For the past four decades, Richard Norton Smith has been writing door-stopper biographies of 20th-century Republican political figures, including Thomas Dewey, Herbert Hoover, Robert McCormick, and Nelson Rockefeller. His latest subject is Gerald Ford, a 13-term Michigan congressman who was never elected to the presidency or vice presidency but fell into these jobs as a result of two unprecedented freaks of history. The first was Spiro Agnew’s resignation from the second-highest office in the country due to a bribery scandal, which led to Ford’s elevation in 1973. The second was Richard’s Nixon’s resignation a year later over Watergate, which put Ford into the Oval Office. During his two and a half years as president, Ford was, alas, best known for his televised stumbles, and for his unpopular pardoning of Nixon, which likely cost Ford a chance at a second term.
His Forrest Gump–like march through history suggests that any effort to make Gerald Ford seem interesting is a fool’s errand. But Smith’s fascinating and revelatory volume makes it clear that Ford led a very, very interesting life—starting with his birth. He was born Leslie Lynch King Jr., before being abandoned by his paternal namesake. His mother remarried, and he was renamed (as another Jr.) for her second husband.
Ford went to the University of Michigan, where he was a football star, and then to Yale Law School. It’s amazing to note that when he became president in 1974, he was only the second man with an Ivy League graduate degree to become president, following the even more obscure Rutherford B. Hayes. He dated a worldly fashion model named Phyllis Brown, and their relationship helped him acquire a sophistication he had not acquired in his midwestern upbringing.
After service in the Navy, Ford applied to work at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. One of Smith’s revelations in the book is that despite his stellar credentials and recommendations, Ford was blackballed by none other than J. Edgar Hoover himself. Hoover objected to Ford’s brief participation in the anti-war group America First in the period before Pearl Harbor. (Ford was unaware of Hoover’s intervention and later sponsored legislation to increase Hoover’s pay.) With the FBI unattainable, Ford opened a law practice in Grand Rapids but quickly got the political bug, running for office and defeating an entrenched incumbent.
He rapidly rose in Congress. It was his hope that he would become speaker of the House someday. It was not to be. Most of his time coincided with that long period in which Republicans did not win a House majority, a four-decade streak broken only in 1994 with the Gingrich revolution. Ford did, however, become minority leader, pushing aside other members in a way that belied his nice-guy image. One of Ford’s victims, Indiana Representative Charles Halleck, lamented, “Don’t ever tell me again what a nice goddamn guy Jerry Ford is.”
Ford was an involved and thoughtful member. According to Smith, he grew concerned about Soviet involvement in Fidel Castro’s Cuba and asked Director of Central Intelligence John McCone to pursue additional sorties over Cuban airspace. Those sorties revealed the existence of Soviet missiles, which marked the beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
After Nixon’s landslide reelection victory in 1972, the trajectory of Ford’s life would change significantly. Nixon was embroiled in the Watergate scandal, while Agnew was being investigated for bribery. Smith shows that Ford knew months in advance that Agnew was likely to resign and that he was a likely candidate for the job.
It was a fraught period. A reeling Nixon had to get a replacement for Agnew confirmed by a Democratic Congress. Ford was a rare acceptable candidate who could make it through that gauntlet. Radicals in the House, including the conniving Bella Abzug, wanted to prevent the confirmation of the vice president so that the slot would be empty and the Democratic House Speaker Carl Albert, number three in the chain of succession, would get the job. As Abzug told Albert in her typically refined manner, “get off your goddamned ass, and we can take this presidency.”
Despite Abzug’s opposition, Ford was confirmed in December 1973, but things didn’t get any easier for him as vice president. Ford said it was the worst job of his career. He had to play a delicate game. He did not want to appear to be angling for the presidency, but he also did not want to defend Nixon’s behavior. A group of Ford aides, including fu-ture C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb, secretly worked on a transition plan. Ford remained his nice-guy self as president. One of the first things he did was ask the Secret Service not to inconvenience his Virginia neighbors as he and his wife, Betty, were preparing to move to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. His affability was a problem in the White House, though, because he was ineffectual when his White House was quickly marked by severe infighting, led by Ford’s old friend, the alcoholic speechwriter Robert Hartmann. Hartmann particularly hated Chief of Staff Al Haig, a Nixon holdover, and refused to go to Haig’s daily staff meetings, saying, “F— Haig, I work for the president.”
Hartmann’s behavior did not improve after Donald Rumsfeld and then Dick Cheney became chief of staff. Ford eventually had to clean house in what became known as the Halloween massacre—although it is perhaps comic to note that Hartmann survived the bloodletting. Ford was then challenged by Ronald Reagan in the GOP primaries in a bitter battle that foreshadowed the transition of the Republican Party to Reaganite conservatism and away from Ford’s midwestern country-club style. He beat Reagan for the nomination but lost a close election to Jimmy Carter.
Gerald Ford served only 895 days as president, slightly more days than pages in the book, but they were eventful ones. He stepped into the presidency at a time of great upheaval and handled it all despite economic turmoil, two assassination attempts, and serious national-security challenges in Asia and the Middle East. He has largely been forgotten by history for his efforts. Smith’s fine book is a diligent and largely successful attempt to provide Ford with a historical legacy.
We want to hear your thoughts about this article. Click here to send a letter to the editor.