They Also Ran Good: Gerald Ford

Welcome to part six of They Also Ran Good, a series dedicated to those who tried, and failed, to win the Presidency of the United States. Alert readers may note that Gerald R. Ford was, in fact, the 38th President; readers who maintained that alertness in history class will note that Ford never won a national election. His one attempt to do so, an attempt at being elected in his own right in 1976, resulted in a close defeat at the hands of one Jimmy Carter.
As always, this post will be (mostly) full of real historical information. Only the jokes are made-up shit. You should be able to tell the difference. If you can't, I recommend taking one monkey wrench to the temple and trying again in the morning.

Gerald R. Ford was born in Omaha, Nebraska, on July 14, 1913. Interestingly, his name at birth was not Gerald Ford, but Leslie Lynch King, Jr.  His mother, Dorothy Ayer Gardner, separated from his father (Leslie Sr.) when the future president was only 16 days old; three years later, she married Gerald Rudolff Ford, Sr.  At that point, young Leslie became Gerald Rudolff Ford, Jr., but since he was never actually adopted by Ford Senior, the name never became official until 1935, when he legally changed it (and simplified the spelling of the middle name). Somehow, his birth certificate never became an issue in any of his subsequent campaigns.  One possible explanation for this is that Ford's career took place in a kinder, gentler era of American politics; it is also reasonable to conjecture that Ford was not a black guy with a funny, foreign sounding name. Both theories have merit.

Early Careers: Navy, Congress, CIA Stooge
Like his predecessors in the White House, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, Ford served in the Navy during World War II and entered politics shortly after the conflict ended. His naval service was notable for two distinctions: serving as a lieutenant aboard a ship in Admiral Halsey's Pacific fleet, and (in an event that eerily presaged his presidency) almost falling off his boat. From Wikipedia:
During the storm, Ford narrowly avoided becoming a casualty himself. As he was going to his battle station on the bridge of the ship in the early morning of December 18, the ship rolled twenty-five degrees, which caused Ford to lose his footing and slide toward the edge of the deck. The two-inch steel ridge around the edge of the carrier slowed him enough so he could roll, and he twisted into the catwalk below the deck. As he later stated, "I was lucky; I could have easily gone overboard."
Ford was elected to congress in 1948 and served there until he became Vice-President (more on that below) in 1973. He was popular and well-respected, being elected as House Minority Leader in 1965. This followed his service on the Warren Commission in 1964, a group convened to investigate the assassination of John F. Kennedy and allay suspicions that a conspiracy was involved in his murder

And we know what a roaring success that was.

Okay, it's probable that Gerald R. Ford was not, in fact, a C.I.A. stooge. I'm just saying the theory is out there.

Pardon Me, But Would You Like To Be Vice-President?
On October 10, 1973, Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew resigned his office. This was a result of a plea bargain with the Justice Department; after being investigated for a kickback scandal that occurred while he was a state official in and governor of the state of Maryland, Agnew cut the best deal he could and quit his office while pleading nolo contendre to charges of tax evasion. It is a measure of the man's mark on history that my spell check doesn't recognize his fucking name.
Under the new 25th amendment, Congress held the power to accept or reject Richard Nixon's appointment to the post. Nixon, already by this time swimming deep in the Watergate cesspool in which he was to eventually drown, was in no position to dictate to Congress on any matter; House Republicans drew up a recommendation, and Nixon yielded. In any case, Jerry Ford fit the bill perfectly for Nixon: acceptable to Congress, yet not so attractive as a potential president to make Nixon's impeachment more palatable. No one really saw him as Nixon's successor; he was simply too ordinary, too boring. And no one, at that point, really thought Nixon would be driven from the White House before his time was up.
On December 6, 1973, Gerald Ford was sworn in as the 40th Vice-President of the United States. And nine months later, on August 9, 1974, he became the 38th president when Nixon resigned. Without ever running on a national ticket, without ever receiving a vote outside his Grand Rapids, Michigan congressional district, Gerald Ford became president, largely through the actions of Richard Nixon.
Coincidentally, one of Ford's first actions as president was to issue a full and unconditional pardon to Richard Nixon, forever shielding him from the legal consequences of any criminal action taken while he was in the White House.  Understandably, this raised accusations of a secret deal between the two men, Ford gaining the presidency in exchange for a promise to pardon Nixon, but Ford not only denied it, he took the unprecedented step of testifying before the House Judiciary Committee.  No proof of a deal has ever turned up, and the wildly paranoid Nixon probably would have filmed the agreement had there been one.

"Here's the part where you say it was for the good of the nation."

Ford As President: A Short, Strange Trip
Ford's well-deserved reputation for candor and honesty made him a popular president and a breath of fresh air to many after the darkness and secrecy of the previous administration. For roughly three weeks.
The pardon was the first chink in the armor, raising questions about his integrity; Ford also had the misfortune to be taking office during a time of economic struggles which were largely beyond the control of the president.  He did, however, seem to have one great gift: he hit his head on stuff a lot.
And he tripped over stuff. And hit people with golf balls when he teed off. All in all, not exactly the picture of dignity people wanted in their Commander-in-Chief.

At least he didn't get swine flu. Then again, neither did anybody else.

In short order, Gerald Ford, former college athlete, navy veteran, sportsman, became known as a bumbler--a well-meaning doofus, clumsy and prone to embarrassing himself. Nice guy, just played too much football without a helmet way back when. And while it can be endearing to many, becoming fodder for comedians around the country is not a good career move for a politician.

"Whoa, almost fell over."

See how easy that was? 
Thus it was no surprise that Ford received a challenge for the Republican nomination when it came time to fire up the 1976 campaign. His image as a bumbler, as well as his relatively liberal viewpoints, made him a target of the right wing of his party, whose champion, Ronald Reagan, was able to win several primaries against the incumbent president.

In the end, however, Ford simply controlled too much of the party organization and campaign "machinery" from his seat in the Oval Office, and in those days, that still mattered. And Reagan, being Reagan, was running around the country with at least one foot in his mouth at all times, routinely making up stupid shit and believing it. And, remarkably, that also mattered in those days.
But Ford, nomination in hand, still needed to placate the conservative wing of his party--and, with that in mind, he announced that his running mate would not be his current vice-president, Nelson Rockefeller, but Senator Bob Dole from Kansas.

Yes. That Bob Dole.

And with that erection selection in place, the 1976 campaign was on.

General Election: Jimmy Carter, Playboy, And The Accidental Liberation Of Eastern Europe

James Earl Carter, Jr., was an obscure one-term governor from Georgia, who, once out of office, was able to devote full-time to the pursuit of the presidency for at least two years. Campaigning tirelessly, he worked the small states of Iowa and New Hampshire for months, flying under the media's radar but building a strong foundation. In early 1976, those efforts came to fruition and his success led to increasing media coverage, financial support, and the aura of a "winner." Coming off refreshingly open and honest after more than a decade of presidents who often used their power in a vengeful fashion, Carter became known as a man of integrity, a caring and devout  man who could be trusted above all else. He promised never to lie to the American people; when questioned about any policy matter, he would openly and honestly mumble something vague about cutting wasteful spending.
And it worked. Well, it worked well enough and long enough for Carter to clinch the nomination well before the Democratic National Convention; in the last few weeks, it seemed that voters were catching on to his act, and Jerry Brown kicked his ass all over the country in the last batch of primaries. But it was too late to stop him.
Carter chose Walter Mondale as his running mate.

Now you should understand that, despite misgivings about the vagueness of his plans for America, this election was Jimmy Carter's to lose, at least at the outset of the fall campaign. Severe distaste with Richard Nixon and the Republican party seemingly guaranteed a Democratic victory in 1976, and the man who pardoned Nixon of any and all crimes committed against the American people while president was beginning the race already hobbled.  Couple that with Ford's image as a clumsy oaf, it seemed to spell doom for the Republican campaign. Carter left his convention and went home to Plains, Georgia, with polls showing him winning with as much as 61% of the vote.

What we didn't know at the time, however, and what we learned in 1976 and again in 1980, was that Jimmy Carter had a positive gift for jumping out to huge leads in the polls only to piss away his advantage and end up hanging on for dear life. (It worked three times out of four; in the 1976 primaries, the 1976 general, and the 1980 primaries. Only when he faced Reagan in 1980 did a late collapse actually cost him the election.)

 Jimmy's first big move in this campaign seemed, on the face of it, like a good idea; he would grant an exclusive interview to a major magazine in which he finally revealed himself and his ideas to the public and thus remove the "enigma" label and the reputation for vague, insubstantial promises. The sometime Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher would open up on a range of topics, allowing voters to get a clear, unobstructed, everything-on-display, laid-bare kind of picture of the man. And this is the magazine issue in which the interview appeared:

So first Carter took a raft of shit for simply allowing himself to be interviewed for Playboy; really, the mere fact that he allowed himself to actually be quoted in a magazine that also contained photographs of nude women was a major issue for a time in 1976.  There was such controversy that it took another two weeks for anybody to actually take issue with the things he actually said. 

And even then, it was his remarks about sex, and sexual mores, that got all the attention.  Why, he actually uses the word "screwing" when he talks about it! And "shacking up!"  Now, Jimmy's whole point was that he didn't believe it was up to him to judge people who shacked up and screwed, and that he, as a good Christian, believed that when he looked upon a woman with lust he was, as Jesus taught, "committing adultery in my heart."  He admitted that he had committed this particular thoughtcrime, and Americans were actually shocked.
Hilariously, this subject even came up during the vice-presidential debates between Bob Dole and Walter Mondale; at one point, Dole made the sort of witty, cutting remark that he was known for and accused Carter of making a play for the "bunny vote."  Referring, of course, to the famous Playboy Bunnies. The "bunny vote."  Yes, that Bob Dole.

Later, Carter had to go down to Texas and defend the remarks he made in the interview about former President, and Texan, Lyndon B. Johnson.  In the interview, Carter accuses Johnson of being a liar and a cheater, and having lied to the American people repeatedly about the Vietnam war, among other things. This didn't go down well in that important state, and he attempted to backtrack and praise Johnson; unfortunately, damage was done, as far too many people, this writer included, had already purchased the magazine. For the interview, obviously.

And even with the lengthy interview, Carter still hadn't revealed any actual plans for his government; specific policy seemed to be beyond his ability to formulate until he was actually president.  He didn't want to box himself in prematurely, he seemed to say.

And Gerald Ford was always a fighter on the campaign trail; a veteran of 12 House of Representatives elections, he was used to the storm and stress, the push and the shove, and the thrust-and-parry of the modern political process. Really, he was like a skilled, battle-hardened boxer, not afraid to get hit in the chin once or twice.  Or, alternately, a football player who wasn't afraid to take the field without a helmet.

So when the two took to their respective podiums for their second debate on October 7, things were tightening up. And then Gerald R. Ford, attempting (he later claimed) to say something inspirational about the indomitable spirit of the Polish people then under the rule of the Soviet Union, managed to convince everyone that he had no idea of the political situation in Europe despite the advantage of, you know, being President and everything.

"There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford Administration." 
"I do not believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union"
It seems difficult, in retrospect, to believe that our 38th president was unaware of Soviet domination in Eastern Europe, a situation that had influenced politics since the end of World War II. It is easy to imagine, in fact, that he meant the statement exactly as he later claimed he did, and it was only his image as a stumbling bumbler constantly hitting his head on airplane doorways and the like that caused everyone to assume he had said something stupid.

"Whoa, almost fell over."

Unfortunately, he had invented the modern gaffe, the thing that all modern politicians fear when they hit the big stage.  Most of those politicians nowadays avoid this danger by not actually saying anything, lest they accidentally free Poland. But presidential debates were new again in 1976; none had been held since Nixon's disastrous debates vs. Kennedy in 1960.  Candidates today know better how to prepare for these things, and how best to counter negative perceptions.

"Whoa, almost fell over."

Election Night
I had to stay up late for this one; I wasn't old enough to vote, but I was rather fascinated by the process and besides, this was the first election night in my memory that wouldn't end with Richard Nixon giving a fucking victory speech. So I stayed up, and watched....
It was close; so close that a shift of 25,000 votes in two states, Ohio and Wisconsin, would have swung the all-important electoral college vote to Ford. As it was, Carter won 50.1% of the popular vote and 297 electoral votes, while Ford totalled 48% and 240 electors.

Gerald Ford considered running again in 1980, but in the end, decided against it, much to the relief of his wife, Betty. So, yes: Ford is at least partially responsible for the fact that both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan became president.

C.I.A. stooge? Conspiracy? You make the call.

Gerald R. Ford died and was buried with honors in 2006, having lived to be 93. All men should be so clumsy.

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