100 years of Gerald Ford

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July 2013 is the centenary of US President Gerald Ford. Here are a few facts about the man.

  1. Gerald Rudolph Ford was the 38th US president. He took over when Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974 and left office in January 1977, after being narrowly defeated by Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election.
  2. He was born in July 1913 (the same year as Richard Nixon) and died in December 2006, aged 93. He lived longer than any other US president (narrowly beating Ronald Reagan). Jimmy Carter and George HW Bush may beat this record if they live until 2018 (update: they both now have).
  3. Ford was the only president never to be elected as President or Vice President. He succeeded Spiro Agnew as Veep when the latter resigned after being accused of tax evasion. He then succeeded Nixon when he became the first and only president to resign (over the Watergate Scandal). Agnew was and is only the second VP to ever resign and the only one to resign over criminal charges (which he was later found guilty of).
  4. Ford was a college American football star in the 1930s. This prompted President Johnson to comment when Ford was Republican Minority leader in the 1960s that Ford “is a nice fellow” but had played “too much football without a helmet” and that “Jerry Ford is so dumb he can’t fart and chew gum at the same time.” This is sometimes sanitised as “walk and chew gum at the same time”). Johnson died in 1973 and never lived to see Ford become President.
  5. He had a reputation for clumsiness, falling over in public several times. Comic Chevy Chase made his name on TV’s Saturday Night Live impersonating the president by depicting him endlessly falling over and crashing into things. Chase made no attempt to look or sound anything like Ford.
  6. Ford was the fourth of the six presidents to serve in the Second World War (the others were Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Carter and the first Bush).
  7. As a Congressman, Ford served on the Warren Commission which investigated President Kennedy’s assassination. The Commission controversially concluded Lee Harvey Oswald was solely responsible for the killing, something that has been disputed ever since..
  8. Betty Ford, Gerald’s wife was a notable champion of political causes and was open about her own battle with alcoholism and substance abuse. She is famous for the Betty Ford Clinics which bear her name and is arguably the only First Lady to exceed her husband in fame. She died in 2011, aged 93.
  9. One of Ford’s first actions as president was to pardon his predecessor Richard Nixon for “any offences he may have committed at the White House”. This was an unpopular move as many suspected (wrongly) that Nixon and Ford had done a deal to secure Ford the presidency in exchange for Nixon’s freedom. The pardon seemed to link Ford to the sleaze of Watergate and probably cost Ford the 1976 election.
  10. The Helsinki Accords of 1975 were an early step towards Détente (an early attempt to end the Cold War).
  11. Ford’s presidency included the bicentennial year of 1976. But it was also a time of fuel crisis, inflation and post-Watergate/Vietnam gloom. Vietnam fell to communist forces in 1975.
  12. Ford decided to run for the presidency in 1975. He previously had shown little personal ambition beyond being Speaker of the House. He faced a serious challenge from Ronald Reagan in the primaries which he eventually fought off.
  13. Ford recognised his status in a car-related pun (made when Vice President): “I am a Ford, not a Lincoln!”
  14. When LBJ took over following Kennedy’s death in 1963, he was not constitutionally obliged to pick a new Vice President immediately. Hubert Humphrey became Johnson’s running mate in the 1964 election and was thus sworn in after they won but between November 1963 and January 1965, there was no vice president. In 1967, the law changed, thanks to the Twenty Fifth Amendment. Any new president had to pick a VP immediately. Few expected it to come into practice so quickly. Ford had to pick a new VP in 1974 and appointed Nelson Rockefeller, a choice which Congress had to approve.
  15. Rockefeller, a scion of the very rich oil family, had run for president himself in 1960, 1964 and 1968. He failed to win the nomination. Some attributed this to social stigma: Rockefeller (like Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s) had divorced, following the death of one of his children in the early Sixties. This divorce stigma had lifted by the Seventies. When Rockefeller announced he was retiring, Ford picked another divorced man, Senator Bob Dole as his running mate in 1976. Reagan would become the only divorcee to win the presidency in 1980 (update: twice divorced Donald Trump has since won the presidency in 2016). Dole and John McCain, another divorcee, were both presidential nominees in 1996 and 2008, although their divorced status was not a major factor in their subsequent defeats.
  16. Ford narrowly escaped two assassination attempts in September 1975. Both the assailants were women. “Squeaky” Fromme drew a gun on Ford when he attempted to shake her hand in the crowd. Sara Jane Moore fired a gun at Ford but a bystander knocked her arm causing her to miss. Both women were freed only after Ford’s death, over thirty years’ later.
  17. Ford’s 1976 running mate Bob Dole, a World War II veteran, committed a damaging gaffe during a terrifically bland performance in the 1976 Vice Presidential TV debate (the first ever). “I figured it up the other day: If we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it would be about 1.6 million Americans — enough to fill the city of Detroit”. Many objected to the suggestion that the two World Wars, Korea and Vietnam were necessarily “Democrat wars”.
  18. Ford made an even worse gaffe in his own TV debate with Democrat Jimmy Carter. Ford claimed “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford Administration.” This was an absurd statement to make at the time.
  19. Ford was defeated by Jimmy Carter very narrowly in November 1976. Ford actually won more states but carried less Electoral College votes. Had he won, Ford would not have been eligible to run again in 1980 as he had already served more than half of a full four year presidential term.
  20. Former President Ford made his acting debut playing himself alongside his old Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on an episode of Dynasty in 1983.
  21. The career of British Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home has a number of parallels to Ford’s. Both entered conservative politics after a college sports career (Home was a celebrated cricketer at Oxford in the 1920s). Both rose to power unexpectedly. Both inherited parties ravaged by scandal (the Profumo Affair in Home’s case, Watergate in Ford’s). Neither were personally implicated in scandal themselves and were considered lightweight but fundamentally decent. Both enjoyed short spells in office – Home was PM for a year, the second briefest premiership of the 20th century. Ford had the shortest tenure of any 20th century US president. Home was 60 when he became PM, Ford was 61 when he became president.  Both were defeated narrowly in general elections. Home enjoyed a comeback as Foreign Secretary in 1970-74. Ford was nearly appointed as Reagan’s running mate in 1980, though this did not actually happen. Ford died aged 93 in 2006, Home was 92 when he died in 1995.

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