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1974: the accidental president: Gerald Ford never ran for higher office, but after the Watergate scandal, he stepped into the presidency and helped the nation heal its wounds.


Gerald Ford is the only President never elected to either the presidency or the vice presidency. His pardon of Richard Nixon for his rote in the Watergate scandal. was wildly unpopular at the time, but many historians have come to view it as having helped the country move on from the "long national. nightmare" of Watergate.

On Aug. 9, 1974, without the fanfare that usually accompanies such occasions, Gerald R. Ford took the oath of office as America's 38th President. He then delivered a brief address from the White House, trying to calm a nation that seemed on the verge of coming apart.

"My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over," Ford said. "Our Constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule."

The country was reeling from the Watergate scandal and the resignation earlier that day of President Richard M. Nixon, who had faced almost certain impeachment by the House of Representatives and possible conviction and removal from office by the Senate for his role in the affair.

Ford, who died in December at the age of 93, was an unlikely hero. He considered himself a "man of the House"--a career Congressman. He had never been elected, or even run for, President or Vice President.

But his plainspoken assurance that the office of the presidency was more important than any individual who occupied it, was just what the nation needed to hear in 1974. And his decision--a month into his term and wildly unpopular at the time--to pardon Nixon for his misdeeds is now seen by many historians as having helped the country move on from Watergate.


Less than a year before moving into the Oval Office, Ford was serving his 13th term in the House as a Republican representing his hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich. With his mild Midwestern manner and ability to get along with people on both sides of the political aisle, the former Eagle Scout and University of Michigan football star had risen to the post of House Minority Leader in 1965.

Democrats had controlled Congress since 1954, however, and Ford had just about given up his dream of becoming Speaker of the House. He'd promised his wife, Betty, that he would run for a final term in 1974 and retire from public life when it was up two years later.

But scandals in the Nixon White House would change his plans.

The Watergate affair began in June 1972 with a botched attempt by five men, nicknamed the "plumbers," who were hired by Nixon's re-election campaign to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex in Washington.

The Nixon campaign denied any involvement and the President was reelected in November in a landslide over Democrat George McGovern. But as authorities and journalists--most notably, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post--delved into the Watergate burglary, they began to uncover links to high officials in the White House and attempts to obstruct the investigation, possibly by the President himself.

Meanwhile, Vice President Spiro Agnew became embroiled in an unrelated scandal stemming from his time as Governor of Maryland. On Oct. 10, 1973, he resigned after pleading guilty to charges of tax evasion.

One of Nixon's aides called Ford at his home in Virginia that night and asked if he would take Agnew's place as Vice President. Ford said yes. He then turned from the phone, he later recalled, and told Betty, "Well, that would be a nice conclusion" for his career.

It was the first time that the 25th Amendment, which spelled out the process for succession to the presidency and vice presidency, had been used. Ratified in 1967, the Amendment says that in the case of a vacancy in the office of Vice President, the President nominates a Vice President, subject to majority approval by both houses of Congress. Ford's nomination sailed through and he took the oath as Vice President on Dec. 6, 1973.

By then, the country had been riveted by congressional hearings investigating Watergate and by a steady stream of revelations involving high-ranking officials in the White House.

Nixon told Ford that he was innocent of any involvement in the burglary or in the attempt to cover it up. "I believed what I was told," Ford later said.

Several dose aides to Nixon resigned and were later to serve prison terms for their roles in the break-in and cover-up. When Nixon refused to yield documents and recordings he had made with a secret taping system in the Oval Office, he locked horns in a legal duel with the Watergate Special Prosecutor and the Senate Watergate committee.

Nixon took his battle to the Supreme Court, citing the doctrine of "executive privilege," but the Court ruled against him in July 1974. Soon after, he acknowledged his role in the cover-up, admitting that he had tried to obstruct the investigation into Watergate.

On August 9, he became the first President to resign from office and Ford was immediately sworn in. in his television address, Ford said: "I have not sought this enormous responsibility, but I will not shirk it."


"I assume the presidency under extraordinary circumstances never before experienced by Americans," Ford said. "This is an hour of history that troubles our minds and hurts our hearts."

Serving out the 896 days left in Nixon's term, Ford tried to open up the presidency to public scrutiny and to be seen as a regular American: He let TV cameras film him making his breakfast, and made a point of inviting people who had been on Nixon's "enemies list" of political adversaries to the White House.

Then, just a month into his term, Ford pardoned Nixon for his role in Watergate, saving the former President from possible prosecution and prison time--and, Ford reasoned, giving the country a clean start.

Critics furiously condemned the pardon, some accusing Ford of cutting a backroom deal with Nixon. Ford's press secretary resigned rather than defend the President's action. A New York Times editorial said that Ford had "affronted the Constitution and the American system of justice."

"I felt then, and I feel now, if I was going to do it, it had to be clean, sudden," Ford said later. "It was a part of the healing process."

The Nixon pardon came to define Ford's presidency, along with, fairly or unfairly, an infamous newspaper headline and a comedian on a new show called Saturday Night Live.

In October 1975, Ford threatened to veto New York City's bid for federal assistance as it teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. A headline on the front page of the New York Daily News screamed, "Ford to City: Drop Dead," leading many to believe, erroneously, that Ford had actually uttered those words.

After Ford was filmed stumbling as he walked down the steps of Air Force One and tumbling on a ski slope, the comedian Chevy Chase began lampooning him on SNL as an uncoordinated bumbler. Ford, who was probably one of America's most athletic Presidents, took the ribbing good-naturedly, but it made an impression on the public.


Ford ran for a new term in 1976, but narrowly lost to Democrat Jimmy Carter, the Governor of Georgia. Political observers said the pardon was the deciding factor in the election.

In 1980, the Republican nominee for President, Ronald Reagan, briefly considered Ford as his vice-presidential running mate, but ultimately chose George H.W. Bush, the current President's father.

After leaving office, Ford largely stayed out of the limelight. He taught at the University of Michigan and gave 30 paid speeches a year. He helped raise funds for several charities, including the Betty Ford Center, a substance-abuse treatment facility in California co-founded by his wife, who waged her own public battle with alcoholism. Ford also participated in sporting events, including a golf tournament bearing his name in Vail, Colo.

In 2001, Ford was honored with a Profile in Courage Award at the John E Kennedy Library in Boston. Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who spoke at the award ceremony, had originally opposed Ford's pardon of Nixon.

"But time has a way of clarifying past events," Kennedy said, "and now we see that President Ford was right."


* Students should understand that obstruction of justice is a crime in itself; President Nixon need not have taken part in the burglary to be guilty of a crime.


* Have students debate Ford's pardon of Nixon. Did it save the country from having to endure a drawn-out legal struggle and the possible imprisonment of a former President? Or should Nixon have faced the legal consequences of his actions?


* Refer to the 25th Amendment. Do you think the fact that Ford hadn't been elected to either the presidency or the vice presidency diminished his influence and power as President?


* How do the media influence popular perceptions of Presidents? Consider the "Drop Dead" headline and Saturday Night Live skits about President Ford. How do the media influence students' impressions of President Bush?


In 1935, after graduating from the University of Michigan, Ford turned down contract offers from the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers so he could take a coaching job at Yale University and Later apply to its Law School, from which he graduated in 1941.

WEB WATCH Brief White House biography of President Ford. The Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum. Click on "Watergate" to connect to a time Line of Watergate events.


1974: The Accidental President > Pages 14-16

1. The Watergate scandal involved

a the theft of government funds.

b tax evasion by Vice President Spiro Agnew.

c tying to Congress while under oath.

d a burglary at Democratic National Committee offices.

2. Before becoming Vice President, Ford was

a a U.S. Senator from Michigan.

b Minority Leader of the House of Representatives.

c a U.S. envoy to China.

d Special Counsel to the President.

3. The 25th Amendment requires that the President's nominee to fill a vacancy in the vice presidency be

a approved by both houses of Congress.

b approved by the Supreme Court

c approved by the Senate.

d elected by a simple majority of voters.

4. Although he was widely criticized at the time, President Ford defended his pardon of former President Nixon as

a a favor he owed in return for Nixon's nomination of Ford as Vice President.

b a necessary part of the ongoing contest between Republicans and Democrats in Congress.

c a matter of fairness because he thought Nixon was innocent.

d part of the post-Watergate healing process.

5. Though he was one of America's more athletic Presidents, Ford became known for his stumbles, an image popularized by

a editorials in various Democratic newspapers.

b Democrats in the House and Senate.

c the hosts of liberal radio talk programs.

d comedian Chevy Chase's skits on a new television show, Saturday Night Live.


1. Suppose Nixon had gone to prison. Would this have hurt or helped the nation deal. with the aftermath of the Watergate scandal? Explain your answer.

2. In a speech delivered after he became Vice President, Ford jokingly said, "I'm a Ford, not a Lincoln." What do you think he meant? (See cartoon, p. 22 of the student edition.)


1. [d] a burglary at Democratic National Committee offices.

2. [b] Minority Leader of the House of Representatives.

3. [a] approved by both houses of Congress.

4. [d] part of the post-Watergate healing process.

5. [d] comedian Chevy Chase's skits on a new television show, Saturday Night Live.

With reporting by James M Naughton and Adam Clymer of The New York Times.
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Title Annotation:TIMES PAST
Author:Zack, Ian
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Date:Feb 5, 2007
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