If ever a president deserved a title such as "his accidency", it was Gerald Ford. A former naval officer and lawyer from Michigan, he had spent the previous 25 years in the House of Representatives (including two terms as Republican Minority Leader) before Richard Nixon called him to the vice-presidency to fill the gap left by Spiro Agnew. Agnew had resigned over a corruption scandal – involving tax evasion and money-laundering – that had nothing to do with Watergate but came to light, inconveniently, as the same time. When Nixon sought advice from senior Congressional leaders as a to a replacement, Ford's reputation for openness and decency made him an obvious selection. "We gave Nixon no choice but Ford," Carl Albert, the House Speaker, later claimed.
Within 10 months Nixon had resigned as well, and Ford had become the only president never to have been elected to any national office.
He started out with the nation's sympathy – but soon lost it. After a month in office, in the interests of ending the "national nightmare" of Watergate, he granted Richard Nixon a "full, free, and absolute pardon" for any criminal acts he might have committed while president. This decision caused Ford's popularity ratings to plummet: from 72 per cent approval to 49 per cent in a matter of days.
Meanwhile, it was becoming clear that he had inherited a far from healthy economy. Unemployment and inflation were soaring. Ford's response was to call for cuts in government spending. Congress – by then controlled by the Democrats – took the opposite view, calling for increased spending to boost the economy. The result was a conflict that would dominate Ford's administration: in two and a half years in office he vetoed more than 60 major bills.
Abroad, he tried – unsuccessfully – to extend emergency aid to the government of South Vietnam; oversaw the final evacuation of Americans from Vietnam; sent Marines to free the crew of the US merchant ship the Mayaguez when it was seized by the Cambodian regime; helped to bring about the 1975 Sinai Accord – an interim peace agreement between Israel and Egypt; and eased Cold War tensions by signing the 1975 Helsinki Accords, in which the US recognised the Eastern European boundaries established after the Second World War and agreed not to interfere in the internal affairs of Communist bloc nations – and they in turn agreed to respect human rights.
The troubled economy, and continuing revulsion with the Republican party over Watergate, made it unlikely that Ford would be re-elected. Yet, having narrowly beaten Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination, he made surprising inroads into Jimmy Carter's initially huge lead in the polls. He outperformed Carter in the first of two televised debates, only to blunder in the second, stating that "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration."
Carter won narrowly, and Ford retired for what was to be the longest post-presidency since Herbert Hoover: 29 years and 11 months. He died in 2006. Although he was mocked while in office for his alleged intellectual limitations, it was subsequently widely acknowledged that he had discharged with considerable dignity a great responsibility that he had not sought. If he was not a great president, he is none the less remembered with honour as an honest man who steadied the presidential ship in one of its darkest hours.
In his own words
"I assume the presidency under extraordinary circumstances... This is an hour of history that troubles our minds and hurts our hearts."
"A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have."
"I believe that truth is the glue that holds government together, not only our government but civilisation itself. That bond, though strained, is unbroken... In all my public and private acts as President, I expect to follow my instincts of openness and candour with full confidence that honesty is always the best policy in the end."
"I'm a Ford, not a Lincoln."
"Our constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men."
"Inflation, our public enemy number one, will, unless whipped, destroy our country, our homes, our liberties, our property and finally our national pride as surely as will any well-armed wartime enemy."
In others' words
"In all the years I sat in the House, I never knew Mr Ford to make a dishonest statement nor a statement part-true and part-false. He never attempted to shade a statement, and I never heard him utter an unkind word." Martha W Griffiths
"For myself and for our Nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land." Jimmy Carter
"He's a nice fellow but he spent too much time playing football without a helmet." Lyndon B Johnson
Ford had a reputation for clumsiness, and he never recovered from an incident in 1975 when he tripped over getting out of the presidential jet in Austria.
He was a talented American football player (right), who turned down offers to play for the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears.
He was christened Gerald Rudolf Ford but signed himself Jerry with a “J” and changed the spelling of “Rudolf” to “Rudolph”.
In April 1942 he appeared on the front cover of Cosmopolitan magazine, posing in his navy uniform with his then girlfriend, the model Phyllis Brown.
Ford spent much of his retirement playing golf with Bob Hope.
He married his wife, the former dancer and model Elizabeth “Betty” AnneWarren (nee Bloomer) in 1948. Their two-day honeymoon included watching a football game and attending a Republican rally.
Betty Ford later became famous for the candour with which she publicly addressed her struggles with breast cancer and alcohol dependency. In 1982 she created the Betty Ford Center for drug and alcohol rehabilitation.
Lyndon B Johnson is often reported to have said of Ford that “He can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.” What he did say was “He can’t fart and chew gum at the same time.” The US media deliberately misrepresented the remark in the interests of decency.
Ford was the first vice-president to take office under the 25th Amendment (ratified in 1967), which allows the President to nominate a new Vice-President in the event of a vacancy. Hitherto, the Constitution made no provision for dealing with such eventualities as the resignation or death of a vice-president.
He and Jimmy Carter eventually became close friends. They agreed that whoever didn’t die first would speak at the other’s funeral – a promise honoured by Jimmy Carter in 2006.