Gerald R. Ford
Nixon’s vice president, Gerald Ford (appointed to replace Agnew), was an unpretentious man who had spent most of his public life in Congress. His first priority was to restore trust in the government. However, feeling it necessary to head off the spectacle of a possible prosecution of Nixon, he issued a blanket pardon to his predecessor. Although it was perhaps necessary, the move was nonetheless unpopular.
Born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1913, Gerald R. Ford moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan two years later when his parents divorced. Baptized Leslie King, Ford took the name of his stepfather, who formally adopted him. He attended local public schools and later worked his way through the University of Michigan. He played on Michigan’s championship football team in 1932 and 1933 and was the team’s “Most Valuable Player” in 1934. Deciding against a career in professional football, Ford enrolled in Yale Law School. He graduated in the top third of his class in 1941, in spite of having to work as an assistant football and boxing coach. He served on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific during World War II. Returning to his law practice in Grand Rapids after the war, Ford became active in community affairs. In 1948, local Republicans and Michigan Senator Vandenberg, a well-known internationalist, suggested that Ford challenge the incumbent United States Representative, who was an isolationist. Ford won an upset victory in the Republican primary and easily carried the general election. In the same year, he married Elizabeth “Betty” Warren.
Ford moved to Washington, DC in 1948 to take up his seat in Congress. After the birth of their first child in 1950, he and his wife moved to a garden apartment in the Virginia suburbs. The Fords began to think about buying a house in 1952. They already owned a house in Grand Rapids to maintain their residency in his district, but the purchase of the home in the new Clover subdivision in Alexandria, Virginia signified a new long-term commitment to life in Washington. Betty Ford later recollected that it was obvious that her husband “was not going home to Michigan. . . . He planned to stay in Congress.” Ford did stay in Congress, easily winning reelection for a total of 25 years. For eight of those years he served as minority leader. He worked effectively to advance Republican policies, played an important role in party politics, was a key member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, and was popular with members of both parties.
The Fords worked with Grand Rapids architect Viktors Purins to design their new house. The two story brick and clapboard building consists of two parts: a main block and a slightly projecting extension with a two-car garage and master bedroom above. There is a small, one-story enclosed porch on the back of the house. The house contains seven rooms, two and one-half baths, and a finished basement. In 1955, when they moved in, theirs was only the second house on the block. Betty Ford was not happy with the developer’s original landscaping and did much of the lawn and garden work herself. In 1961, the family installed a swimming pool, which Ford used regularly.
When Vice President Spiro T. Agnew resigned after pleading “no contest” to tax fraud in the autumn of 1973, President Nixon nominated Ford as vice president, following the provisions of the 25th Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1967. Enacted in the aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination, when there was no vice president and President Johnson had already survived one heart attack, this amendment established procedures for selecting a new vice president. Both houses of Congress overwhelmingly confirmed Ford’s appointment as vice president. Ford continued to live in his Alexandria home, although the Secret Service made a number of changes, including the installation of a command post in the garage.
Gerald R. Ford became president on August 9, 1974, the day President Nixon’s resignation took effect. The Fords stayed in Alexandria for 10 days to allow the Nixons time to move out of the White House. Betty Ford remembered her husband’s first morning as president, “At 7 A.M., the President of the United States, in baby-blue short pajamas, appears on his doorstep looking for the morning paper, then goes back inside to fix his orange juice and English muffin."
One of President Ford’s first actions was granting Nixon a full presidential pardon. He was hoping to begin healing the deeply divided nation, but the short-term effect of this extremely controversial action was further polarization. The Democrats scored major gains in the mid-term elections that took place less than three months after Ford assumed office, increasing their majorities in both houses of Congress.
Ford had been a popular and effective congressman, but, as president, he and Congress were able to find agreement on very few legislative issues. Ford vetoed 39 measures during his first 14 months; most were sustained. In public policy, Ford followed the course Nixon had set. Economic problems remained serious, as inflation and unemployment continued to rise.
President Ford’s first domestic challenge was stopping inflation, but the onset of a recession soon shifted his emphasis to stimulating the ailing economy. Ford first tried to reassure the public, much as Herbert Hoover had done in 1929. When that failed, he imposed measures to curb inflation, which sent unemployment above 8 percent. A tax cut, coupled with higher unemployment benefits, helped a bit but the economy remained weak.
Ford used his veto power to achieve compromises on emergency unemployment programs and housing subsidies. Concerned about the large budget deficit, he signed an economic stimulus bill authorizing income-tax reductions only after Congress agreed to a ceiling on Federal expenditures. Ford and his wife were both outspoken supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment.
In foreign policy, Ford adopted Nixon’s strategy of detente. Perhaps its major manifestation was the Helsinki Accords of 1975, in which the United States and Western European nations effectively recognized Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe in return for Soviet affirmation of human rights. The agreement had little immediate significance, but over the long run may have made maintenance of the Soviet empire more difficult. Western nations effectively used periodic “Helsinki review meetings” to call attention to various abuses of human rights by Communist regimes of the Eastern bloc.
In foreign affairs, Ford sought international solutions where he could. He worked to maintain the power and prestige of the United States after communists took over Cambodia and South Vietnam. By providing aid to both Israel and Egypt and persuading both countries to accept an interim truce agreement, the Ford administration sought to prevent a new war in the Middle East. Ford met with Soviet Union leader Leonid I. Brezhnev to set new restrictions on nuclear weapons.
Ford won the Republican nomination for president in 1976, but lost to Democrat Jimmy Carter in a close election. Carter began his inaugural address by saying, “For myself and for our nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land."
In 1977, the Fords moved to a new house they built in Rancho Mirage, California. Ford continued to participate actively in the political process and to speak out on important issues. He published his memoirs in 1979 and participated in conferences at the Gerald R. Ford Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan and the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, both dedicated in 1981. He died on December 26, 2006 in Rancho Mirage. His grave is on the grounds of the museum that honors him in Grand Rapids.
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