cooperation on problems of energy and food supplies, and then went on to Korea and Vladivostok. At that Far Eastern Soviet outpost, he met with General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, and there was a surprising agreement, the groundwork for which had been laid in October during Kissinger’s talks with Brezhnev. Both leaders agreed in principle to limit the overall total of nuclear-warhead carriers permitted each country to 2,400 and the total of missiles equipped with multiple nuclear warheads to 1,320. The secretary of state hailed it as a “breakthrough” that had placed a cap “on the arms race for a period of 10 years.” When Ford returned to Washington, he explained that what he and Brezhnev had agreed upon was “the general framework for a new agreement that will last through 1985.” All this produced some optimism for reviving the stalled second round of SALT talks, but nothing came of it before the end of Ford’s administration.
More bitter was the culmination of the final Communist offensive in South Vietnam. On 29 March 1975 came the last refugee flight out of Da Nang. That was followed in Washington by Ford’s version of Nixon’s clash with Congress over support for administration goals in Southeast Asia. On 10 April, Ford asked for $722 million in emergency military aid and for $250 million in economic and humanitarian assistance to South Vietnam. But, even as he spoke, the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh was being taken over by the Communist Khmer Rouge forces, and South Vietnam’s final capitulation came on 30 April. Ford never did get his requests.
Not only did Congress refuse to act, but the mood on Capitol Hill was turning bitterly against Kissinger, the celebrated diplomat who so recently could do no wrong, and revived talk about Ford’s need to disassociate himself from that particular Nixon holdover. Administration policies had to be more clearly identified as Ford’s. Not surprisingly, Ford’s popular approval, shattered in the wake of the pardon, now hovered in the area of 40 percent.
Disillusionment, even confusion and frustration, was the order of the day. It could hardly have been otherwise after Vietnam, Watergate, and the pardon coming from the man commissioned to do the healing. Because of Seymour Hersh’s account in the New York Times in December 1974, Americans had heard about intelligence activities having gotten out of hand. They read about the CIA having launched “a massive, illegal domestic intelligence operation during the Nixon administration against the antiwar movement and other dissident groups.” The needs of “national security” had been used to justify illegal “break-ins, wiretapping and surreptitious interception of mail.” All this followed, by just a few months, revelations about how the CIA had worked to overthrow the Chilean government of President Salvador Allende. As if that were not enough, on 28 February 1975 the television newsman Daniel Schorr, leaking information from a congressional investigation committee’s report, said that the CIA’s activities had included assassination attempts against at least three foreign leaders.
Several investigations followed these revelations. The first was a special commission chaired by Vice President Rockefeller to study Hersh’s allegations. The Rockefeller findings, issued in June, confirmed illegal CIA activities but minimized the wrongdoing. The report did more to arouse than to quell skepticism.
The Mayaguez Affair
Publication of the report came right after a bold presidential stroke to reassert American power, prestige, and presence in Southeast Asia. An American merchant ship, the Mayaguez, and its thirty-nine crew-men were seized by Cambodian forces in the Gulf of Siam on 12 May. The Cambodians claimed that the vessel was within their territorial waters. Washington claimed that the Mayaguez was exercising its right of innocent passage and that actually it was sixty miles off the coast. Ford, seeking to adhere to the War Powers Act of 1973, had White House aides telephone Capitol Hill to inform legislative leaders that he intended to use force to prevent the ship and its crew from being transferred to the mainland. But not until fifteen hours after the military operation was launched did he personally meet with the congressmen in the White House. Clearly they were informed rather than consulted.
Only two minutes before the first American helicopter approached and was shot out of the sky, Phnom Penh radio announced that the ship had been released. Nothing was said about the crew, and the military operations were, in any case, too advanced to be called off. At that point, Kissinger told Scowcroft, “Let’s look ferocious! Otherwise they will attack us as the ship leaves.” Two destroyers and an aircraft carrier sped to the scene. Three Cambodian gunboats were sunk and four others damaged. Late on the afternoon of 14 May, Ford ordered a marine attack on a nearby island where the men were believed to be held. American planes also bombed mainland targets to prevent Cambodian interference in the rescue operation. Marines from a United States destroyer then boarded and secured the empty Mayaguez, while a small Cambodian boat returned the captured crew to a second American vessel. To rescue the thirty-nine-member crew, about to be released in any case, forty-one Americans had lost their lives and fifty had been wounded.
The legality of the War Powers Act was to be cast into doubt by a Supreme Court decision in 1983, but in 1975, Ford’s method of notifying Congress was the immediate center of debate. Another question related to the premature use of force. In hindsight, it is clear that the crew would have been returned without military action and the loss of life. The administration rationalized its actions by citing the unreliability of the Cambodian government, but even that point was debatable. Kissinger, in arguing before the National Security Council, was more direct. He pointed to the important fact that America’s NATO and Far Eastern allies were watching. Capturing the boat had enabled Ford to reassert American power, to show that the United States—despite what had just happened in Vietnam—would not allow itself to be further pushed around. Hartmann was more direct: “Did the United States of America, torn internally and with a novice, little-known leader, still have any guts?”
Predictably, public reaction was highly favorable. America had finally stopped “turning tail” and had refused to tolerate harassment from pipsqueak Communist governments. Within the next week, more than fourteen thousand letters, telegrams, and phone calls reached the White House, barely a thousand of which expressed dissent. Ford himself used his memoirs to supply the most candid analysis of the Mayaguez affair. “All of a sudden,” he wrote, “the gloomy national mood began to fade. Many people’s faith in their country was restored and my standing in the polls shot up 11 points. Mayaguez wasn’t the only reason, of course; the economy was improving at a rapid rate, but the net was that I felt I had regained the initiative, and I determined to do what I could with it.”
None of this seemed to have much to do with détente. The Kissinger-directed foreign policy of the Ford administration clearly wanted to go on having it both ways: maintaining the pose of vigorous global anti-Communism while appearing agreeable to accommodations with the many-headed hydra. Ford’s European trip, begun in late May, clearly tried to perpetuate that image. He went to NATO headquarters in Brussels, where he assured European leaders that the collapse of American power in Southeast Asia would in no way lessen commitments for their protection. NATO, he asserted, was “the cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy.” Then he went on to Salzburg, Rome, and Madrid.
In July, there was another meeting with the Russians. The conference, which brought together thirty-five nations on the question of security and cooperation in Europe, met at the Finnish capital of Helsinki. It was to deal with such issues as security and economic and cultural cooperation. By 1975 the optimum objective had become agreement on a new strategic-arms limitations treaty to augment the SALT I pact of 1972, but in essence, the two sides agreed to disagree, the Americans objecting to the Soviet Backfire bomber with its nuclear weapons delivery capability and the Soviets holding out for limitations on the new American cruise missile. James Schlesinger, then defense secretary, joined the Joint Chiefs of Staff in adamant opposition to accepting any reduction of the cruise missile’s capability. “Indeed,” as Ford has written, “Schlesinger had become the missile’s greatest advocate.”
With the cruise missile and the Backfire bomber remaining stumbling blocks, Ford salvaged from Helsinki an accord on human rights. In exchange for American acceptance of the inviolability of the “legitimate” postwar boundaries, the Soviets renounced their right to keep client states in line by unilateral military intervention. They also agreed to observe the basic principles of human rights in their satellite states. Ford wrote in his memoirs:
They had never recognized such international standards before. If the nations attending the conference failed to live up to their agreements, Europe would be no worse off than it had been previously, but if they made good on their promises, the cause of freedom behind the Iron Curtain would advance. That was a worthwhile goal.
But the accord was inherently more significant than that. It marked the first post-World War II Western acceptance of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and that was precisely its weakness for American domestic consumption. A Republican administration had, in effect, ratified the territorial aggrandizement GOP politicians had for so long condemned as the legacy of Yalta. Ford also attempted to explain to representatives of Eastern European nationals in the United States that the effort had been in exchange for a greater commitment to individual freedom and the flow of ideas; in no way did it imply approval of postwar Soviet territorial expansionism. Still, Helsinki sounded to some like another Munich. Too many viewed the outcome as “another Kissinger deal that was forced down the president’s throat.” In the long run, continued Soviet repression, the anger of Slavic-Americans, and a Ronald Reagan waiting to pounce on the administration as a betrayer of strength against international Communism soured any optimism about détente. Reagan himself expressed the view that all Americans should oppose what had been achieved at Helsinki.
That summer, Ford also went behind the Iron Curtain for visits to Poland and Romania. Another stopover was in Yugoslavia. In December he made a five-day visit to the People’s Republic of China, continuing Nixon’s opening of the “window on the East.”
But, just as the annual American memorials to the post-World War II Sovietization of Eastern Europe, known as “captive nations” resolutions, were not viewed as contradicting the Helsinki accords, neither was the opening to Beijing allowed to permit any disruption of the relationship with Taiwan. The Republican platform that came out of the Kansas City presidential nominations convention in 1976 upheld the efforts to normalize relations with the mainland while pledging to “continue to support the freedom and independence of our friend and ally, the Republic of China, and its 16 million people.”
By then, Ford had permitted Kissinger to design a disaster in Angola. Ironically, that involvement was the antithesis of détente and precisely consistent with the international role as prescribed by foreign policy “realists.” Furthermore, the entire covert enterprise was mounted even while two congressional committees were investigating the CIA’s subversion of other governments. When more became known about what had been happening in that Portuguese part of Africa, critics wondered how such a quagmire could have been risked so soon after Vietnam.
The familiar explanations were ultimately made: the United States could not ignore Soviet and Cuban attempts to gain an African foothold when Angola was to receive independence on 11 November 1975. The actual facts were somewhat different. The “40 Committee,” which directed intelligence operations, was dominated by Kissinger. It underwrote and directed covert activities before America’s NATO ally Portugal relinquished its colony of Angola. The ostensible idea was to beat the Communists to the punch. Whichever side could win elections scheduled just before independence would control the new government. Before the enterprise reached its dead end, more than $30 million had been spent and another foreign misadventure had occurred. Moreover, when Congress got wind of all this, both the Senate and the House voted to deny the use of defense funds in Angola for fiscal year 1976.
John Stockwell, the chief of the CIA Angola task force, later revealed how Washington had made the first move. The CIA lied to Congress and to the 40 Committee. Kissinger, pushing the agency into the covert operation, “was determined the Soviets should not be permitted to make a move in any remote part of the world without being confronted militarily by the United States.” He was further motivated by the need to repair American relations with neighboring Zaire, where the prospect of a nearby Soviet-backed government raised fears of control of a vital railroad line. The State Department had therefore decided to get behind Zaire by supporting its concerns about Angola. “Clearly, the United States wanted this war,” Stockwell found out when arriving to take up the assignment. The American role was hidden from the public, while propaganda stressed the Soviet menace in Africa. Meanwhile, as Stockwell points out, covert military operations were carried out under “suicidal circumstances.” The Soviets responded by helping their clients, who turned out to be far more capable.
The revelations that provoked the congressional revolt denying further funds constituted, as John Osborne noted, “a crushing repudiation of Kissinger’s and President Ford’s view that ‘resistance to Soviet expansion by military means must be a fundamental element of U.S. foreign policy’ and justifies covert intervention in such places and situations as Angola.” The ultimate result was counterproductive. With the cutoff of funds for 1976, the field was left clear for the introduction of far more Cuban troops and Soviet arms. The Russians got their victory by default. Stockwell, summarizing the episode, concluded, “Most serious of all, the United States was exposed, dishonored and discredited in the eyes of the world. We had lost and fifteen thousand Cubans were installed in Angola with all the adulation accruing to a young David who has slain the American Goliath.”
All of this further played into the hands of those eager to check runaway intelligence operations. The Senate’s Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations, led by Frank Church of Idaho, published its report in April 1976 with details about assassination attempts against foreign leaders that went back into the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. Another study was undertaken by Representative Otis Pike, a New York Republican. The climate for imposing some restraint was established. “Once these two committees began their investigations,” Nessen has written, “Ford found himself spending long hours trying to settle disputes among Congress, Kissinger, the National Security Council, the CIA and other agencies over access to classified documents and procedures for handling them. There were no orderly and uniform rules for responding to congressional demands for documents.” There was also little reason left for the optimism that had hailed the incoming Ford presidency.
Ford first presented his intelligence reorganization package at a press conference on 17 February 1976. His recommendations failed either to ban covert intelligence operations overseas or to define what would be regarded as improper domestic activities. Inevitably, then, the publication of Church’s recommendations led to the establishment of the permanent Senate Committee on Intelligence, with legislative and budgetary authority over the CIA and other federal intelligence activities.
The 1976 Election
None of this had accomplished what Ford needed most: the legitimization of a congressional presidency. In November 1975, he repeated his determination to win a term on his own, even at the price of competing in every primary. He would, he vowed, “go right down to the wire in the convention in Kansas City and win there.”
It is quite true, as Tom Braden pointed out, that when “the nation’s end men begin to treat a serious politician as a joke, he is through.” Precisely that happened to Ford. It started during his trip to Austria in the spring of 1975, when he slipped on a rain-slickened ramp while getting off his plane in Salzburg and fell on the stairs. That the incident happened in full view of reporters and cameramen meant that it was in full view of the world. “The image of klutz would never fade away after that,” lamented Ron Nessen. Every time he stumbled, bumped his head, fell to the snow while on his skis, the image was compounded. Ford became famous for his gaffes, whether real or exaggerated.
The national perception was that the president could not be taken seriously. At the start of 1976, as Ronald Reagan announced his own candidacy, several columnists wrote that the first appointed president had become “a joke” and “a caretaker.” John Osborne added that Ford was widely viewed as “a loser, a bumbler, a misfit President who for some reason or other … was prone to slip on airplane ramps, bump his head on helicopter entrances, entangle himself in the leashes of his family dogs, and fall from skis in front of television cameras that showed him asprawl in snow.” The inevitable suspicion linked his difficulties to alcohol. The New York Times even speculated editorially that his abdication from competition for the 1976 nomination was not a farfetched possibility. “He fills the mind with the sense of how ordinary he is and how vulnerable,” wrote Murray Kempton inHarper’s. Ford’s own poll-ster, Robert Teeter, found that when asked what the president had done that was particularly impressive, 61 percent replied, “Nothing,” which is exactly what 41 percent said when asked what he had done that they did not like. Advised Teeter, “There is no clear perception of his presidency, of his goals, of where he is going.” Neither was there “a clear public perception” that anyone was in control of the government.
All this was made to order for a challenge from the Republican right. Not only were the polls confirming Ford’s plight, but private surveys were also showing strong support for Reagan. In a single month, the Californian advanced from twenty-three points behind Ford to an eight-point lead in the popularity polls. The very threat of Reagan had sensitized the administration against doing anything that might seem too liberal.
That Reagan would actually oppose the incumbent came as somewhat of a shock to the Ford camp. Even before he appreciated that he would be facing the challenge, Ford disliked the governor intensely. He thought the former movie actor was an opportunist who was milking his position for everything he could get. But he must have disliked the governor’s potential power most of all. Fearing that Reagan might actually be nominated, Ford contemplated opposing him by running as an independent. More and more, Reagan was the choice of conservatives. During the California primary, Ford countered Reagan with commercials that warned, “Governor Reagan couldn’t start a war. President Reagan could.”
The long, hard-fought series of primaries failed to assure either man of the nomination. When Republicans arrived in Kansas City that August, the uncommitted delegates held the balance of power. Ford had begun with a satisfying “first” for his career, winning an election outside his Michigan district by topping Reagan in New Hampshire’s kick-off primary. Then, in the northern and border states, he continued to do well, hoping to force his rival to concede the impossibility of removing the incumbent. But Reagan recovered in his own heartland, scoring impressive victories in the South and Southwest, winning especially big in his home state early in June.
Still, Ford had reasons for cautious optimism. His incumbency was a source of strength, balancing the weakness of his record. Another boost had been supplied by Reagan himself. Just as Ford’s presidential politics and campaigning were obviously pitched toward the party’s conservatives, his competitor’s strength reached out toward the liberals with a pre-convention announcement of his intended running mate. The blow stunned conservatives who had regarded their man as a “true believer.” Reagan’s heretical choice for the vice presidency was Senator Richard S. Schweiker, a Pennsylvania Republican with a liberal voting record. A perceptible drift toward Ford from the GOP right then followed, a development that may have contributed significantly to the outcome.
In the battle between rival conservative factions, the purists behind Reagan managed to dominate the proceedings ideologically. The party platform, traditionally a statement of unifying principles, was clearly painted in Reaganite colors. Ford received only tempered praise and was hardly mentioned by name. The platform expressed reservations about détente and warned that agreements such as those signed at Helsinki “must not take from those who do not have the freedom, the hope of one day gaining it.” There was only a vague reference to Watergate, and no direct acknowledgment of the existence of either Nixon or Kissinger. After Ford managed to win the nomination by receiving only 57 more votes than the necessary minimum of 1,130, he asked the convention to designate Senator Robert Dole of Kansas as his running mate. There was not much doubt that Dole’s prime qualification was his acceptability to Reagan, but there was also fear that anybody to the left of the Kansan could spark a revolt leading to a draft of Reagan himself to complete the ticket. Osborne was correct in pointing out that substantial hostility to Ford’s choice of a vice presidential candidate “would have demolished the flimsy triumph of his own nomination with a nigh unbearable humiliation.”
The Democrats had already nominated Jimmy Carter, a former governor of Georgia, and Walter Mondale, a Minnesota, Hubert H. Humphrey-style liberal. Ford hardly ventured beyond the White House for much of the early part of the campaign, accentuating the fact that he was the president. The emphasis was on his role as a post-Watergate healer, reducer of inflation, and opponent of improvident Democrats. Still, without having to spell them out, Carter capitalized on the Nixon pardon and Republican responsibility for Watergate and for the 7.9 percent rate of inflation, the highest since the Great Depression. The campaign itself was dull: the Democrats had chosen their most conservative candidate since the 1920s, a man newly risen from obscurity, and the Republicans, a “nice guy who just couldn’t be taken seriously.”
Not even three Ford-Carter televised debates did much to relieve the boredom. The highlight was a Ford gaffe about Russian domination of Eastern Europe. In responding to a question from Max Frankel about the Helsinki agreement’s seeming recognition of the Soviets’ postwar boundaries, Ford said, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.” As though matters were not bad enough, his attempted clarification included the statement that “I don’t believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. As a matter of fact, I visited Poland, Yugoslavia, and Rumania to make certain that the people of the United States are dedicated to their independence, their autonomy, and their freedom.”
Every time Ford tried to clarify himself, he compounded the blunder. In his mind, it was all very clear: the United States did not accept Russian domination of Eastern Europe. Actually, the president thought it was all sound because Kissinger had briefed him about Helsinki. Even the Vatican secretary of state had signed the agreement because Russian control in the area was already a fact of life. But, as Ford later admitted to Jules Witcover, “it certainly came out the wrong way.” William F. Buckley, Jr., called it “the ultimate Polish joke.”
Ford was crushed by his inability to legitimize his presidency. He held out hope until the end, and he came very close. Of more than 81 million votes cast, Carter’s plurality was 1.7 million. By virtually resurrecting the Solid South (except for Virginia and Oklahoma) and reaching into such northern industrial states as Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania, Carter won 297 electoral votes to Ford’s 240. One vote was cast for Reagan. Inflation, unemployment, the Nixon pardon, and Watergate all swayed voters. Blacks voted heavily for Carter, giving the Democrat 94 percent of their vote, and he also won over the bulk of those primarily troubled by unemployment. Meanwhile, two segments of the old Democratic coalition, Jews and Catholics, turned out more heavily for Ford than they had for Nixon. Most telling was the finding that Ford, after his long congressional career and two years in the White House, was considered “experienced” by just 5 percent of the voters questioned. Furthermore, in the first presidential election since Watergate, the Democratic congressional victory was overwhelming.
Having risen to the White House under almost bizarre circumstances, Ford remained a congressional president, one who was designated to fill the void as provided by the Twenty-fifth Amendment. His experience offered little comfort for the prospects of future success under that mode of succession. Neither he nor his vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, the other Twenty-fifth Amendment appointee, was ever able to achieve the legitimacy of elective success. Ford was further burdened by being perceived as merely an extension of the Nixon administration, an impression virtually confirmed by the pardon. Nor did he escape the notion that he was merely the pawn of Henry Kissinger, imprisoned by times that were better left behind.
Perhaps defeat in 1976 was even more galling. Electoral vindication is a normal goal for all accidental presidents, and for Ford that need was much greater. Not surprisingly, defeat brought understandable distress, which included a residue of bitterness toward Reagan for initially having led the intraparty opposition and then undermining him during the 1976 campaign. When Reagan advisers calculated that Ford would strengthen the 1980 ticket by serving as the vice presidential candidate, the ex-president refused to be enticed. The greater his own distance from the White House, the closer Ford moved toward a warm relationship with his successor, especially after Carter completed his own single term.
Ford, as James Reston of the New York Times later wrote, soon discovered that being an ex-president was even better than president, with many of the advantages but none of the disadvantages. He gave the impression of being the happiest politician in the country. “Once a man has been President,” he told one interviewer, “he becomes an object of curiosity like those other notorious Missouri characters, Mark Twain and Jesse James.” His security protected by the Secret Service, and a lifestyle that included winters in the southern California desert and the Colorado mountains, he seemed devoted to perfecting his golf and enjoying the advantages of more affluence than he had ever known. Eight corporations chose him as a member of their board of directors. He presided over the creation of a Gerald R. Ford Library, which opened its archives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to researchers in 1982. He joined the college campus speaking circuit, which included becoming the first holder of the Clifford Case Professorship of Public Affairs at Rutgers University. But he was still “good old Jerry,” the easygoing Middle Westerner, dressed informally, and always ready for a game of golf.