The Secrets of Gerald Ford's Success ... 30 Years After he Became President It's Time to Consider What Made Him Tick
Mr. Mieczkowski is an associate professor of history at Dowling College in Oakdale, NY. His book on the Ford presidency, Gerald Ford and the Challenges of the 1970s, will be published next year by the University Press of Kentucky.
August 9, 2004 marks the thirtieth anniversary of Gerald Ford's inauguration as president. Ford arrived at the White House through unique circumstances, not only by Richard Nixon's resignation, but also because he owed his elevation to the presidency largely to his character. In the atmosphere of moral turpitude surrounding Vice President Spiro Agnew's resignation and the Watergate scandal, congressmen wanted a new vice president with unblemished character, speculating that he might someday become president. Feeling burned by Watergate, the public, Congress, and the media became vigilant over political behavior, and one reason that Ford survived vigorous scrutiny and held the country together during his two and a half year presidency was through his integrity.
Over the years, most notably after Bill Clinton's impeachment, questions about presidential character have sometimes resurfaced; the issue will always resonate, especially in an election year. Some of Ford's fundamental traits served him well during his almost three decades in public life, and they stand as refreshing reminders in today's political climate, which mirrors the polarization of the 1970s. Many observers found Ford's personality bland and uninspiring. Yet that view was simplistic; no one arrives at the Oval Office devoid of personality and values. A glimpse into Ford's character shows facets that were a road map for leadership; they also recall decent, homespun traits increasingly invisible in today's leaders.
Names. Occasionally, the historical trivia question pops up: "Which U.S. president was also a king?" The answer is Gerald Ford. He was born Leslie Lynch King, Jr., in Omaha, Nebraska, but when he was two years old, his mother divorced her husband and moved to her home town, Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she married a paint salesman, Gerald Rudolph Ford. The couple renamed her son Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr. The president who underwent a name change made names one of his great strengths, using them adroitly and addressing reporters and colleagues personally.
This may seem like a small point. In politics, though, names are critical; a politician with a facility for names possesses a tremendous asset. In the late 1800s, Maine Senator James G. Blaine's ability to remember names and faces became legendary. Blaine became the 1884 Republican presidential nominee and might have reached the White House if not for shady financial dealings.
Ford had Blaine's capacity for names without the baggage of scandal that encumbered the senator. The skill reflected Ford's gregarious nature, and it also provided a way for him to pull Washington together after Watergate, as he frequently telephoned or met with congressmen about legislation, always exercising courtesies with a personal touch. One colleague recalled that during the 1980s, when ex-presidents Ford and Jimmy Carter attended a Capitol Hill reception, Ford warmly greeted many congressmen, inquiring about their family members by name. Carter, whose relations with Congress were sometimes frosty, seemed more distant from the legislators. A seemingly simple feat--remembering names and using them--spoke volumes about Ford's desire to connect with colleagues and remain friends despite partisan differences.
Many adversaries, not one enemy. In many ways, that Capitol Hill reception served as a metaphor for Ford's relations with Congress. Throughout his political career, Ford was fond of saying that he had "many adversaries, but not one enemy" on Capitol Hill. Despite having well-defined, strong views, Ford avoided offending opponents by force of personality, living by House Speaker Sam Rayburn's adage of "disagreeing without being disagreeable."
Ford's ability to get along facilitated his political rise. In 1965, House Republicans, alarmed by the shellacking the GOP took during the previous year's elections, figured that they needed new leadership. Aiming to oust the crusty Charles Halleck from his position as minority leader, they targeted Ford as his replacement largely because he was popular and well-liked. The coup succeeded, and Ford began a slow rise to national prominence. In 1973, after Vice President Agnew resigned, Democratic leaders such as House Speaker Carl Albert and Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield told Nixon--whose presidency was already embattled--that Minority Leader Ford was the only person who could win easy confirmation as vice president. Although the Michigan congressman was not Nixon's first choice, he knew that Ford could add respectability to his administration and repair badly damaged relations with Capitol Hill. Within a year after becoming vice president, Ford was in the White House, and during his first week in office, he addressed Congress and pledged "communication, conciliation, compromise, and cooperation." Although Ford had many legislative scraps with the heavily Democratic 94th Congress, he conducted himself congenially, which helped restore civility to post-Watergate Washington.
Openness. Ford purged partisan acrimony partly through an open leadership style. When he was still a congressman, one reporter approached him about speaking to him sometime. Ford scribbled a phone number on a piece of paper and handed it to the reporter. Thinking it was an office number, the newsman asked Ford whom he should ask for when he called. "Just ask for me," Ford replied, adding that it was his home number.
That kind of approach marked a vivid contrast from Nixon, who regarded the press as an enemy and cloistered himself in the Oval Office. Postwar leaders who finished the terms of fallen presidents--Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson--had the luxury of invoking the memory of their predecessors. Not Ford. He had to make a sharp break from Nixon, and one dramatic change was his opening the White House to people Nixon had shut out. Ford met with congressmen whom Nixon ostracized and reporters who had been on Nixon's "Enemies List." When Ralph Nader was invited to the Ford White House, one of the consumer advocate's aides remarked that Nader "couldn't have gotten in the White House door with an ax during Nixon."
The open, affable style served Ford well in foreign policy. Even though many Americans, disillusioned after the Vietnam War, wanted drastically to reduce U.S. commitments overseas, Ford insisted on maintaining a high profile internationally. Believing that personality was a key factor in diplomacy, he took advantage of good personal chemistry with foreign leaders to improve relations between countries. U.S.-French relations experienced a chill during the last years of Charles de Gaulle's rule, but in 1974, Ford met with new French President Valerie Giscard d'Estaing on the island of Martinique. The two men even held talks at a swimming pool, after which the New York Times commented that they got along "swimmingly." The following year, Ford accepted Giscard d'Estaing's invitation to join five other industrialized nations ( France, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, and West Germany) for an economic summit conference in Rambouillet, a Paris suburb. In 1976, Ford hosted these nations plus Canada in Puerto Rico. These meetings marked the beginning of G-7 summitry, one of the most important diplomatic traditions of the late twentieth century, which has continued to this day.
Steadiness. Ford had few personality quirks. He was straightforward and unassuming, and people who met him often commented on his steady, direct eye contact during conversations, which seemed to reflect a solid inner character. "I'm disgustingly sane," he told congressmen investigating his background during vice presidential confirmation hearings. His wife Betty once described the Ford family as "squares," and they were proud to represent the traditional values of middle America. Long after Ford left office, Washington Post columnist David Broder described him as the "least neurotic" president of the past generation, and while cottage industries have grown out of psychoanalyzing Nixon, Clinton, and other chief executives who proved inscrutable or shockingly fallible, Ford has never needed such examination.
Ford's policies reflected his steadiness. Rather than introduce bold legislative programs such as the "Great Society," Ford preferred to limit government spending and reduce federal deficits. He favored stable fiscal policies to avert the high inflation and recessions that plagued the 1970s economy. Critics saw this brand of leadership as unimaginative, a waste of the tremendous power at the president's disposal. Democratic Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin called Ford's leadership "do-nothingism." New York Times columnist Russell Baker complained that Ford was boring, yet quickly added that it was Ford's great political strength. The calm of the mid-1970s was precisely what the nation needed after the turbulent 1960s, the Vietnam War, and Watergate. By 1976, the nation celebrated its bicentennial in a halcyon atmosphere that was unimaginable two years earlier.
Sports. Ford's trademark steadiness and equanimity--especially in a high-pressure job--came partly because of his outlet: sports. Athletic activity, Ford found, was the perfect way to blow off steam, and speechwriter and longtime aide Robert Hartmann believed that Ford was more proud of his athletic interests than his political achievements. In high school, Ford played for the football and basketball teams and ran track. The captain of his football team, Ford led it to an undefeated season and state championship his senior year and was recruited by the University of Michigan, where he played center for four years, earning All-Big Ten honors. Sports became a training ground for politics, because it taught Ford to handle the media glare, including sharp barbs from critics, which he learned should never get far under his skin.
Ford was 61 years old when he became president and remained athletically active. In fact, no modern president indulged in the variety of sports, and with the enthusiasm, that Ford did. He swam daily (and even had a new outdoor pool installed at the White House), played tennis and golf, and took his family on ski vacations to Vail, Colorado. Although plagued by painful football knees, Ford jumped at opportunities to play any sport. National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft recalled that the president arrived at a meeting one morning with a bruise under his eye. Ford explained that he had been playing on a trampoline at Camp David with his teenage daughter, Susan, and accidentally got bumped. Scowcroft marveled that a man in his 60s would be bold enough to jump on a trampoline with a teenager.
Self-effacing humor. Like any athlete, Ford had his falls. He took spills on the ski slopes, and his golf balls went errant and clocked spectators. When the media gleefully covered such incidents, Ford accepted the ribbing good-naturedly, once joking that he was "the Evel Knievel of politics." He had a self-effacing sense of humor, deflecting press criticism by laughing along. In November 1974, Ford became the first president to visit Japan, but the media made much of the high-water trousers he wore at an official state visit with Emperor Hirohito. A few weeks later, addressing a group of Boy Scouts, Ford--who was an Eagle Scout--proclaimed that scouting still ran in his veins. After all, he said, his visit to Japan proved that he still liked to go around in short pants.
The nation first got to see Ford joke gently at his own expense during his vice presidential inaugural address, when he quipped that he was "a Ford, not a Lincoln." Another glimpse came following a 1976 presidential debate against Jimmy Carter, when Ford asserted that there was "no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe." He meant to say that Eastern Europeans accepted no Soviet domination, but the words came out wrong. The media ignored everything else that the two candidates said during that debate and focused on Ford's remark, which hurt his campaign. After he lost the election, when asked about his future plans, Ford remarked that he might teach at the University of Michigan--but in a subject other than European history. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ford joked that his debate statement was actually correct--just fifteen years early. After leaving office, Ford even wrote Humor and the Presidency, a book that illustrated how chief executives have used laughter as a political instrument. Ford took the business of being president seriously, but not so much that he denied his own humanity and fallibility.
The long term. Throughout his life, Ford believed in setting long-term goals. After graduating from the University of Michigan, he wanted to go to law school, so he turned down offers to play professional football for the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers and instead became an assistant football coach at Yale University. Practically broke after college, he needed the income, but his burning ambition remained a law degree. Taking classes part-time at Yale Law School, he worked piecemeal toward his goal and eventually was admitted as a full-time student. In 1941 he received a Yale law degree, graduating in the top third of his class, all the while working full-time as an assistant football coach.
In 1948 Ford won a seat in Congress and soon became a member of the House Appropriations Committee. The young congressman set a new goal for himself: expertise on budgetary matters. He studied the federal budget in detail, and once he became president, the budget became his forte, and he personally supervised its formulation, trying to restrain spending to keep inflation down. His budget mastery allowed him to become the first president since Truman to brief the press personally on the budget, and he remains the last president to conduct in-depth briefings.
Ford also believed in long-term goals for the nation. The difference between a politician and a statesman, he felt, was that the latter viewed the nation's welfare from a long-term perspective, whereas a politician was more expedient, thinking primarily about the next election. In 1976, as the economy recovered from a severe recession, Ford refused to pump up spending to boost his election prospects. The decision may have cost him a victory--he lost to Jimmy Carter by less than 2 percent of the popular vote--but Ford felt it was the responsible course to take. Too much fiscal stimulus would have increased inflation over the long term and led to an even deeper recession.
Many of Ford's long-term national goals have stood the test of time, and his initiatives have been taken up by both Democratic and Republican successors at the White House. Ford believed that decontrolling oil prices would solve the 1970s energy crisis, and both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan worked to achieve this goal, which ultimately eased fuel shortages. All presidents since Ford have followed his initiatives in deregulating industries such as the airlines, trucking, and cable television. During the 1980s, Reagan continued Ford's posture of maintaining a strong military while negotiating with the Soviet Union on arms control. Ford's emphasis on low inflation has been a hallmark of Federal Reserve policy since the 1970s, vigilantly implemented by the economist who chaired Ford's Council of Economic Advisors, Alan Greenspan. During just 895 days in office, Ford left remarkably durable blueprints for policy makers to follow.
Ford's presidency was soon over. The nation witnessed little more than two years of him as leader, and many aspects of his personality, pastimes, and policies have faded from memory. Some Americans, still angry over Watergate, remember only Ford's pardon of Nixon; others now see that action from the president's perspective, believing the pardon was critical for healing the nation. Forgiveness also comes from the person, and Ford's personality played a role in national healing. Only a leader with solid character could have weathered the storm of cynicism that followed Watergate. At his first press conference, when asked about implementing a code of ethics for the executive branch, Ford replied, "The code of ethics that will be followed will be the example that I set." At that moment in history, political integrity was paramount, and in the Ford White House, character was king.
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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007
Ford was regular guy, who could look people in the eye, speak plainly, and inspire respect. Trustworthy is the first boy scout "law" and Ford was. He was over his head (with or without football helmet) as president, but he did his best to serve the country anyway without paying much attention to his own personal political fate. He was everything George W. Bush pretends to be but is not.
John Chapman - 12/28/2006
As citizens outside the inner circle, it would be difficult to say if Ford was operating beyond his capacity without knowing the full scope of what he had to deal with.
To me, Ford definitely was not a buffoon but stood for, what I believe, the true and positive meaning of the word ‘conservative ‘as opposed to Bush's flawed conservative vision of the U.S. role in the world.
Charles V. Mutschler - 12/27/2006
Was Ford over his head, or was he simply doing the unpopular but necessary work that needed to be done? I think we've been too easily led by the sound bites and popular culture (Saturday Night Live) into seeing Gerald Ford as an amiable buffoon, who, in a once popular comment, "couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time." Gerald Ford's administration quietly accomplished work that left the country better off than when he took office, and restored some of the public's faith in their government. Was he operating beyond his capacity? I doubt it.
Ben H. Severance - 8/5/2004
A nice essay. It's hard not to like President Ford after reading this thoughtful piece.
David Lion Salmanson - 8/4/2004
Shockingly, the article does not mention the Helsinki accords. Like so much during Ford's presidency, it was ridiculed at the time. However, we later found out that Soviet dissidents and anti-Soviets in Eastern Europe considered the accords an important, even crucial, turning point in dethroning the Communist Parties in their countries. It was mocked at the time, but may have been the beginning of the end, - was according to those behind the Iron Curtain - of the Soviet Union.
Johnny Ramburg - 8/4/2004
A nation turns its lonely eyes to you...
Remember when the GOP wasn't controlled by Straussians, corporate welfarists, and insane fundamentalists?
Let's not forget Ford's nomination of Stevens. I wonder if Mr. Ford anticipated the coming of Reagan and Dubya?