Gerald Ford: The accidental president
WASHINGTON (AP) – Gerald R. Ford was a man of limited ambition who, through bizarre circumstances never before experienced by the country, achieved an office that others win through the greatest determination and calculation.
The nation’s 38th president, Ford wanted only to become speaker of the House.
History had another place for him.
Ford was comfortable in the House, representing a Michigan congressional district for 25 years, rising to Republican leader and working toward his dream of one day running the chamber, when President Nixon called.
He needed a new vice president; scandal had chased Spiro Agnew from the office.
Ford wasn’t Nixon’s first choice, but the president agreed that the amiable Republican would be the easiest to win confirmation by both houses of Congress. So it went, and Ford became vice president in December 1973.
Yet eight months later, the scenario got even stranger.
The scandal of Watergate drove Nixon to become the only president to resign.
Ford, who died Tuesday at 93 at his home in the California desert, again was left to fill a void.
And so the man who did not covet the presidency, who never had sought national office and who wanted only to become the “head honcho” of the House, became president by chance _ unlike many since who have devoted huge amounts of time and money in pursuit of the Oval Office.
“I have not campaigned either for the presidency or the vice presidency,” Ford told the nation in his inaugural address on Aug. 9, 1974. “I have not sought this enormous responsibility, but I will not shirk it.”
Charles O. Jones, a political scholar at the Brookings Institution, said Ford “truly was an accidental president and he ought to be judged that way.” Ford, he said, had the least political capital of almost any president because he wasn’t elected.
“He had to come in entirely depending upon the difference of himself and Nixon,” Jones said Wednesday.
What little capital Ford did have was quickly spent when, just a month after taking office, he granted Nixon a federal pardon for all crimes committed as president _ further angering the country.
“It wasn’t handled well,” Erwin Hargrove, who taught political science at Vanderbilt University, said Wednesday. “He could have prepared the path for a pardon. He did it too abruptly.”
Many believe the pardon contributed to Ford’s loss to Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976.
By then, Ford had come to enjoy being president. He once told Congress he would not run for a full term in 1976 even if he succeeded Nixon, but changed his mind within weeks of taking the oath of office.
“The Oval Office is large, comfortable and inspiring,” Ford wrote in “A Time To Heal,” his autobiography. “I knew there were many far-reaching things that I as president could do, but I never sat in the chair behind my desk and said, ‘I’m a powerful man. I can press a button or pull a switch and such and such will happen.'”
He occupied the White House for 895 days. During that time, the Vietnam War ended and Ford inked a pivotal arms control treaty with the Soviet Union, regarded as a major foreign policy achievement on his watch. But it was not to last. Years later, Carter withdrew the pact from Senate consideration after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Ford promised to compromise and cooperate with his former colleagues in Congress, but relations between them were not always smooth. He vetoed 66 bills, and Congress overrode him on 12 of those.
There also were two attempts to assassinate him in September 1975.
His lack of stature as president was evident a year later during the presidential campaign, when he survived an intraparty challenge from Ronald Reagan, who was more conservative than Ford, only to lose to Carter.
On his first day in office, Ford made his own breakfast. He spent his first night as president at his ranch-style home in Alexandria, Va., taking the unusual step of directing the motorcade to obey red lights along the way.
But the perks of White House living grew on Ford once he finally moved in.
“What I hadn’t expected were the little touches that so often brightened my day,” he wrote in the autobiography. “The crew of Air Force One quickly discovered that I love strawberries. So when I flew somewhere, they usually had a bowl for me. They knew that I like to smoke a pipe, and they made sure the tobacco tin was always full.”
Ford got a taste of national politics at Yale University, where he studied law and worked as a volunteer in Wendell L. Willkie’s 1940 Republican presidential campaign. After service in the Navy in the Pacific during World War II, he returned to Grand Rapids, Mich., aspiring to do little more than play “lots of golf,” enjoy life and build his law practice.
But his stepfather was the local Republican chairman, and then-Michigan Sen. Arthur H. Vandenberg was looking for a fresh young internationalist to replace the area’s isolationist congressman.
Ford beat Rep. Bartel Jonkman by a 2-to-1 margin in the Republican primary and went on to win the general election in 1948 with more than 60 percent of the vote, a feat he would repeat 12 more times.
Ford rose through the House leadership ranks, becoming the minority leader. And he worked hard to turn it into a majority, and himself into House speaker. Eventually, he realized his dream would not come true _ Democrats would control the House through 1995 _ and he promised to run again in 1974 and retire two years later.
Then history intervened.
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