The oldest ever US president is dead. Gerald Ford died aged 93 on 26 December and his longevity was one of many records Ford held. He is the only Michigan president, the only Eagle Scout and the only one never to be elected. He was truly an accident of history as he wasn’t even elected vice president.
Ford was born Leslie Lynch King Jr in 1913 in Omaha, Nebraska. His parents split up due to his father’s drinking problem when young Leslie was just two weeks old. His mother Dorothy Ayer Gardner returned to her home town of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Three years later, she married paint salesman Gerald Rudolff Ford. Afterwards, she began calling her son Gerald Rudolff Ford, Jr. When he was 12 or 13, Ford's parents told him he was adopted. He was not aware of the identity of his biological father until aged 15 and only met him twice thereafter. Ford attended Grand Rapids South High School and was a star athlete and captain of the gridiron team. Both the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers offered him a professional contract which he rejected in favour of law. He also earned money as a model and appeared in "Look" magazine and on the cover of "Cosmopolitan".
Ford graduated from Yale in 1941 with a law degree and was admitted to the Michigan bar. He enlisted in the Navy after Pearl Harbour and rose to lieutenant commander. He saw action in the recapture of the Gilbert Islands, New Guinea and Leyte before getting a assignment to coach army football in California. After the war he returned to Grand Rapids and practised law. He married department store fashion consultant Elizabeth Bloomer Warren in 1948 and became active in Republican Party politics. He took on and defeated the incumbent congressman that same year. He would hold the Grand Rapids congressional district seat from 1949 to 1973.
Ford’s war experiences made him an internationalist. He quickly became a prominent member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. He was appointed Minority Leader of the House in 1963 and one of seven appointees to the Warren Commission to investigate Kennedy’s death later that year. Despite helping doctor the eventual report to support the Single Gun Theory, Ford never got on with President Johnson. Ford criticised his big government spending and his handling of the Vietnam War. Johnson didn't think much of Ford either and famously said of him “he can't fart and chew gum at the same time.”
Ford’s career took a new trajectory in 1973. When Vice-President Spiro Agnew was charged with tax evasion and forced to resign. Nixon used the 25th amendment to nominate Ford as his replacement. He was confirmed by a majority vote of both Houses. As VP, Ford kept out of the limelight while Watergate grew. In August 1974, the Supreme Court ordered a tape to be released that revealed Nixon’s involvement in the burglary and the game was up. Nixon resigned on 9 August and Ford was sworn in as president. Immediately after taking the oath of office, Ford addressed the nation saying “I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your President by your ballots, and so I ask you to confirm me as your President with your prayers”.
His first major act was an unconditional pardon for Nixon. Ford said it was "an American tragedy in which we all have played a part.” While the decision ended the spectacle of an ex-president going to trial, it effectively ended Ford’s re-election chances. Ford announced the pardon on a Sunday morning in a vain attempt to minimise the initial political fallout. Critics said it was part of a deal that brought Ford to the White House. The midterm elections that followed gave the Democrats handsome wins in the House and Senate.
Domestically Ford presided over an economic recession. To fight inflation, the new president proposed fiscal restraints and spending curbs and a 5 percent tax surcharge that was soundly rejected by congress. Meanwhile New York city almost went bankrupt and Ford refused to it bail. The Daily News printed the headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” Under pressure, Ford eventually signed a $2.3 billion emergency loan guarantee.
Despite his internationalism, his foreign policy was ordinary. On 25 April 1975, Ford watched the news to see helicopters evacuating the last personnel from the rooftop of the Saigon embassy. He gave the green light to Indonesian president Suharto to take over the old Portuguese colony of Timor. He was also culpable for the Mayagüez incident when the newly installed Khmer Rouge government in Cambodia seized a US merchant ship and 41 US marines were killed in a botched rescue mission. Ford’s one success was the creation of the Helsinki Accords with the Soviet Union which eventually led to the creation of the NGO that became Human Rights Watch.
President Ford survived two female assassination attempts in three weeks. In September 1975 Charles Manson acoylte Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, stepped out from a crowd and pointed a loaded gun at Ford’s back from almost point blank distance as the president walked towards the capitol. Fromme was foiled by a secret service agent who grabbed the gun before she could fire and she was sentenced to life imprisonment. Just 17 days later another revolutionary, Sarah Jane Moore shot at Ford in San Francisco. The bullet missed its target but struck a bystander. She too was sentenced to life.
By the 1976 election Ford was a lame duck president. He narrowly survived a Republican challenge from Ronald Reagan who criticised him for his Vietnam failures and his signature of the Helsinki Accords. Ford’s propensity for accidents made him the subject of media caricature. After Georgia governor Jimmy Carter won the Democrat nomination, Ford almost overturned a 34 percent deficit in the opinion polls, but narrowly lost the electoral college by 297 votes to 240.
Ford quickly disappeared into history. In 1977, he established the Gerald R. Ford Institute for Public Policy and Service at Albion College in Michigan. Reagan almost made him his vice-president candidate in 1980 but baulked at Ford’s condition of a “co-presidency”. Wife Betty eclipsed him in fame with her battles with alcoholism. Gerald Ford eventually died this week of heart failure at his home in California. Betty and their sons were at his bedside. She issued a brief statement on his death “My family joins me in sharing the difficult news that Gerald Ford, our beloved husband, father, grandfather and great grandfather has passed away at 93 years of age. His life was filled with love of God, his family and his country."