Death of Gerald Ford: An accidental President

Gerald Ford was never elected to lead his country but restored dignity to the White House during his two-and-a-half years in office, after the shame of the Nixon era. By David Usborne
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As flags were lowered across the land and the tributes for former president Gerald Ford overwhelmed the airwaves yesterday, Americans, some too young to remember his tenure, reflected on what has famously been called his "accidental presidency".

Ford, who died late on Tuesday aged 93 at his home in California, was never elected to the job. It had never been in anyone's script - least of all his own - that he should arrive at the pinnacle of political power.

Ford was called a "plodder" by one senior Democrat congressman when he assumed office on 9 August 1974, minutes after President Richard Nixon fled the White House to avoid impeachment over the Watergate scandal. He served only 896 days as President, and lost the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter.

America was ambivalent about him then. At his death, however, it responded with only respect and affection.

As the mourning period begins - arrangements for his funeral will be made public today - a more apt epithet for Ford might be that his was less of an accidental and more of a "what-if" presidency. At so many turns, fate and his own instincts might have propelled him and the country in a different direction.

Those turns included his determination as a very young man to forsake the chance to become a professional footballer and instead study law at Yale, where he first got a taste for politics.

When Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973 as Vice-President over a bribery scandal, Nixon needed to appoint a replacement and narrowed down his choices to four men, also among them Ronald Reagan and Nelson Rockefeller. He could easily have passed Ford over, but did not. And let us not forget that in late 1975, two women tried to assassinate Ford. Either one might have succeeded if only they had been better shots.

But as political historians re-visit Ford's legacy today, one episode more than any other will attract their attention and scholarship. What if Ford had followed the advice of every single one of his Oval Office advisors at the time and decided not to forgive Nixon for the Watergate conspiracy?

His surprise announcement on 8 September 1974, just weeks after taking over the presidency, that he was indeed giving Nixon full pardon for his part in the affair and thus voiding all chance that he could be brought to trial for his crimes, drew vituperative reviews from nearly all corners. Many continue to argue that it was the main reason he lost in 1976 and that Jimmy Carter came to occupy the White House. Yet, as political leaders and old friends yesterday offered condolences to Ford's widow, Betty Ford, and to his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, it was apparent that that single act of clemency had come partly to define the portrait of himself for posterity - a leader who was as practical and politically self-sacrificial as his predecessor was conspiratorial and controlling.

It was on coming to office that the late President told Americans that "our long national nightmare is over". In pardoning the former president, he had only one thing in mind - preventing the nightmare from replaying itself over months and even years as first the charges would have been brought against Nixon and then the whole judicial sequence would have followed with a trial, inevitable appeals and a probable prison sentence. His decision spared the country all that, while possibly costing him a full second term.

Thus President George Bush, who yesterday faced a shortened Christmas break at Crawford in Texas to attend the former president's funeral, recalled Ford as the man who had helped "heal our land" in the wake of Watergate. It was much the same theme that was taken up by others paying tribute, including Vice-President Dick Cheney, a former chief of staff for Ford, as well as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

Bush noted that Ford had assumed the country's leadership "in an hour of national turmoil and division". He went on: "With his quiet integrity, common sense and kind instincts, President Ford helped heal our land and restore public confidence in the presidency".

"Thirty-two years ago, he assumed the nation's highest office during the greatest constitutional crisis since the Civil War," Cheney added. "In that troubled era, America needed strength, wisdom, and good judgement, and those qualities came to us in the person of Gerald Ford. When he left office, he had restored public trust in the presidency, and the nation once again looked to the future with confidence."

Carter called Ford "one of the most admirable public servants and human beings" he had ever known. Bill Clinton said the former president, "brought Americans together during a difficult chapter in our history with strength, integrity, and humility ... he served our nation well. To his great credit, he was the same hard-working, down-to-earth person the day he left the White House as he was when he first entered Congress almost 30 years earlier."

Bringing Americans together may have been his purpose in pardoning Nixon, but it was not what happened at first. It was a bombshell decision that, in the first instance, was intensely divisive. No one in his inner circle supported it, Democrats were disgusted and even many Republicans reacted with shock.

A "blundering intervention," raged The New York Times, and a "body blow to the president's own credibility". The Washington Post called it "nothing less than the continuation of a cover-up". Edward Kennedy branded it a "betrayal of the public trust," asking: "Is there one system of justice for the average citizen and another system for the high and mighty?" Even Ford's own press secretary resigned over it.

Alexander Haig, who was Ford's first chief of staff, recalled yesterday the rows that erupted inside the Oval Office the moment the question of a pardon came up. He admitted that he refused to support it. But Haig, like very many others, has now changed his mind. "The President held to his guns. It was a very lonely decision that he made to pardon President Nixon but he did it for the good of the country".

Whether Ford quite realised at the time the depth of the damage he was doing to himself is unclear, however.

"Sure, there will be criticism," his biographer James Cannon quoted him as saying during a White House meeting eight days before announcing the pardon. "But it will flare up and die down. If I wait six months, or a year, there will still be a firestorm from the Nixon-haters, as you call them. They wouldn't like it if I waited until he was on his deathbed. But most Americans will understand." In the event, when he told Americans what he was doing, his poll ratings plummeted.

When Ford assumed the vice-presidency no one pretended it was a position he had actively aspired to. The Congressional Quarterly, the home journal of Washington politicians, offered faint praise. During his 13 terms as a Michigan congressman, it said, he had "built a reputation for being solid, dependable and loyal - a man more comfortable carrying out the programs of others than in initiating things on his own". The best people said of him when he actually became President a year later was that his "plodding" personality and straight-shooting mien was what the country needed after the Watergate trauma.

That may have been on the mark. And yet we now know - somewhat poignantly - that while in office, Ford grew into the job and by the time it was nearly over he wanted very much to stay. He defeated Reagan in an intra-party battle for the Republican nomination and fought hard to beat Carter.

For sure, there were other factors behind his loss. Ford came to office amid economic disarray and double-digit inflation. He also presided in 1975 over the fall of Saigon, the denouement to America's humiliation in Vietnam. Yet many believed it was the Nixon pardon that doomed him to defeat. Haig recalled being summoned to the White House the day Ford lost to Carter. "He put his arm around me he said, 'Al, you know I never wanted this job and once I realised I could do it, it was too late'."

In the narrow rules of political advantage, Ford may have erred in forgiving Nixon. Yet, most Americans - even Kennedy - over the years came to see wisdom and courage in the decision and he himself said many times he never regretted it.

For himself, he never indulged in the game of what-ifs.

In his own words

At his swearing in:

"This is an hour of history that troubles our minds and hurts our hearts. Our long national nightmare is over. Our constitution works."

On dealing with media criticism:

"I believe it is always better to err on the side of more exposure and access rather than less. At that time, the media and the general public still resented any hint of 'imperial' trappings in connection with the presidency or the White House."

Demonstrating self-deprecation after inviting the press to watch him make his own breakfast in the White House:

"I am a Ford, not a Lincoln."

In their words

"Jerry Ford is so dumb he can't fart and chew gum at the same time."

Lyndon Johnson, US President, 1963-69

"Jerry's in the study hall walking up and down and chewing gum like crazy."

popular joke inspired by the sanitised version of the Johnson quote - that ford couldn't chew gum and walk at the same time

"Nice of you to drop by."

White House photographer David Kennerly, when Ford stumbled while leaving 'Air Force One' on an official visit to Austria

"The Nazi leaders would have been let off."

The American Civil Liberties Union condemning Nixon's pardon, likening it to a Nuremberg trial

"His life was filled with love of God, his family and his country."

Betty Ford, his wife

"He was a friend to everyone who met him. He had no enemies."

Former senator Bob Dole, Ford's 1976 running mate

"If he had gotten one question right during the debates, maybe he would have won. He came across as a dolt who didn't know where Poland was."

Political analyst Stephen Hess, commenting on Ford's 1976 election debate with Carter, during which he asserted that Poland was not under Soviet domination at the time

"The nation should be indebted to Ford. We had a need to have a decent president and a truly honorable man at that moment when the presidency was besmirched."

Stephen Hess on Ford's death