Life plays some funny tricks on people. Here I have been trying…for 25 years to become Speaker of the House. Suddenly, I am a candidate for President of the Senate, where I could hardly ever vote, and where I will never get a chance to speak.
—Gerald R. Ford
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963 placed Lyndon Johnson in the White House and—for the 16th time in American history—left the vice presidency unoccupied. Just months later, former vice president Richard M. Nixon, his political career seemingly terminated by his loss to Kennedy in the presidential election of 1960 and his subsequent defeat for governor of California in 1962, appeared before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments to discuss means of filling vice-presidential vacancies. The existing order of succession that placed the Speaker of the House and president pro tempore of the Senate next in line to the presidency troubled Nixon. He pointed out that there were no guarantees that either of these legislative officials would be ideologically compatible with the president or even of the same party. He similarly disliked proposals for the president to nominate a vice president subject to confirmation by Congress, since a Congress controlled by the opposition party might unduly influence the president's choice. Nixon proposed that the Electoral College elect the new vice president. Not only would this method guarantee that the same electors who chose the president would choose the vice president, but having been elected by the people, the electors would give additional legitimacy to the new vice president.
Chairman Birch Bayh, an Indiana Democrat, and other subcommittee members listened respectfully to Nixon's arguments but were unpersuaded. They considered the Electoral College "too much of a historical curiosity," too cumbersome, and too far removed from public awareness to make such an important decision. Instead, the subcommittee reported an amendment that provided:
Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take the office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both houses of Congress.
The Twenty-Fifth Amendment, which also included provisions for the vice president to take charge during a president's disability, was passed by Congress and ratified by the required three-quarters of the states in 1967.
Six years later the amendment was implemented by none other than President Richard Nixon. Following Spiro Agnew's resignation, Nixon nominated Gerald R. Ford as his new vice president. Confronting the scenario that he had described in his earlier testimony, Nixon could not choose the candidate he preferred, John Connally. Because the Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress opposed Connally, the president was forced to settle for someone more likely to win confirmation. For the Democrats, there was also some irony involved. Less than a year later, when Nixon himself resigned, it was the former Republican leader of the House who succeeded him. Had the Twenty-Fifth Amendment not been adopted, the resignations—or impeachments—of Nixon and Agnew would have handed the presidency to the Speaker of the House, a Democrat.
An Uncomplicated Man
The amendment's first beneficiary, Gerald Rudolph Ford, was an uncomplicated man who traveled a complex path to become vice president. He was born Leslie Lynch King, Jr., in Omaha, Nebraska, on July 14, 1913. His mother, after having been physically abused by his father, obtained a divorce and moved to her parents' home in Grand Rapids, Michigan. There she met and married Gerald R. Ford, a paint salesman, who formally adopted her son and renamed him. The novelist John Updike has observed that Ford therefore became "the only President to preside with a name completely different from the one he was given at birth," which was just as well, since 'President King' would have been an awkward oxymoron."
After this uncertain start, Jerry Ford lived a normal Middle American childhood in what he described as a "strait-laced, highly conservative town." He attended public schools, excelled in athletics, and worked lunch times grilling hamburgers. His mother was an active member of her church, garden clubs, and various civic organizations, and his stepfather was a Mason, Shriner, and Elk. Jerry became an Eagle Scout. The family fortunes alternated between prosperous and strapped, more often the latter; some football boosters arranged for Ford to receive scholarships and part-time jobs to help him attend the University of Michigan, where he became a star football player. The Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions offered to sign him as a professional player, but Ford chose instead to attend the Yale Law School. To support himself, he coached Yale's freshman football squad, two of whose members—William Proxmire and Robert Taft, Jr.—would one day as senators vote for his confirmation as vice president.
A "B" student among Phi Beta Kappas, Ford found the academic competition as tough as anything he had experienced on a football field. His classmates at Yale included Cyrus Vance, Potter Stewart, and Sargent Shriver. Yet Ford managed to rank in the top third of his class. "How that happened," he later commented, "I can't explain." He completed course work in 1941 and went back to Michigan to take the bar exam and start a law practice. After Pearl Harbor he enlisted in the navy and spent the war in the Pacific. Discharged in 1946, he returned to Grand Rapids, moved to a larger law firm, and joined the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. In 1947 Ford began dating Elizabeth (Betty) Bloomer Warren, the fashion coordinator for a local department store, who was in the process of obtaining a divorce.
Politics also attracted him. At Yale he had supported the Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie in 1940 and had become involved in the isolationist group America First. Ford would remain a Republican, but Pearl Harbor and the Second World War prompted him to support an internationalist foreign policy. He modeled himself after his state's senior senator, Republican Arthur Vandenberg, who had similarly reversed his position on America's role in world affairs. In 1948 the 34-year-old Ford decided to challenge the renomination of Republican representative Barney Jonkman, an outspoken isolationist and critic of Senator Vandenberg. Conventional wisdom held Jonkman as unbeatable, but when President Harry Truman called the 80th Congress back into special session that summer, Ford had the district to himself for campaigning, while the incumbent was busy in Washington. He drew support from internationalists in both parties—since Democrats knew they had no chance of electing a Democrat in that district. In the primary, Ford beat Jonkman by a 2 to 1 ratio. On October 15, 1948, shortly before the general election, Ford married Betty Warren. He had been campaigning just minutes before the ceremony, and the next day the newly married couple attended a political rally. "I was very unprepared to be a political wife," Betty Ford later observed, "but I didn't worry because I really didn't think he was going to win." She was wrong. Although Truman and the Democrats carried the election of 1948, Gerald Ford won election to Congress with 61 percent of the vote.
Rising in the House Leadership
When Ford entered the House of Representatives in the 81st Congress, an old-timer on the Michigan delegation advised him that he could either spend his time in committee, mastering one area of legislation, or on the floor, learning the rules, parliamentary procedure, and debating tactics. Ford chose the latter. It was on the House floor that he first met Richard Nixon, who had already achieved notoriety during the House Un-American Activities Committee's investigation of the Alger Hiss-Whittaker Chambers controversy. Impressed with Nixon's performance, Ford tried to be present whenever the Californian spoke in the House. The two men shared similar backgrounds and outlooks on foreign and domestic politics and liked to talk about football and baseball. In 1951 Ford invited the newly elected Senator Nixon to speak at a Lincoln Day banquet in Grand Rapids. The next year, when Nixon delivered his famous "Checkers" televised speech to save his vice-presidential candidacy, Ford wired him:
Over radio and newspapers I am in your corner 100 percent. Fight it to the finish as you did the smears by Communists when you were proving charges against Alger Hiss.…I will personally welcome you in Grand Rapids or any other part of Michigan.
As Nixon's horizons expanded, Ford retained his seat in the House, slowly amassing seniority and respect. Ford had joined with Nixon and other new members of the House to organize the Chowder and Marching Society, an informal caucus of Republican veterans of the Second World War, which became his first stepping stone to leadership. In 1960 Ford's name surfaced as a possible vice-presidential candidate to run with Nixon. In 1963 Lyndon Johnson appointed him a member of the Warren Commission to investigate the assassination of John F. Kennedy. But Ford focused his ambition principally on the House, where he hoped someday to become Speaker. Elected chairman of the Republican Conference in 1963, Ford was also moving up in seniority on the powerful Appropriations Committee. In 1965, after his party suffered a 36-seat loss and had its ranks reduced to the lowest level since the Great Depression, a group of dissatisfied Republicans known as Young Turks promoted Ford as their candidate to replace the incumbent Charles Halleck as minority leader. Ford attributed his narrow victory over Halleck to the help of Representative Bob Dole, who delivered the support of the Kansas delegation to him as a bloc.
President Johnson, having worked closely with Halleck, deplored Ford's elevation to the Republican leadership. Expecting Ford to be more partisan than Halleck and less cooperative, Johnson made wisecracks that the trouble with Ford was that "he used to play football without a helmet" and that he was "too stupid to walk and chew gum at the same time." Johnson also told reporters that Ford had violated national security by leaking stories told to him in confidence. These charges were untrue, and reporters backed Ford's denial, but the incident revealed the depth of Johnson's animosity toward the new Republican leader. Ford's friend and supporter, New York representative Charles Goodell, believed that "Johnson thought Ford was stupid because he was predictable." Goodell saw Ford as a solid fellow who had no instinct for the kind of political manipulation upon which men like Johnson and Nixon thrived.
In September 1965, at a time when Ford's star was on the rise and Richard Nixon's had gone into political eclipse, the two men met for breakfast at the Mayflower Hotel to discuss rebuilding their damaged party. Nixon, who still harbored presidential ambitions, pledged to campaign for House Republican candidates, admitting that he was motivated by "pragmatism more than altruism." Thereafter, Nixon maintained close ties with Ford, calling him sometimes from pay phones during his political journeys around the country. "Many people in politics respected Richard Nixon's abilities," the journalist Richard Reeves observed, "but Ford was one of the few who talked about liking Nixon."
Ford also spent much of the time between 1965 and 1968 traveling from state to state to speak for Republican candidates and reinforce his political base in the House. During his first six months as leader, Ford visited 32 states. When reporters asked if he was running for something, he replied: "I'm running for House Speaker." Given that the Republicans held only 140 out of 435 House seats, this was an extravagant ambition, but in 1966 his efforts helped House Republicans make a remarkable rebound with a gain of 47 seats. Ford's long hours on Capitol Hill and frequent absences from home for political speaking engagements, however, took their toll on his family, especially on his wife Betty, who turned to alcohol and painkillers to compensate for her loneliness. "I'd felt as though I were doing everything for everyone else, and I was not getting any attention at all," she lamented.
The Ultimate Nixon Loyalist
In 1968 a "new Nixon" won the Republican presidential nomination, and Ford was again mentioned as a vice-presidential candidate. Ford, the permanent chairman of the convention, had been an unequivocal Nixon supporter from the beginning of the campaign. At a strategy session, Nixon turned to him and said, "I know that in the past, Jerry, you have thought about being Vice President. Would you take it this year?" Ford replied that if the Republicans did as well in 1968 as they had two years earlier, they might take the majority in the House, and he would prefer to become Speaker. He endorsed New York mayor John Lindsay for vice president. But in fact, Nixon had already decided on Maryland governor Spiro Agnew as his running mate—even before asking Ford. Ford shook his head in disbelief at that choice.
During Nixon's first term, House Republican Leader Gerald Ford was the ultimate Nixon loyalist in Congress. In May 1971, when the House voted to restore funds for the Supersonic Transport (SST) project, but not enough votes could be found in the Senate, President Nixon ruminated to his aide, H. R. Haldeman, on the "lack of leadership" in Congress, "making the point that Gerry Ford really is the only leader we've got on either side in either house." Ford annoyed conservative Republicans by his support for Nixon's Family Assistance Plan and angered liberals by his efforts to impeach Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas—an action widely interpreted as a response to the defeat of two of Nixon's Supreme Court nominations.
For all these efforts, Ford and his Republican counterparts in the Senate "had trouble finding anyone on the White House staff dealing with policy who was interested in consulting with us on domestic legislative priorities." Whenever the Republican congressional leadership met with Nixon at the White House, the members received promises that his aides would work with them, "but they never did." Ford attributed this unresponsiveness to the "us versus them" mentality of Nixon's staff. He also regretted Vice President Agnew's intemperate attacks on the news media, which Ford believed would only reopen old wounds. Nevertheless, Ford felt confident that Nixon's coattails in 1972 would carry a Republican majority into the House and finally make him Speaker. On election night, he was deeply disappointed with the results. "If we can't get a majority [in the House] against McGovern, with a Republican President winning virtually every state, when can we?" Ford complained to his wife. "Maybe it's time for us to get out of politics and have another life." He began to think seriously of retiring as House leader when Nixon's second term was over in 1976.
The First Appointed Vice President
Unforeseen events during the next year completely changed Gerald Ford's life. When stories broke that Vice President Agnew had taken kickbacks from Maryland contractors, the vice president visited Ford to swear to his innocence. Although Ford professed not to doubt Agnew's word, after that meeting he made certain that someone else was always present whenever he saw the vice president. On October 10, 1973, Nixon called Ford to his hideaway office at the Executive Office Building and told him that there was evidence that Agnew had received illegal payments in his office in the West Wing of the White House and that the matter was going to court. Ford returned to the House Chamber, where just minutes later the word was passed: "Agnew has resigned." The next day, Nixon met with Ford and Senate Republican Leader Hugh Scott at the White House to discuss filling the vacancy under the Twenty-Fifth Amendment and asked them to have their Republican colleagues each send him their top three choices for the office.
Nixon knew that Democrats felt apprehensive about confirming someone who might be a strong contender for the presidency in 1976 and that they preferred "a caretaker Vice President who would simply fill out Agnew's unexpired term." Nixon wanted to appoint his treasury secretary, John Connally, but after meeting with the Democratic congressional leadership he concluded that Connally would have a difficult time being confirmed. At Camp David, Nixon prepared an announcement speech with four endings, one each for Nelson Rockefeller, Ronald Reagan, Connally, and Ford. Looking through the names that Republican Party leaders had suggested, he found that Rockefeller and Reagan had tied, Connally was third, and Ford last. However, among members of Congress, including such Democrats as Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and House Speaker Carl Albert, Ford's name came in first and, as Nixon noted, "they were the ones who would have to approve the man I nominated." As Speaker Albert later asserted, "We gave Nixon no choice but Ford."
The Watergate scandal had so preoccupied and weakened Nixon that he could not win a fight over Connally. Choosing either Rockefeller or Reagan would likely split the Republican Party. That left Ford. Nixon reasoned that, not only were Ford's views on foreign and domestic policy practically identical with his, but that the House leader would be the easiest to confirm. He had also received assurances that Ford "had no ambitions to hold office after January 1977," which would clear the path for Connally to seek the Republican presidential nomination. On the morning of October 12, 1973, Nixon called Ford to a private meeting. While he intended to nominate Ford for vice president, Nixon explained, he planned to campaign for Connally for president in 1976. Ford raised no objections to that arrangement, and that evening, Nixon announced the news publicly from the East Room.
Ford's nomination was subject to confirmation in both the Senate and House, where Democrats held commanding majorities. Because of the Watergate scandal, congressional Democrats were concerned that the individual they confirmed as vice president might well become president before Nixon's term was completed. Liberals expressed displeasure with Ford's conservative voting record on social welfare and other domestic issues and his undeviating loyalty to President Nixon's foreign policies but did not believe they could withhold confirmation merely because of policy disagreements. A few liberals, led by New York representative Bella Abzug, tried to block action on Ford's nomination, anticipating that Nixon's eventual removal would make House Speaker Albert president. Albert, however, pushed for Ford's speedy confirmation. Then, on October 20, Nixon fired Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox in defiance of his attempts to subpoena the White House tape recordings, an event the press dubbed the "Saturday Night Massacre." Both Democrats and Republicans now felt it legitimate to ask what position Ford would take as president on such questions as executive privilege and the independent jurisdictions of the legislative and judicial branches. Congress appeared to hold Ford's nomination hostage until Nixon complied with the subpoenas of his tapes.
White House chief of staff Alexander Haig worried that if Nixon were impeached before Ford became vice president, Democrats might delay his confirmation in order to make Speaker Albert president. Haig therefore helped break the logjam by pressing Nixon to move on the appointment of a new special prosecutor and a new attorney general (since Elliot Richardson had resigned rather than fire Cox), as well as to guarantee some compliance on the matter of the tapes. On November 27 the Senate voted 92 to 3 to confirm Ford, and on December 6, the House agreed, 387 to 35 (with Ford voting "present"). President Nixon wanted Ford to take the oath of office in the East Room of the White House, but Ford thought it more appropriate to hold the ceremony in the Capitol, where he had served for a quarter of a century. Nixon had little desire to appear in a House Chamber where impeachment motions were being filed against him, and where he might be booed, but at last he relented. Addressing his enthusiastic former colleagues, the new vice president modestly identified himself as "a Ford, not a Lincoln." General Haig complained about the atmosphere in the House Chamber: "Ford was treated throughout the ceremony and afterwards as a President-in-waiting, especially by Republicans, and there can be little question that Richard Nixon's presidency was over, in their minds, from the moment his successor took the oath."
A Catalyst to Bind the National Wounds
Although warmly cheered in Congress, the new vice president received only a lukewarm reception in the press. Many journalists did not believe Ford measured up to the job. The New York Times dismissed him as a "routine partisan of narrow views," and the Washington Post regarded him as "the very model of a second-level party man." The columnist David Broder thought that Nixon did not want "a partner in policy-making or an apprentice President." The harshest criticism came from the conservative Wall Street Journal, which pronounced, "The nomination of Mr. Ford caters to all the worst instincts on Capitol Hill—the clubbiness that made him the choice of Congress, the partisanship that threatened a bruising fight if a prominent Republican presidential contender were named, the small-mindedness that thinks in terms of those who should be rewarded rather than who could best fill the job."
During the confirmation process, Republican senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon asked Ford whether his role might be that of "a catalyst to bind up some of these deep-seated wounds, political and otherwise?" Ford replied that he expected to make speeches around the country. "I would maximize my efforts not to do it in an abrasive way," he promised, "but rather to calm the waters." Ford carried out that promise so well that President Nixon discovered he had a new political weapon: an honest, believable, and congenial vice president. Although some skeptics regarded Ford, in the words of the columnist Nicholas von Hoffman, as just "Agnew without alliteration," the public generally accepted the new vice president as trustworthy, forthright and unpretentious if not particularly brilliant. Ford spent most of his eight months as vice president on the road rather than in the Senate Chamber, delivering an almost continuous stream of speeches, holding 52 press conferences, and giving 85 formal interviews, in an effort to demonstrate a new openness in government.
Vice President Ford balanced precariously between supporting the president and maintaining some distance from the Watergate scandal. "I am my own man," he proclaimed. The Nixon White House thought differently. Ford's top aide, Robert Hartmann, a crusty former newspaper correspondent, was summoned by General Haig's staff secretary to receive a lengthy list of priorities for the new vice president. Included were congressional relations, speaking engagements outside of Washington, serving as the administration's point man during the 1974 campaign, and being available for foreign travel. If Ford needed assistance in speech writing, scheduling, and advance personnel, the White House would provide it. Hartmann concluded that Nixon's staff "intended to integrate [Ford's] supporting staff so completely with the White House that it would be impossible for him to assert even the little independence Agnew had managed." At the meeting's end, the staff secretary shook Hartmann's hand and declared, "What we want to do is to make the Vice President as much as possible a part of the White House staff."
The Smoking Gun and the President's Resignation
Although Ford steadfastly defended Nixon throughout the Watergate crisis, he could never understand why the president did not simply release the tapes to clear his name and end the controversy, if he was as innocent as he professed. The longer Nixon stonewalled, the more pressure mounted from members of his own party on Capitol Hill for the president to resign before the midterm elections of 1974. Where Nixon and Ford had once hoped to achieve Republican majorities in Congress, they now faced the prospect of massive losses of seats. In the first few months of 1974, Republicans lost four of five special elections—including Ford's old Grand Rapids district. In May 1974, when Nixon released the first highly edited transcripts of his secret tapes, public opinion turned even further against him. Senate Republican Leader Hugh Scott called the language and contents of the transcripts "deplorable, shabby, disgusting, and immoral." Ford also admitted that the tapes "don't exactly confer sainthood on anyone." The vice president attended a Senate Republican Policy Committee luncheon where Arizona senator Barry Goldwater rose and said: "I'm not yelling at you, Mr. Vice President, but I'm just getting something off my chest. The president ought to resign. It's not in the best interest of everybody to have to face an impeachment trial." Ford immediately excused himself and left.
The release of the additional tapes finally produced the "smoking gun" that demonstrated beyond question that Nixon—despite his protestations to the contrary—had personally directed the cover-up of the Watergate scandal. By the beginning of August, Nixon realized that he would have to resign to avoid impeachment, and he instructed General Haig to tell Ford to be prepared to take over the presidency within a matter of days. Nixon noted that, while Ford was not experienced in foreign affairs, "he's a good and decent man, and the country needs that now." General Haig went to Ford's office, but finding Ford's aide Robert Hartmann there, Haig hesitated to give Ford a list of options prepared by the president's legal counsels that included the power of the incoming president to pardon his predecessor (the legal counsels had gone so far as to draft a pardon in Ford's name, dated August 6, 1974). After the first meeting concluded, Haig called Ford at his Capitol office to set up another meeting—alone—where he could be more candid. Ford seemed receptive, but the next time they talked, Haig observed that Ford's voice had grown more formal and that he called him "General" rather than "Al." "I want you to understand," Ford said, "that I have no intention of recommending what the President should do about resigning or not resigning, and nothing we talked about yesterday afternoon should be given any consideration in whatever decision the President may wish to make." Haig concluded that Ford was trying to protect himself from potential charges that he had made a deal to get the presidency. Haig insisted that Nixon had never known of the list of options, and that his own actions had not been Machiavellian.
On August 8, Nixon called Ford to the Oval Office and told him that he was resigning. "Jerry," he added, "I know you'll do a good job." He recommended that Ford keep Henry Kissinger as secretary of state, because if Kissinger were to leave along with Nixon "our foreign policy would soon be in disarray." He also urged him to retain Haig as chief of staff during the transition, to handle the inevitable "scramble for power" within the staff and cabinet. Ford accepted both recommendations. Nixon noted that he would be gone by noon the next day so that Ford could take the oath of office at the White House as Truman had done. A tearful Nixon closed the conversation by thanking Ford for his long and loyal support.
The First Nonelected President
The next morning, Nixon departed from the White House lawn by helicopter while Gerald Ford waved goodbye. The first nonelected vice president was then sworn in as president of the United States. In his inaugural address, Ford proclaimed that "our long national nightmare is over." The nation agreed, and Ford entered office on the crest of favorable public opinion. Within a month, however, the good will dissipated when Ford pardoned Richard Nixon. Although deeply dismayed when the tapes showed that Nixon had lied to him, Ford felt personally concerned about Nixon's mental and physical health and politically concerned about the national impact of a trial of a former president. He decided that Nixon's resignation and the sentence of having to live with the humiliation was as severe a punishment as a jail term. "You can't pull a bandage off slowly," he concluded, "and I was convinced that the sooner I issued the pardon the better it would be for the country."
Although Ford pardoned Nixon, he declined to pardon Nixon's co-conspirators, many of whom served jail terms for obstruction of justice; he also declined advice to issue a general amnesty for Vietnam-era draft evaders. The Nixon pardon proved more unpopular than Ford expected and forced him to spend the rest of his presidency explaining and justifying the action to a suspicious public. Adverse reaction to the pardon precipitated a Democratic landslide in the congressional elections of 1974, with House Democrats gaining 48 seats.
A man of Congress, who had wanted to restore a sense of cooperation and conciliation between the executive and legislative branches, President Ford confronted a hostile legislature that turned his presidency into a clash of vetoes and veto overrides. During his term, Congress further trimmed the powers of the "imperial presidency" and challenged executive authority in foreign and domestic affairs. Ford fought back, becoming an outspoken critic of Congress. The veteran Washington correspondent Sarah McClendon interpreted Ford's aggressiveness as his response to all those frustrating years of serving in the House without becoming Speaker. She imagined him thinking: "Now that I am president, I can finally be Speaker of the House, too. I am going to make up for all those years by driving those Democrats out of their seats, and out of their minds, if I can." She concluded that he almost did.
Ford sought reelection to the presidency in 1976 but was challenged in the primaries by former California governor Ronald Reagan. Once having secured the nomination, Ford chose as his running mate Senator Robert J. Dole of Kansas. In the first presidential race under the new Federal Election Campaign Act that provided partial public funding to presidential candidates, Ford and Dole faced former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter and Minnesota senator Walter F. Mondale. The candidates engaged in the first televised presidential campaign debates since 1960. Although Ford stressed his many years of government experience, Carter, the outsider, won a narrow victory, denying Ford election to a full term in the office he had held for two years.