October 31, 2005

Am. Gov't - President Ford

The Presidency of Gerald R. Ford

Gerald Rudolph Ford Jr. was, in many ways, the perfect choice to restore America's broken confidence after Richard Nixon. Straightforward and honest, a man of recognized decency, he traced his personal qualities back to his Midwestern childhood. Raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan, by his mother and stepfather, Ford didn't learn that he was adopted until he was almost fifteen. "My stepfather was a magnificent person," he remembered, "and my mother equally wonderful. So I couldn't have written a better prescription for a superb family upbringing."

Ford grew up to become an outstanding football player, serving as captain of his high school team, then playing all through his years at the University of Michigan. At Yale University, where he attended law school, he worked on the side as a football coach. When he returned home at the end of World War II, in which he served overseas as a navy combat officer, it was with a new feeling for public service. "I came back a converted internationalist," he recalled, "and of course our congressman at that time was an avowed, dedicated isolationist. And I thought he ought to be replaced. Nobody thought I could win. I ended up winning two to one."

"I had just taken the oath of office along with all the other freshmen and this man walked up to me and he said, 'I'm Dick Nixon from California. I welcome you here in the House Chamber.' That was January of '49."

For twenty-five years, Ford served in the House of Representatives, specializing in military matters and the budgeting process. He was appointed Minority Leader in 1964, with his highest ambition to become speaker of the House. In 1968, he watched fellow Republican Richard Nixon become elected president alongside Spiro Agnew. Four years later, in the midst of Nixon's reelection campaign, Ford learned about Watergate.

"I was dumbfounded by the stupidity of the Watergate break-in," Ford later said, "and on the Monday following that break-in, or perhaps it was Saturday night, I had a meeting with John Mitchell, who was then in charge of Nixon's campaign. 'Well,' I said to John, 'did the President, did the White House, did you know anything about this stupid break-in?' And John looked me right in the eye and said, 'Absolutely not.' So on that
assurance I took the firm stand that it was not a White House-conceived or -executed operation."

Even as the Watergate controversy was heating up, Nixon's vice president was in his own trouble. During the summer of 1973, it was disclosed that Spiro Agnew had received bribes from building contractors while he served as governor of Maryland. To escape prosecution, he was attempting to make a plea bargain. "About two days, maybe one day before the story broke," Ford recalled, "Nixon invited me to come down to the executive office in the old executive office building. I had no reason to know why I was being called.

"I was minority leader. He asked me to come down there, and for an hour and a half, we sat there and talked very informally-reminisced about our long friendship. It was a strange conversation. I finally got a call to come to the floor of the House immediately, for a vote. So I left. I got on the floor and two or three of my colleagues on the Republican side grabbed me and said, 'Agnew's resigning.' That was the first real knowledge I had that he had taken that action."

Ford suddenly knew that Nixon was considering him as a replacement for Spiro Agnew. Nixon's preference would have been John Connally of Texas, but support for a Connally appointment did not exist in Congress, and Nixon knew it. He would be forced to do what party leaders had so often done at traditional national conventions: look for somebody who could command a majority, somebody safe. The search for a compromise led directly to Gerald Ford.

"Well, that night I was home with Betty," Ford remembered, "and about eight-thirty after dinner I got a call from Mel Laird and Mel said, "I'm down at the White House. Would you accept the nomination for vice president if it was offered?" And I said I guess I would. I knew if I was offered it I would accept it but I never thought that being vice president would lead to being president."

Just after Ford became vice president, Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor, was fired, and the White House scandal became even more heated. In the midst of congressional talk of impeaching Richard Nixon, Ford suddenly found himself also in the line of fire. "It was very, very uncomfortable," he recalled. "I disagreed privately with some of the actions that were taken by the Nixon White House. I never had good relations with Haldeman and Ehrlichman and Chuck Colson. My personality, my background didn't fit with them. So I felt that President Nixon was getting some bad advice. And it was a very narrow path for nine months. If I was critical of Nixon, the press and the public would have said, well, he was trying to undercut Nixon so he will get the job. On the other hand, if I stayed too loyal it might appear that I was supporting somebody who was involved in this very unwise action. So I had to go down this narrow path of not supporting him too much or not criticizing him too frequently. It was not a pleasant experience."

On Thursday, August 1, 1974, Ford received a phone call from Alexander Haig telling him there was a "smoking gun"-evidence that Nixon was involved in the Watergate cover-up. "Al Haig [asked] to come over and see me," Ford remembered, "to tell me that there would be a new tape released on a Monday, and he said the evidence in there was devastating and there would probably be either an impeachment or a resignation. And he said, 'I'm just warning you that you've got to be prepared, that things might change dramatically and you could become president.' And I said, 'Betty, I don't think we're ever going to live in the vice president's house."


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