GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — We reach an American landmark on Friday that will be noted by few and celebrated by none. It is the 40th anniversary of the confirmation of Gerald R. Ford as vice president.
On the surface there’s little reason to mark the ascension of anyone to a position that John Adams, the first man to occupy the vice presidency, described with some accuracy as “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived.” There have been 47 vice presidents, and it would be surprising if you could name a quarter of them.
There’s even less reason to note this occasion for a man such as Ford, one of 14 vice presidents to become president. For those who ascended, their most significant moments were in the White House, not in the humble vice-presidential cubbyholes where presidents tucked them away so they wouldn’t be a nuisance.
That said, the vice presidency and presidency of Gerald Ford stand apart.
He was the first vice president to move to the post under the 25th amendment, which provides for a president to fill a vacancy in the vice presidency and for that nominee to be confirmed by a majority vote of both houses of Congress. Only Ford and his own vice president, Nelson A. Rockefeller, have become vice president by that route.
Ford — “A Norman Rockwell painting come to life,” in the words of George H.W. Bush at Ford’s funeral — was also the first president to gain the office without a direct vote of the people, a condition he noted in his very first address as chief executive when he asked Americans to “confirm me as your president with your prayers.”
Ford became vice president at the height of perhaps the greatest constitutional crisis in American history. President Richard M. Nixon was on the defensive about Watergate, his impeachment not just possible but likely, his vice president, Spiro T. Agnew, having already resigned amid corruption charges. The country was reeling; Washington was in upheaval. The nation needed a vice president, but even more it needed a sense of stability.
On Oct. 12, 1973, the telephone rang in the Ford home in Alexandria, Va. “Dad,” said Susan Ford, then 16, “the White House is calling.” Two hours later, Ford was at the executive mansion for the nationally televised announcement of his nomination as vice president.
None of this was entirely a surprise. Ford, then the House minority leader, had been asked to collect names of possible vice presidents from House members. The final tally was kept by Rose Mary Woods, Nixon’s executive assistant. Ford got 80 votes. The next closest was Rockefeller, with 35. Nixon knew Ford, the two having met on the Michigan congressman’s first day in Washington in 1949. And Nixon was comfortable with him, though the broader situation, without precedent in American history, was one of immense discomfort for both men.
“Ford was chosen because he was confirmable,” says Joel Goldstein, a St. Louis University Law School expert on the vice presidency. “But he set a high standard for the vice presidency.”
The evening that Ford was introduced as the president’s selection, Nixon described the next vice president as someone who had served 25 years with distinction. Everyone in the East Room — Washington’s grandees, with a decidedly Republican tint — knew by mid-sentence who that was. Every member of the crowd stood and cheered.
The very next day, Rep. Gerald R. Ford of Michigan’s fifth congressional district marched for the 25th time in the Red Flannel Day parade in Cedar Springs, Mich.
The vice-presidential confirmation hearings were pro forma — but no breeze. Sen. Claiborne Pell, the Rhode Island Democrat, asked if congressional leaders would have ready access to the new vice president. “I’ve had an open-door policy as minority leader,” Ford said. He was asked whether he thought Nixon would survive. “I think so,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot of help from a lot of people.”
In truth, Ford dreaded what might happen, and he understood that if he succeeded Nixon he would have to deal with more than simply the fallout of Watergate. There was an economic crisis, continued conflict in Vietnam, uncertainty overseas, a lack of public trust in government.
Early in August 1974, White House chief of staff Alexander M. Haig called Ford and asked if he were ready “to assume the presidency in a short period of time.” Ford’s answer: “If it happens, Al, I am prepared.”
A week later in the Oval Office, Nixon told Ford: “Jerry, you will become president. I know you will do a good job.”
Ford answered: “Mr. President, you know I am saddened by this circumstance. You know I would have wished it to be otherwise. I was hoping you could continue. Under the circumstances, I think your decision (to resign) is the right one.”
He added: “I am ready to do the job, and I think I am fully qualified to do it.”
The meeting between Nixon and Ford lasted one hour and 10 minutes. It was agonizing. Ford just wanted to be out of that room, away from the awkwardness that had overwhelmed both men. The silence of the car awaiting him outside the White House provided a great refuge.
In his first days as president, Ford displayed perfect pitch. “I have not campaigned either for the presidency or the vice presidency,” he said upon taking office. “I am indebted to no man and only to one woman — my dear wife — as I begin this very difficult job.”
Later, the pardon of Nixon took some of the luster off the new president, though many historians now believe Ford was right to rid himself and the presidency of such a monumental distraction. Even so, his was a presidency where routine ruled, which, given the circumstances, was a substantial achievement. His accomplishments, former newsman and Ford domestic policy adviser James Cannon wrote in a biography published this spring, were “methodically achieved by steadiness and common sense.”
It was the lack of drama that marked Ford’s life and his administration. Seldom has routine been so remarkable. In history’s mirror, Ford’s presidency is bigger than it appeared at the time.
North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.