President Gerald R. Ford is often forgotten when talking about presidents that have served over the past fifty years.
That is a shame, because Ford, although only in office for a short time, is definitely worth remembering.
Today marks the forty-fifth year since he famously pardoned former president Richard Nixon, a decision that played a role in him losing the presidency to Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Ford occupies a unique position in the history of this country as the only un-elected president we have ever had.
He went from House Minority Leader to Vice President to President in the course of a year, but he wasn’t elected as either Vice President or President.
He took over at one of the lowest moments in the nation’s history.
He inherited the mess left by Richard Nixon following the Watergate Scandal, the disastrous war in Vietnam, and an economy in shambles.
The turbulence of the 1960s was barely in the rearview mirror. The country needed a man of upstanding character to steady the ship.
The country found that man: His name was Gerald Ford.
He was well-respected on both sides of the aisle.
Former Democrat Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill said this of Ford:
“God has been good to America, especially during the difficult times. At the time of the Civil War, He gave us Abraham Lincoln. And at the time of Watergate, He gave us Gerald Ford—the right man at the right time who was able to put our nation back together again.”
Ford Pardons Nixon
The most controversial decision of Ford’s presidency was his decision to pardon Richard Nixon.
At the time, the decision hurt him politically. His approval ratings fell from 70% upon taking office to 37% post-pardon.
Ford put politics aside and made a decision that was good for the country, although the American people didn’t realize it at the time.
If President Ford hadn’t pardoned Richard Nixon, the country would have had to continue talking about Nixon and Watergate for years, and it would have been an embarrassment on the world stage if a former president of the United States was tried in a court of law.
The media and legal proceedings would have distracted the president and Congress from doing the work of legislating and governing.
But at the time, people were mad…REALLY mad. Many wanted Ford’s head.
President Ford took unprecedented action when he testified in front of Congress regarding his decision to pardon Richard Nixon.
It had never been done, before or since, that a sitting president agreed to testify before Congress. His advisors strongly encouraged him to reconsider, but he testified anyway.
Historians now regard the decision to pardon Nixon as the correct one.
Writing for National Review, Jay Cost wrote, “Most accidental presidents begin working immediately to secure reelection in their own right. Even if they have never seriously aspired to the job, once they’re in, they want to stay. From Ford’s perspective, the smart political play would have been to keep Nixon dangling—to highlight the contrast between the squeaky-clean Ford and the crooked ex-president. But Ford put the country first. He knew that the prospect of criminal proceedings against Nixon would damage the country immensely, and he chose to put an end to the whole affair.”
I must admit, I’m a bit biased towards Ford. Like Ford, I grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
All throughout my childhood, I was regaled with stories of Ford, who people in West Michigan refer to as Jerry. His name adorns many buildings and streets in the area, including the Gerald R. Ford International Airport.
As a kid, my Grandma took me to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum on the banks of the Grand River in Downtown Grand Rapids. I have visited that museum many times since. The days spent in that museum helped shape my future and my love of politics and history.
Jerry Ford represented the third district that included Grand Rapids in Congress for 25 years before becoming Vice President.
He led an extraordinary life. He was the captain of the University of Michigan football team, and would later turn down a contract to play in the NFL. He served his country in the Navy in World War II, and graduated from Yale Law School.
Ford will long be remembered for his pardon of Richard Nixon forty-five years ago, a decision that helped heal a nation.
For that, he deserves the thanks of the American people.