Gerald Ford

Midwest conservative who became 38th US President following the disgrace of Richard Nixon
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The Independent Online

Leslie Lynch King (Gerald Rudolph Ford), lawyer and politician: born Omaha, Nebraska 14 July 1913; Member of the House of Representatives for Michigan 5th District 1948-73; House Minority Leader, Republican Party 1965-73; Vice-President of the United States 1973-74, President 1974-77; married 1948 Elizabeth Warren (née Bloomer; three sons, one daughter); died Rancho Mirage, California 26 December 2006.

Gerald Ford was the only US President never to have won a national election. Appointed by President Richard Nixon as Vice-President in succession to Spiro T. Agnew, who was forced to resign after pleading nolo contendere to a charge of income-tax evasion, one of many corruption charges brought against him, Ford became the 38th President of the United States in August 1974 when Nixon himself resigned, faced by almost certain impeachment over the cluster of charges of abuse of power and illegality known as Watergate.

On 8 September, after less than a month in the White House, Ford signed a pardon "for all offenses against the United States which he, Richard Nixon, has committed or may have committed or taken part in". Some thought that the pardon was part of a deal struck with Nixon. It was more complicated than that. Others simply regretted that Nixon was being allowed to get away without the punishment so many of his aides had incurred on his behalf. In any case, Ford's presidency never recovered from what The New York Times called "an inappropriate and premature grant of clemency". Ford proved an energetic president, willing to launch the US Marines to rescue the crew of an American ship, the Mayaguez, and to veto a record number of the bills Congress sent to him for signature.

In the 1976 presidential campaign Ford beat off a formidable challenge from the Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, to win the Republican nomination at the Kansas City convention, only to be defeated in the presidential election by the Governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter.

This bare statement of his presidential career might suggest that Ford was a mere party hack, even a tainted political wheeler-dealer. On the contrary, he was almost universally liked as a decent and generous man. For a quarter of a century, as he rose through the ranks to be the Republican leader in the House of Representatives, Ford made few enemies and many friends. He was the epitome of the Middle Western conservative Republican, an instinctive ally of the business community, strongly anti-Communist and patriotic, but also popular in both parties because he was open, friendly and utterly without guile or meanness.

Perhaps surprisingly, for a man who seemed so comfortable with himself, Ford experienced a turbulent early childhood. He was born Leslie Lynch King, in 1913. His natural father was a trader in Montana wool who lived in Omaha. His parents were divorced when he was two years old and his mother, Dorothy Gardner King, moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, a conservative community best known for the manufacture of furniture. There his mother met and married Gerald Rudolph Ford Snr, who gave his name to his stepson.

Gerald Ford Jnr attended the University of Michigan, where he gained a BA degree in liberal arts and then went on to graduate from the Yale Law School. From adolescence on, the young Ford, a tall, powerfully built blond boy, was keen on sports, especially boxing and American football. He became a sailor, a keen skier and a passionate golfer. Later, he recalled listening to Joe Louis's fights with Primo Carnera and Max Schmeling on the radio, and at Yale he was a freshman boxing coach. But football was his game. He played four years for the powerful Michigan squad in Big Ten college football and played as centre in the college All-Stars game against the professional Chicago Bears. Offers of a professional contract followed, but Ford preferred to go to Yale and become a lawyer, graduating in the top third of his class after six years alternating between studying law and working as a football and boxing coach.

He came back from the east in 1941 and practised law with Philip Buchen, later his Chief of Staff in the White House. Then the US entered the Second World War. Ford volunteered for the US Navy, serving almost four years, 18 months on board an aircraft carrier, the USS Monterey, in the South Pacific. The Monterey acquired a reputation as a lucky ship, passing unscathed through heavy fighting in almost every major engagement in the war. The worst danger came from the Great Pacific Typhoon of December 1944, which sank three destroyers and drowned over 800 men. Ford was lucky; as he slid across the flight deck, his heels caught the rim and saved him from going overboard. He was discharged in January 1946 as a lieutenant-commander.

When he came out of the navy, he and his former partner Buchen joined a bigger law firm. In late 1947 he started dating a divorcee, Elizabeth Bloomer Warren, who had studied dance with Martha Graham and was working as a fashion co-ordinator at a local department store. Early in 1948 he was persuaded by his father and by Senator Arthur Vandenberg, newly converted to internationalism, to run for Congress against the incumbent isolationist, Bartel Jonkman.

For a quarter of a century, Ford served as the Republican congressman from Grand Rapids. A study by a political scientist in 1976 found that, if congressmen were rated on a scale from 0 for the most conservative to 18 for the most liberal, Ford scored 5, compared to a Republican average of 7. This was, however, the old Midwestern strain of conservatism, not to be confused with the New Right politics that came in with Ronald Reagan in 1981.

As a congressman, Ford represented what used to be called "the country-club crowd" and the national or Middle Western business interests - the National Association of Manufacture, the US Chamber of Commerce, the big automobile and steel companies. The US Junior Chamber of Commerce chose him as one of their 10 outstanding young Americans of the year in 1949. He was fortunate enough to win a seat on the House Appropriations Committee, enormously powerful because of its control of the federal spending which congressmen compete to attract to their districts. He also became a member of the committee's defence sub-committee.

Ford was one of the first Republican congressmen to write to Dwight D. Eisenhower, urging him to run for President, and when Eisenhower was elected in 1952 Ford found his position enhanced. Declining invitations to run for the Senate, in part because he and his wife had acquired some debts and now two children, Ford became an active member of the Chowder and Marching Club, a congressional group which supported Richard Nixon, and thereby won Nixon's lasting gratitude.

Ford also carved out a reputation as a strong anti-Communist "hawk". By 1959 he was already being spoken of as a potential House Republican leader and the next year he was spoken of as a possible Republican candidate for the vice-presidency. Nothing materialised in either case. More accurately, the American Science Association gave him a special award as a "congressman's congressman", described in the citation as "a moderate conservative who . . . symbolises the hard-working, competent legislator who eschews the more colorful, publicity-seeking roles".

Then, suddenly, in January 1963, a sort of lightning struck. A number of younger, moderate Republicans were looking for a leader to put up against the elderly, very conservative and noticeably ineffective House minority leader, Charlie Halleck of Indiana. They considered running a candidate against Halleck for the Republican leadership in the caucus, but decided Halleck was too strong to be taken on, and settled instead on a campaign against an obscure figure, Charles Hoeven, chairman of the House Republican Conference, the number three leader in the minority party's hierarchy. They put up Ford for the job. "It wasn't as though everybody was wildly enthusiastic about Jerry," one of the rebels confided later. "He didn't have any enemies."

Two years later, the same rebels, feeling the political world moving in their direction, decided to challenge Halleck. Rejecting the more brilliant but more controversial Melvin Laird, of Wisconsin (later an excellent Secretary of Defense), they put up Ford again. Ford himself took the campaign rather lightly, disappearing for three separate vacations, on the beach in Puerto Rico, golfing in Palm Springs and skiing in the Midwest, while his backers got the Republican leadership for him.

As Republican leader in the House, Ford was popular rather than spectacularly effective. Congressmen of both parties liked him. A decent fellow, was the usual judgement, and, in a place as full of ferocious ambition as Washington, that was a nice thing to have said about you. Not that Ford lacked ambition. He worked 14-hour days, concentrating above all on minimising his enemies. There were those who made unkind jokes. Jerry Ford, said Lyndon Johnson, "is so dumb he can't fart and chew gum at the same time". He also suggested that Ford had played football too often without a helmet. But that was unfair too. There was nothing wrong with Ford's brains: it was just that he used them not to craft dynamic, innovative legislation, but to keep the Republicans together and to smooth the legislative wheels of Congress, not to mention his own upward path through the political ranks.

By 1968, however, the US was in ferment over the twin issues of the Vietnam War and equality for black people. Ford attacked Johnson somewhat woodenly on Vietnam, but on the civil rights issue he miscalculated so badly that he almost lost his party leadership. The administration proposed an "open housing" bill, prohibiting discrimination in housing. Ford, backed by the powerful real estate lobby, opposed it. He found himself attacked not only by black organisations and liberals, but also by his own supporters in Michigan. Humiliated, he had to climb down.

Early in the Nixon administration, with attention focused on the President's efforts to extricate the US from Vietnam and on his foreign policy, Ford launched into a little-noticed but ill-judged attempt to impeach the liberal Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. In the course of this campaign he took a position that would come back to haunt him when Nixon faced impeachment. An impeachable offence, Ford said - unwisely, if with a certain realism - is "whatever the majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history".

In the second half of the first Nixon administration, Ford found himself personally perplexed and politically embarrassed by what seemed strange policy vacillations. As a fiscal conservative, he was troubled by the President's wage and price controls. As a strong anti-Communist, he distrusted Henry Kissinger and Nixon's flirtations with Moscow and Beijing. But the Nixon landslide in 1972 swept Ford back into Congress with so comfortable a majority that he unwisely got involved in a campaign to deny home rule to the (largely black) District of Columbia. The Washington Post pointed out that all the reasons Ford had put forward for denying home rule to the District also applied to Ford's home town. "Home Rule," it asked acidly. "Is Grand Rapids ready?"

Leaving aside such occasional partisan excesses, though, Ford could look forward to a few more tranquil years as the congressional backer of a triumphantly re-elected President Nixon. At the age of 61, he could even look forward to seeing more of his wife Betty and their four growing children. (Betty Ford later underwent psychiatric care as a result of over-dependence on alcohol and painkillers in response to pain attributed to a "pinched nerve".)

It was not to be. Less than a year after the election, Ford faced the klieg lights in the East Room of the White House as Nixon announced that he had chosen him as his Vice-President. When his appointment had been ratified by the Senate, Ford acknowledged his new office with a curiously, but characteristically, self-deprecating phrase. "I am," he said, "a Ford, not a Lincoln."

Almost immediately after Ford became Vice-President, the Watergate affair began to erode President Nixon's position. In the spring of 1974, without Ford's knowledge, the loyal Philip Buchen began to meet a Nixon aide in deepest secrecy to make contingency plans for a Nixon-Ford transition. In late July, after the Supreme Court declared that Nixon must surrender his secret tape recordings of conversations in the Oval Office, it became plain that it was only a matter of time before Ford moved into the White House. In his first television appearance after Nixon's resignation, he promised an "open and candid administration". Asked by a reporter if he would introduce a new code of ethics, he said: "The code of ethics that will be followed will be the example that I set."

On 8 September, responding as he said to his conscience, Ford signed Nixon's pardon. The precise terms of what amounted to a deal, involving restricting access to the Nixon tapes, had been worked out in secret by a lawyer dispatched to negotiate with Nixon the form of his (somewhat grudging) admission of contrition. Ford said he intended to "heal the wounds throughout the United States". Instead, he had succeeded in reopening the wounds of Watergate.

The press turned sharply against him. Many journalists endorsed the judgement of one correspondent who wrote: "What he was doing was a favour to an old friend while simultaneously trying to sink a nasty situation well before his own re-election campaign." His own press secretary, Jerry terHorst, an old friend, resigned on the grounds that, if Nixon were to be pardoned, then Nixon's aides, imprisoned because of Watergate, and men who had resisted being conscripted during the Vietnam War, should also have been pardoned.

The voters agreed. The White House switchboard was jammed with protesters, and Ford's standing in the Gallup poll collapsed from 71 per cent to 50. He was, the placards held up to television cameras said, "Just another". Perhaps even worse, people started to laugh at the President, who, for such a fine athlete, was remarkably prone to bump his head or trip down steps on camera.

He was also beset by the beginnings of recession. He sought to respond, and to restrain inflation, by cutting social programmes and by proposing income tax rebates for higher-income individuals. He also attempted to reduce dependence on foreign oil. In foreign policy, he kept Henry Kissinger on as his Secretary of State, then allowed him to be unseated by a plot among his advisers. He blamed Congress for the crumbling of the South Vietnamese government and the fall of Saigon in 1975. He sent US Marines to rescue sailors on a US merchant ship, the Mayaguez, losing as many Marines in the attempt as sailors he saved. And later he sanctioned secret US assistance to the South African-backed side in the Angolan civil war. He also survived two assassination attempts, one by an apparently deranged member of the cult created by Charles Manson.

Still, by 1976 the US was at peace, and the recession was ending. Ford had been on the whole an undistinguished president, but one who had kept the US on course. In the process, he had lost the support of the growing, and increasingly impatient, New Right. The conservatives rallied round Reagan and forced Ford to fight on two political fronts. As a result, and because of a somewhat lacklustre campaign, he was defeated by Carter.

Gerald Ford was a gregarious, friendly, easygoing sports lover and regular fellow - a museum-quality specimen of Homo politicus Americanus as the species was from 1945 to 1976, sub-species Middle Western country-club Republican. In retirement, he sat on the boards of large corporations including Santa Fe International, and American Express, who paid him an estimated $5m a year in fees. He liked to ski at Vail in Colorado, and to play golf at Pebble Beach and Palm Springs, California. He spoke of "having a magnificent life".

Last month, he overtook Ronald Reagan to become the longest-living ever US President.

Godfrey Hodgson