The 15th President from the Republican Party, Ford is unique in that he's the only person thus far to assume the office without having been elected to the office of 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 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. Consequently, he's considered the last "accidental president" in US history (though some give the label to George W. Bush as well thanks to the controversial circumstances behind his first election) and the only one of this kind to ascend to the Oval Office through a method that didn't require the death of his predecessor.
He was the longest-lived person to serve as president until George H. W. Bush took the title in 2017; since Ford's passing on in December 2006, and Bush's passing in 2018, Jimmy Carter has long since surpassed both Ford and Bush in longevity. He got an aircraft carrier (yet to be completed) named after him while he was still alive. Notably difficult to caricature due 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 beyond negotiating Russo-American Détente with Leonid Brezhnev. Domestically the extraordinary circumstances of how he assumed the office were the distinguishing feature of his presidency. 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 of whom saw him as nothing more than a temporary caretaker, so 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."note Additionally, a 2005 Discovery Channel poll of the 100 greatest Americans included all of the presidents since FDR except Ford. Nevertheless, he helped the nation to heal from the "long, national nightmare" of the Watergate scandal, declared that The Vietnam War came to an end "as far as America is concerned" when Congress rejected a $722 million aid package for South Vietnam, and helping to restore morale in time for the U.S. Bicentennial celebration in 1976. 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 and the 1976 Ford presidential campaign distributed material prominently featuring her face with the slogan "Vote for Betty's Husband!". 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. Ford, by his own account, did so for reasons both idealistic (hoping that the pardon would heal public divisions caused by Watergate) and pragmatic (fearing that dragged-out investigations and legal battles involving Nixon would overwhelm his administration).note Ford himself seemed to agree that he made a mistake, as he reportedly told a golf buddy during a discussion about Heaven and Hell: "I know I will go to hell, because I pardoned Richard Nixon."
- 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 later in life.
- Having an impeccable sense of openness and honesty in his dealings with the American public, with fellow Michigan congresswoman Martha Griffiths remarking: "In all the years I sat in the House, I never knew Mr. Ford to make a dishonest statement nor a statement part-true and part-false. He never attempted to shade a statement, and I never heard him utter an unkind word."
- 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. Their rivalry which became a friendship, lasting from 1981 when Carter left office until Ford passed away in December of 2006, can be contrasted with the friendship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who maintained correspondence with each other until Jefferson died hours before Adams did on July 4, 1826.
- On the matter of Carter and Ford, Carter's victory in 1976 made Gerald Ford the first incumbent to be defeated in an election since Herbert Hoover all the way back in 1932. note
- Being in favor of gay rights toward the end of his life in the '90s and early '00s (although he expressed sympathy for the cause as early as 1976), all the while remaining faithfully married to Betty Ford.
- Having the shortest completed tenure of any US president, at just 895 days; everyone with a shorter presidency died in officenote .
- Falling down a lot, due to an inner ear problem. This was lampooned by Saturday Night Live actor Chevy Chase. He wasn't as much of The Klutz 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 Fordnote and, as mentioned above, was an excuse for Chevy Chase to do his pratfall schtick and mock how allegedly clumsy Ford was.
- His debate gaffe in 1976 when he said that Eastern Europe was not under Soviet domination (It was, as per the Warsaw Pact.)
- The attempt on his life by Manson Family cultist Lynette Fromme, and another by Sara Jane Moore only seventeen days later. He's the only US President to have been on the receiving end of assassination attempts by women.
- Falling on the steps of Air Force One.
- Puns on his name being that of a car (although he's not related to Henry Ford or his descendants; he legally changed his name in honor of his stepfather in 1935). 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 "Hail to the Victors" in lieu of Hail to the Chief as his presidential fanfare. For this reason, most Michigandersnote have quite fond memories of him.
- On that note, he is also the only president from Michigan. Michiganders are simultaneously proud of this (because he was a decent guy and not a bad president) and embarrassed by this (because he's Gerald Ford). (Michigan then comforts itself by telling itself that even though Ohio has six presidents, most of them were kind of crap presidents.note )
- It gets better. While he grew up in Michigan, he was actually born in Omaha, Nebraska...and that makes him the only president to have been born in Nebraska, meaning that in a way, two states can claim Ford as their only president.
- Had a pet golden retriever, Liberty. Very much loved the dog, and there are many photographs of the two together in the Oval Office.
- He has the dubious distinction of being the only president who locked himself out of the White House residence after stepping out to take Liberty on a late night walk. He had to scream and shout until the Secret Service realized what happened and let him back in.
- By all accounts, he had a great sense of humour. Given most of the above, he certainly needed it.
- He is also the beneficiary of being vindicated by history, as historians and political analysts now state that he performed well in an extremely difficult job during a very turbulent period of American history, especially given the fact that he was outright forced into the position. Most notably, even though it was a difficult decision for him and undoubtedly cost him the election against Carter, it's pretty much generally accepted (even by those who were heatedly against it at the time) that his pardon of Nixon was the right thing to do. A minority view, however, continues to hold that Ford's pardon was damaging to the rule of law and gave future presidents the message that any corrupt acts they commit in office will not result in punishment.
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.
Ford in Fiction
- In Watchmen, "The Comedian" Edward Blake poses with him.
- And later, he trips. Again.
- In Stephen King's The Dead Zone, after Johnny Smith wakes up from his five-year coma, he expresses horror when he hears that Ford is President, thinking that it was Henry Ford at first. Johnny, who becomes a clairvoyant after his coma, later meets Jimmy Carter when he's campaigning for the presidency in 1976, and predicts to Carter that he's going to win because Ford will "beat himself. Poland. Poland will beat him".
- In the "Protection" episode of Barney Miller, New York City is on the verge of bankruptcy, and the detectives are listening to President Ford's speech, (the audio was his actual voice), when Ford announces that he plans to veto any federal bill to prevent a default. Moments later, his speech goes on to say that in case of default, the Federal government would work with the courts to ensure that funding for the police and fire departments as well as other essential services for the protection of life and property would be maintained:
President Ford: [radio voiceover]: ...that I am prepared to veto any bill, that has as its purpose, a federal bailout of New York City to prevent a default.
Fish: I'm glad I didn't vote for him.
Harris: [answers the desk phone] The former 12th precinct, Harris. Uh-huh, yeah yeah, but the burglar isn't still there. Okay, yeah, we'll send somebody over. Right. [hangs up the phone] Anybody want to check out a burglary?
Yemana: What are we gonna do if we catch him, rent him a room?
President Ford [radio voiceover]: In the event of default, the federal government will work with the court to assure that police and fire and other essential services for the protection of life and property in New York are maintained.
- Ford's death resulted in a "Funny Aneurysm" Moment on 30 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 Live sketch 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?
Gerald Ford: "I was told there would be no math."
- 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:
- His press secretary Ron Nessen hosted the show on April 17, 1976. Ford himself provided the opening "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night" via a pre-taped clip, and also responded to Chase's famous Weekend Update Catchphrase with "I'm Gerald Ford, and you're not."
- That '70s Show. Ford visits Point Place, and Red gets this moment at a Town Hall Q&A:
Hey, Gerry. Let me ask you something: How the Hell could you pardon Nixon?!
- And that was right after Eric went streaking right in front of the president while wearing a Richard Nixon mask.
- The final episode of The Late Show with David Letterman opened with the clip of Ford saying "Our long national nightmare is over", which then was echoed by fellow presidents George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.
- Portrayed by Alan Fudge in the 1989 television film The Final Days, depicting the Watergate scandal. Ford's sympathetically portrayed as reluctant to assume the presidency or pardon Nixon, but being browbeaten into both by Alexander Haig.
- Space Quest III: The Pirates of Pestulon features a reference accompanying one of the ways Roger Wilco can be sent to an early grave.
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.
- In The Simpsons episode "Two Bad Neighbors", after George H. W. Bush moves away, Gerald Ford moves into the house Mr. Bush just left, and immediately becomes 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."
- He appears again in a season 8 episode, in which he states "Hi, I'm Gerry. I like movies!"
- Pinky and the Brain: Taking advantage of conspiracy theories, Brain tricked Ford into signing a document and later passed it as something signed back when Ford still was the President.