"My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over."
— Gerald Ford
AKA "Mr. Nice Guy", "The Accidental President" or just plain "Gerry Ford".
Gerald Rudolph Ford (July 14, 1913 — December 26, 2006) was the 38th President of the United States (1974-1977), following Richard Nixon and preceding Jimmy Carter.
Unique in that he was the only president who assumed the office without being elected either president or vice-president. A long-time Republican congressman who dreamed of becoming Speaker of the House, he was appointed to the vice-presidency after Richard Nixon's original vice-president, Spiro T. Agnew, resigned amidst a slew of criminal investigations of corruption, tax evasion, and general jerkishness. Then Nixon resigned eight months later, making Ford the president.
Longest-lived person to serve as president, he got an aircraft carrier (yet to be completed) named after him while he was still alive. Notably difficult to caricaturedue to a complete lack of distinguishing features. Satirical portrayals usually focused on his clumsiness, mainly due to that one time he fell down the stairs deplaning Air Force One, in front of TV cameras (which is ironic because he was a star athlete on the football team of his alma-mater, University of Michigan) and genial demeanor. Fittingly, he's usually depicted as a bit of a clumsy but amiable doofus.
Ford didn't do a whole lot in office, with the extraordinary circumstances of how he assumed the office being the distinguishing feature of his presidency. Though, to be fair, between the major neutering of the President's powers that came in response to Watergate (Which would not be restored to what they once were until George W. Bush's presidency), Congress falling into the hands of opposition politicians (again in response to Watergate) and the circumstances by which he became president causing him to not be taken seriously by Congress or the media -both whom saw him as nothing more than a temporary caretaker - he was effectively powerless. He is, to date, the only President to hold office since Franklin D. Roosevelt that never made Time magazine's "Person of the Year". Additionally, a 2005 Discovery Channel poll of the 100 greatest Americans included all of the presidents since FDR except Ford. He's most famous for:
Being married to Betty Ford, one of the most politically active First Ladies in history. She pushed for, among other things, the Equal Rights Amendment, breast cancer awareness and abortion rights, and spoke candidly about marijuana use and premarital sex, often leading conservative critics to call her "No Lady". It's been argued that she had a greater impact on the US than her husband did — she was named "Woman of the Year" by Time in 1975. Today, she's also known for establishing the Betty Ford Center for substance abuse recovery.
Remarking upon Richard Nixon's resignation that "the long national nightmare is over", then granting Tricky Dick a pardon for anything he may have done—probably his most unpopular action.
The first ever government shutdown in American history happened during his presidency. It lasted ten days.
Opposing Roe v. Wade, though he became 'pro-choice'note In US politics, the debate over abortion is defined in terms of 'pro-life' and 'pro-choice'. The former means one is in favour of making abortion illegal, and the latter means one is in favour of keeping it legal. later in life.
Accusing Jimmy Carter of being "all sizzle and no steak" on the campaign trail, though the two of them became good friends after Carter's term ended.
Being in favor of gay rights toward the end of his life in the '90s and early '00s.
Falling down a lot, due to an inner ear problem. This was lampooned by Saturday Night Live actor Chevy Chase. He didn't actually fall down as often as SNL viewers would be led to believe — although Chase's parody of this became so iconic that this trait was mentioned in the Animaniacs"Presidents" song 20 years later. It should be noted Ford was a former football star at the University of Michigan (he played center) and generally extremely fit; while he did indeed fall down the steps of Air Force One (he later said this was because the stairs were slick due to rain) he picked himself up at the bottom of the stairs and was shaking hands with dignitaries before anybody could even ask if he was okay.
Chevy Chase's Saturday Night Live impression of him that neither looked or sounded anything like Ford.
His debate gaffe in 1976 when he said that Poland was not under Soviet domination. Oops.
Puns on his name being that of a car (although he's not related to Henry Ford or his descendants). Besides the quote below, other Republican primary challengers distributed buttons reading "Ford is an Edsel" and "Trade in your Ford in '76". And then there's the fact that the most famous satirist of him was Chevy Chase.
Being something of an enthusiastic sports fan. He was an alumnus of the University of Michigan and reportedly nagged the presidential band that he wanted them to play the U of M fight-song in lieu of Hail to the Chief as his presidential fanfare. For this reason, most Michigandersnote Even those who usually back the sports teams of U of M's instate (read: friendly) rival MSU have quite fond memories of him.
Had a pet golden retriever, Liberty. Very much loved the dog, and there are many photographs of the two together in the Oval Office.
By all accounts, he had a great sense of humour.
He refused to criticize George W. Bush while he was alive, insisting that an interview where he said, "[Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld and [Vice President Dick] Cheney and the president made a big mistake in justifying going into the war in Iraq", not be released until after his death.
Gerald Ford provides examples of:
Abusive Parents: His biological father once threatened to kill him and his mom with a butcher knife. Luckily, this was the catalyst for Ford's mom getting the hell out of Dodge.
Actually Pretty Funny: Ford had a very good sense of humor and never missed an opportunity to poke fun at himself, a nice contrast to the uptight and paranoid Nixon.
"I'm a Ford, not a Lincoln."
Alma Mater Song: During his presidency, Ford would often request that the University of Michigan fight song be played instead of "Hail to the Chief" during state events. Fittingly, the fight song was also played during his funeral procession.
Arch-Enemy: While Ford was not one to hold grudges, he particularly disliked Ronald Reagan, stemming from Reagan challenging him for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976.
Chekhov's Gunman: Ford was a no-name who managed to unseat a tenured representative in a surprise upset, and as House minority leader he received some time in the national spotlight from his opposition to the Great Society and his criticism of Vietnam War, and the insults that Lyndon Johnson hurled at him in response. Then Watergate happened.
Chess Master: Despite his "nice guy" personality and image, Ford was rather politically savvy and had a machiavellian side to him. A couple of examples:
As vice president, Ford regularly defended Nixon and proclaimed his innocence of Watergate. However, after Ford's death evidence has surfaced that by early 1974 he knew that Nixon had absolutely no chance of surviving Watergate and that he was essentially just waiting in line to become the next president. He had to toe a very fine line during that period so that he wouldn't destroy his public image: If he was too defensive of Nixon, he would be seen as just a Nixon crony and possibly get sucked into the Watergate controversy; However, if he did anything to undermine Nixon and hasten his demise, he would have been accused of throwing Nixon under the bus in a power play for the presidency, which would have made him a divisive political figure and would thus make his main presidential goal of reuniting the country after Watergate impossible. Ford walked that line perfectly and navigated the Watergate scandal with his honest public image unscathed.
In 1980, Ford received an offer from Ronald Reagan to be his running mate. Ford had hated Reagan ever since he challenged Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976, which he saw an underhanded move and an insult, and thus wanted to be no part of a Reagan presidency. However, if he flat-out rejected Reagan's offer, he would have been slammed as just being bitter over Reagan's 1976 presidential bid. So he instead gave Reagan a counter offer: he and Reagan would serve an unprecedented co-Presidency, where both he and Reagan would hold equal authority over key administrative decisions, knowing Reagan would want nothing to do with it and was sure to reject it. Reagan did just that, and instead named George H.W. Bush as his running mate.
Collegiate American Football: Ford was a star player for the University of Michigan Wolverines football team and received offers from the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers upon his graduation. However, he was more interested in furthering his education and going into law than become a NFL player.
Conspiracy Theory: A common one, especially during his presidency, is that his pardon of Nixon was actually a quid pro quo agreement between the two: If Nixon stepped down and handed Ford the presidency, Ford would pardon him to protect him from any kind of prosecution or litigation over Watergate.
Some also latch on to Ford being part of the Warren Commission that investigated the Kennedy assassination and suggested that Ford was somehow rewarded with the Presidency for allegedly helping cover up for the "real" assassin(s).
Crowning Moment of Awesome: Ford presiding over a nationally televised fireworks display in Washington D.C. on the United States Bicentennial on July 4, 1976.
You could argue that him being the sitting president during the Bicentennial alone could count as this.
Averted with Ronald Reagan; Ford would hold a strong grudge, and some would say rivalry, towards Reagan well after Ford fought him off to become the Republican party's 1976 presidential nominee.
Friendly Enemy: For all that Chevy Chase did to erode Ford's public image during his presidency, Ford was actually really friendly towards him, especially after he left office. He even personally invited Chase to the "Humor and the Presidency" conference that he held at his presidential museum in 1986 and the two were photographed together there◊.
Friendly Rivalry: It can be argued that his rivalry with Ronald Reagan falls under this, as the two were never personally hostile to each other after the 1976 presidential campaign.
Go-Karting with Bowser: Despite their rivalry and Ford's hatred of him, he endorsed Ronald Reagan for president in 1980. Reagan offered to make Ford his running mate, which Ford cleverly wiggled out of (see "Chess Master" above).
When Richard Nixon came down with a life-threatening illness in October 1974, Ford visited him in the hospital.
During the United States Bicentennial in 1976, Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Phillip of Great Britain visited the US and celebrated the event with Ford and his family.
During his time as a congressman, he promised his wife Betty that he would retire from politics on January 20, 1977, and remained adamant about this through the early part of his presidency. However somewhere along the line he changed his mind and decided to run for relection in 1976. He ended up keeping his promise anyways when he was unseated by Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter.
During his time in office, Ford was very publicly opposed to Roe Vs. Wade and was anti-abortion. However, he became pro choice later in life.
Headbutting Heroes: In 1976, after Ford announced his intention to seek reelection, Ronald Reagan challenged him for the Republican nomination. Ford was furious at him for doing this, as he saw his challenge as an insult and believed that it would divide the party, thus undermining his reelection chances and allowing the Democrats to win the presidency; He was right. After a long battle over the nomination, Ford would eventually prevail, though in the process Ford developed a hatred of Reagan and the two would become rivals.
On the flip side, Ford was pretty well hated by 36th President Lyndon Johnson, who regularly insulted him to the press in response to Ford's criticism of the Great Society and the Vietnam War. Most famously, Johnson said that, "Jerry Ford is so dumb he can't fart and chew gum at the same time" and that he had "played football too long without a helmet."
Despite the fact that he was a star football player and was one of the most fit and athletic presidents we have ever had, Ford would develop the reputation of being really clumsy due to a couple of incidents when he fell over in public and one where his golf club flew out of his hands and hit a spectator upside the head, all of which were ruthlessly mocked by comedian Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live.
Ford seriously considered appointing George H.W. Bush as his Vice President after taking office in 1974. He eventually passed over Bush in favor of Nelson Rockefeller after deciding that Bush's skill was more in foreign policy and that he didn't have enough experience in handling domestic issues, which were at the forefront of Ford's presidential agenda. Bush would eventually become president in 1989, and his presidency was marked by an amazingly competent and successful foreign policy and a rather inept handling of domestic issues, which would play a key part in him being unseated by Bill Clinton in 1992.
As noted above, his earlier promise to his wife Betty that he would retire on January 20, 1977 after his 1976 reelection bid failed.
Ford was considered to be one of the most conservative politicians of his time. However, he looks like a bleeding-heart liberal next to a lot of today's conservative politicians. Especially considering how he became both pro-choice and pro gay rights later in life.
Heroic Rematch: We almost had one in 1980. Ford was uncomfortable with his legacy as "the accidental president" and was seriously considering running for president again during the 1980 election to win a term in his own right. It also would have served as a rematch of 1976, and he could have potentially denied Ronald Reagan the Republican nomination a second time and unseated his 1976 challenger Jimmy Carter. However, he eventually declined to run.
Honest President: Throughout his time in office as both president and as a congressman, Ford developed an ironclad reputation for honesty, integrity and being an overall nice guy. Whatever their outcome, it is believed that Ford's initiatives while in office were done with the best interests of the country and its people in mind.
It was invoked by Congressional leadership during the Watergate scandal. When Nixon was floating candidates to replace the disgraced Spiro Agnew as Vice-President, the Democratic-controlled Congress told Nixon outright that the only Republican they would approve was Ford, due to his reputation as an honest leader in the House of Representatives.
I Did What I Had to Do: His decision to pardon Nixon hurt the public's perception of him, but many historians have begun to agree it was the right decision. As Ford put it in his 1979 autobiography A Time to Heal:
"America needed recovery, not revenge. The hate had to be drained and the healing begun."
I'm Going to Hell for This: Knowing exactly how unpopular the decision would be, he once remarked, "I know I will go to hell, because I pardoned Richard Nixon."
Ford being the "accidental president" who was never elected severely hampered his time in office. He was viewed by Congress (which fell into the control of the Democrats during the 1974 midterms) as nothing more than a caretaker and thus was never taken seriously by them.
His pardon of Nixon caused his popularity to tank and even today historians are still divided about it.
Nice Guy: The overall summary of Ford's public image.
Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: During his bid for reelection in 1976, he initially started well behind Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter in the polls, but steadily regained ground throughout his campaign, aided by him being the sitting president during the United States Bicentennial, a couple gaffes by Carter and a strong performance in the first presidential debate. After the said debate, Ford was tied with Carter in the polls and had a genuinely good chance of being reelected. However, during the second presidential debate, Ford famously proclaimed, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration." While what Ford said was correct as it was consistent with official US foreign policy since the Soviet Union's formation, it made him look flat-out delusional and allowed Carter to win the presidency. It is now considered one of the worst gaffes in American political history.
Ford's pardon of Nixon did significant damage to his popularity and is also cited as a factor in his reelection bid failing, an observation in which Ford agreed, once stating "I know I will go to hell, because I pardoned Richard Nixon."
Obfuscating Stupidity: Despite having above-average intellect and being political savvy, Ford gained the image among the general public as a bumbling everyman. This is thanks in no small part to how he frequently committed visual gaffes during his presidency:
Most famously, he fell down the steps of Air Force One
Once while golfing, his club flew out of his hands and hit a spectator upside the head. He also accidentally hit shots into the crowd on occasion, hitting a few observers with golf balls.
While playing tennis, he once hit the ball into his opponent's head.
While sitting on a couch, he crossed his legs and unwittingly put the heel of his shoe into a plate of cheese on the coffee table in front of him.
He once gave a speech while wearing a pair of shoes that noticeably didn't match the suit he was wearing.
Odd Friendship: While they were not necessarily friends, Ford held a notable admiration for Hillary Clinton, a prominent Democrat. He even believed she had a serious chance of being the nation's first female president. He had mixed feelings about her husband Bill Clinton, who Ford had visited in the White House and advised multiple times, due to reservations about his personal life and character, especially in the wake of the Lewinsky scandal; Ford believed that Clinton is a sex addict.
He pretty well fits into the "President Focus Group" variant as well, given the curb on Presidential powers that occurred post-Watergate, the Democrats controlling Congress and the Republicans viewing him as no more than a caretaker made it difficult for him to pretty much do anything.
Retirony: Played with. He initially decided that he would retire at the end of his term on January 20, 1977 after handing over power to whoever would win the 1976 election, even making a promise to his wife Betty to do so. However, he would change his mind at some point during his term and ran for a term of his own in the 1976 election, which he narrowly lost to Jimmy Carter.
Vindicated by History: While his pardon of Nixon hurt his popularity during his presidency, his public image significantly improved as he came to be seen as a man who respectably discharged with considerable dignity an office which he never actively sought. While many are still divided on his pardon of Nixon, many are coming around and deciding it was the right decision as Nixon's trial would have further divided and weakened the country, especially on the eve of its Bicentennial.
Or, on the other side of the coin, Ford's reaction to Ronald Reagan challenging him for the Republican nomination in 1976, as he found it insulting and felt it would divide the party and thus allow the Democrats to win the presidency; He was right.
You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: While Ford was satisfied with Nelson Rockefeller's job as vice president and wanted to keep him as his running mate in the 1976 election, he eventually convinced Rockefeller to stand down and made Bob Dole his running mate to gather the support of right-wing Reagan supporters.
Ford's death resulted in a "Funny Aneurysm" Moment on Thirty Rock. Less than a month before his death, an episode aired in which Pete hopes the Show Within The Show will be preempted and says "How's Gerald Ford's health?" In the DVD release, the line was changed to "It's still hurricane season, right?"
It resulted in a rather bizarre incident on Late Night with David Letterman as well. Letterman's show was on when CBS aired a ticker at the bottom of the screen announcing Ford's death. The timing of the ticker was as such that Letterman (completely unaware, as the show is taped in the afternoon) was exclaiming "yes!" at the precise time the ticker was displayed.
One notably hilarious Saturday Night Livesketch featured Dana Carvey as Tom Brokaw pre-recording news briefs for every possible death of Gerald Ford including suicide, overdosing on crack cocaine, walking into a propeller, and being eaten by wolves. Carvey apologized to the former president at the end of the episode and the sketch is featured in his "Best Of..." compilation.
Tom Brokaw: Alright, alright.. [graphic of Ford surrounded by a pair of wolves] "Tragedy today, as former President Gerald Ford was eaten by wolves. He was delicious." Now.. now, that's just superfluous, you know? Producer: It's a former President, Tom. What do you say - he's not delicious?
Chevy Chase's impersonation, noted above, spawned one of the best lines in SNL history. After being asked a particularly complicated question in Presidential Debate:
We haven't seen footwork like that since Gerald Ford! Unfortunately your fall causes you to make contact with the non-moving deck below. The resulting impact forces the cancellation of your subscription to life.
And became a good friend of Homer as they're both simple, amicable salt of the earth types who shared common ground (read: they both tripped on the same piece of sidewalk at the same time and fell flat on their faces shouting "D'oh!").
Their photo together is still in the family closet.
In Futurama, after Fry admits that he was going to vote for Clinton but decided voting wasn't cool, Gerald Ford's head says "Frankly, I've never felt voting to be all that essential to the process."