Imagine a time when the U.S. Senate had 68 Democrats and only 32 Republicans. (The red state-blue state electoral dynamics would be much different than today.) A Republican Congressman from Michigan experienced those dynamics in the 1950s and ‘60s. By the early 1970s, he had decided to retire from public life. Instead, within 245 days, he went from congressman to president of the United States.
This was the remarkable life of Gerald R. Ford. Author Scott Kaufman has written an in-depth, extensively researched biography of Ford’s life.
Kaufman is a scholar with Kansas roots. He grew up in Manhattan and went to K-State, where his father Burton was in the Department of History. Kaufman is now chair of the Department of History at South Carolina’s Francis Marion University and is author of multiple books.
When asked to edit a series on various presidents, Kaufman found a dearth of information about Gerald R. Ford. That finding led him to write this biography, published by the University of Kansas Press.
Kaufman found three over-arching themes of Ford’s life: personal ambition, pragmatic public policies, and loyalty to the Republican Party. Ford was born Leslie King Jr. in Omaha, but his mother left the marriage after her husband proved abusive. She met Gerald Ford at church in Michigan. They married and the young man assumed his father’s name.
Young Gerald Ford learned the values of hard work, faith, and fair competition. He excelled in football and succeeded in law school. His motto became: “The harder you work, the luckier you are.” After serving in the Navy during World War II, he returned to a law practice in Michigan. His drive and ambition would propel him into a congressional seat where he served for 25 years.
Ford was one of the Young Turks who took on the establishment of his own party during his early years in Congress. He rose through the ranks with the goal of becoming speaker of the House. He was a loyal Republican, espousing the values of limited government, strong anti-Communism and fiscal responsibility. Ford was affable, fair and respected on both sides of the aisle.
Ford never became speaker but was elected minority leader of the House in 1964. He led the “loyal opposition” to the Democratic administration, but also found a way to work with the other party as needed. When Republican Richard Nixon got elected to the Presidency, Ford had a different set of challenges. He had struggled in the minority party for decades, and his beloved wife Betty was dealing with alcoholism at home. Ford and his wife decided privately that he would run for his congressional seat one more time and then retire.
Life changed. When Nixon’s vice president resigned because of scandal, Ford agreed to serve. Eight months later, audio tapes from the Oval Office demonstrated Nixon’s guilt in the coverup of the Watergate affair. Nixon resigned and Ford became president.
Scott Kaufman’s book suggests that the very traits which made Ford an effective congressman did not serve him well as president. In Congress, Ford was well-liked and had an open door policy. He would listen to differing viewpoints, consider them cautiously and find compromise. This approach served him well in congressional considerations, but as president he did not come across as decisive or visionary. He was no orator. Thanks to Chevy Chase, he was unfairly depicted on television as bumbling and clumsy.
Ford’s most notable decision was to pardon ex-President Nixon. The pardon created a firestorm of criticism and probably cost Ford his election to the presidency.
But Ford held his ground and contended the decision was in the best interest of the nation. Kaufman cites several critics who, in retrospect, would now agree with that conclusion. Kaufman also states that Ford’s brand of centrist conservatism is a thing of the past.
Kaufman shares a telling example of the Fords departing Washington by helicopter on the day of his successor’s inauguration. Instead of circling the White House one final time, Ford asked the pilot to circle the Capitol building where Congress was meeting. “That’s my real home,” Ford said.
One reviewer has described Kaufman’s work as “the best biography of President Gerald Ford.” Students of American political history will especially appreciate it.
Ron Wilson is a rancher and writer near Manhattan.