Never elected to be either vice-president or president, Gerald R. Ford has sometimes been referred to as the “accidental” president.
Some highlights in Ford’s life reveal the possibilities for persons in America who come from ordinary circumstances to rise to the nation’s highest office. In America, land of opportunity, class and privilege are not prerequisites for greatness.
In his eulogy, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger stated that Ford was “a good man, whose word was solid, whose politics were principled, and whose heart was devoid of lust for power. In his understated way, he did his duty as a leader, not as a performer playing to the gallery. Gerald Ford had the virtues of small-town America: sincerity, serenity and integrity.” (from Kissinger eulogy).
Gerald Rudolph Ford was born in Nebraska July 14, 1913. As an infant, his name was Leslie Lynch King. His father was Leslie Lynch King, Sr., a wool trader, and his mother was Dorothy Ayer Gardner King. When the baby was only sixteen days old, his parents separated, divorcing in December of that year. The separation, according to James M. Cannon, executive director of the Domestic Council during the Ford administration, cited domestic violence as Mrs. King’s reason for leaving her first husband and moving to Grand Rapids, Michigan to live near her parents. She feared for her life and that of her child in an abusive relationship where alcohol had a part in King’s rages.
On February 1, 1916, Dorothy King married Gerald Rudolff Ford in Grand Rapids. He was president of a paint and varnish company. She began calling her son Gerald Rudolff King, Jr., although records show he was never formally adopted by his step-father. Ford himself legally changed his name on December 3, 1935 and adopted a more traditional spelling of his middle name (Rudolph). Ford did not know about his parentage until he was seventeen and his mother and stepfather told him. He grew up with three half-brothers from his mother’s second marriage to Ford. Ford paid homage to his step-father, stating that he was a “magnificent person,” and that his mother was “equally wonderful.” He enjoyed a home life that provided a “superb family upbringing.”
The same year he found out that he was not Gerald Rudolff Ford’s son, he met his natural father, Leslie Lynch King, Sr. King, whom the young Ford described as a “carefree, well to do man” met Ford in a Grand Rapids restaurant where Ford was a waiter. Ford had three half-siblings from his birth father’s second marriage. He and King kept in contact irregularly until his birth father died.
As a boy Gerald R. Ford, Jr. was a member of the Boy Scouts of America. He reached the highest achievement, that of Eagle Scout. To date, he was the only American President achieving the rank of Eagle Scout. In May, 1970, the BSA awarded him the “Distinguished Eagle Scout Award” and the Silver Buffalo Award. Ford often referred to these two awards as his “proudest” accomplishments.
The Fords were not wealthy people. Early on, the young Ford worked at various jobs such as mowing lawns and working in restaurants. In high school, he was highly athletic and was on the football, track and basketball teams. He received a scholarship to the University of Michigan, but supplemented the scholarship by working in the hospital cafeteria and doing janitorial jobs. He played center and linebacker on the University of Michigan’s football team, and during his senior year was named the team’s “Most Valuable Player.” His prowess as a football star is recounted in several biographies about him. He had offers from both the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers to play professional football, but kept his aims focused, instead, on his goals. He graduated in June, 1935 from the University of Michigan with majors in economics and political science.
He wanted to go to Yale University but did not have the money or a scholarship to attend. He accepted a job as an assistant football coach there, and in whatever time he had from his job, he pursued his studies in law. While at Yale, he joined an active group on campus called “America First.” This group advocated neutrality and did not want America to get involved in World War II. Ford graduated from Yale Law School in 1941. Shortly thereafter he passed the Michigan Bar and opened his first law practice with his friend, Philip Buchen, who would later serve as Ford’s White House counsel.
He joined the U. S. Naval Reserves on April 13, 1942 and was commissioned an ensign. Five days later, he reported for active duty at Annapolis, Maryland. At first he was an instructor, teaching seamanship, ordnance, gunner, first aid and military drill. He coached in nine sports.
For one year he served at the Preflight School where he was promoted to Lieutenant. Applying for active sea duty, he was assigned to the new aircraft carrier USS Monterey. His naval record was marked with bravery and distinction. He received numerous medals for his service in the Pacific Theater of War. At the time of his honorable discharge, he held the rank of Lieutenant Commander. He was mustered out on June 23, 1946. He remained in the Naval Reserves until June 28, 1963.
Ford took two major steps in 1948. On October 15, 1948, he married Elizabeth Ann Bloomer Warren, a department store fashion consultant. They were married at Grace Episcopal Church, Grand Rapids. The couple had four children: Michael Gerald (1950) known as “Biff”; John Gardner (1952) known as “Jack”; Stephen Meigs (1956) known as “Skip”; and Susan Elizabeth (1957). On November 2, 1948, he was elected for his first term to the House of Representatives. In the first and his twelve subsequent elections as representative from Michigan, Ford maintained over 60% of the vote. He held the House seat for twenty-four years and became the House Minority leader in 1965. He aspired to be the Speaker of the House, but another political turn was in the wings for him.
On December 6, 1973, he was affirmed as the nation’s 40th vice-president after President Richard Nixon appointed him to fill the unexpired term of Spiro Agnew who resigned after “no contest” charges of income tax evasion and taking bribes. Terms of the twenty-fifth amendment to the US Constitution formed the basis of Nixon’s appointing Ford as vice-president. The appointment was confirmed by a vote of the House and Senate.
The Watergate Scandal brought on the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
Vice-president Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr. was sworn in as the 38th president of the US on August 9, 1974. In US history, he is the first president not to be elected either president or vice-president.
In September, 1974, President Ford pardoned former President Nixon for any “crimes he committed or may have committed” while in office. Many opposed the pardon and saw that as Ford’s downfall to winning the presidential election of November, 1976 against Jimmy Carter.
Ford came to the presidency in a troubled time. The Watergate scandal was front and center.
The Vietnam War was drawing to a close, but not in victory for the United States and its allies. Human rights and civil rights were hot issues. Nuclear test bans and the “Cold War” were raw problems. The Helsinki Accords to recognize existing lines between Eastern European nations and East and West Germany were signed August 1, 1975.
During his short tenure as president from August 9, 1974 through January 20, 1977 he served unpretentiously. His goal was to restore a measure of trust to government after the debacle of Watergate. The National Day of Mourning on Tuesday, January 2, 2007, helped us to view and review the life of a “common man” lived uncommonly.
c 2007 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Jan. 4, 2007 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.