The presidency of Gerald R. Ford, who served from 1974 to early 1977, came about because of extraordinary circumstances in a troubled time.
Gerald Rudolph Ford is the only U.S. president who served in that office without being elected. On October 10, 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in the face of corruption charges. President Richard Nixon had to appoint a successor as provided by the U.S. Constitution. But President Nixon was caught up in his own scandal, Watergate, which was prompting calls on Capitol Hill and among the public for his impeachment.
James Cannon was President Ford's Domestic Policy Advisor and a Ford biographer. He says the real decision on who would replace Vice President Agnew was not in the hands of the White House. "Ford was really chosen to be vice president by the senior leaders of Congress, both Democratic and Republican, knowing he would likely be president. They imposed that choice on Nixon. They told him, ‘This is the person you can get confirmed' and Nixon had no other choice but to pick Ford," says Cannon.
At the time, Gerald Ford was a 25-year veteran of the House of Representatives and the House Republican Leader. Mr. Ford was well regarded by his colleagues as congenial and able to work effectively with both political parties.
A Troubled Presidency
In July 1974, Congress began formal impeachment proceedings against President Nixon, which led to his resignation on August 9, 1974. His pick for vice president, Gerald Ford, became president.
Public policy analyst James Pfiffner at George Mason University in suburban Washington, D.C. says Mr. Ford entered the White House determined to defuse the environment created by his predecessor. "It had a large impact on his initial approach to the presidency, which was an open presidency. He was reacting against Richard Nixon. Nixon, of course, had shut out his own Cabinet very carefully and had been very confrontational with Congress," according to Professor Pfiffner.
A month after assuming the presidency, Gerald Ford decided to end what he called "the long national nightmare" of the Nixon Watergate scandal. He pardoned the former president to avoid the possibility of criminal indictments against Mr. Nixon and a trial, which he believed would only continue to divide and weaken the country.
President Ford's Press Secretary, Ron Nessen, says Mr. Ford faced a mountain of domestic and international problems from the start of his presidency. "Clearly at the outset," says Nessen, "the big issue was the pardon of Nixon. The next set of issues grew out of the end of the Vietnam War. On the domestic side, it was really the economy, because you had raging inflation. The economy went into the deepest dive since the Great Depression of the 1930s."
The economic recession of 1974 was triggered primarily by the OPEC oil embargo, which was launched in reprisal for U.S. support for Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. President Ford's Domestic Policy Advisor, James Cannon, says getting out of that recession hurt the president's political fortunes.
"President Ford had to keep down government spending and work to bring inflation down, bring interest rates down until the economy could right itself. But it didn't help him with the public because it led to his having to veto a number of bills that Congress passed that were, in effect, 'giveaways' to the people," says James Cannon.
Meanwhile, President Ford's National Security Advisor, Brent Scowcroft, says the U.S. pullout from South Vietnam, which collapsed in 1975, emboldened the Soviet Union's long-standing ambitions despite improved relations between Washington and Moscow.
"The policy of detente with the Soviet Union, which was begun by President Nixon in 1972, was broadly seen by 1975 in bad shape, if not in tatters. In other words, were able to take advantage of the relaxed atmosphere to pursue the same goals they had," says Brent Scowcroft.
Containing communism, especially elements supported by Moscow, was a major issue for the Ford administration. When Cambodia seized a U.S. merchant ship, the Mayaguez in 1975, the White House responded with a military rescue operation meant to show the world that America was not weak.
In July, 1975, Indonesian President Suharto solicited Washington's backing for his efforts to quell what he said were communist-led threats against his government. Recently declassified documents show that the White House suspected that Suharto intended to invade East Timor.
Mr. Ford's National Security Advisor, Brent Scowcroft, says this was "a very difficult issue" for the president. "There was a very radical group we feared was going to take power. It was quite clear that we could do nothing to prevent Suharto from taking it. If we turned Suharto into an enemy, it would not have made the situation in East Timor any better," says Scowcroft.
Indonesian forces moved into East Timor on December 7th, a day after President Ford's visit to Jakarta. The invasion began a nearly quarter-century long occupation that, by some estimates, took as many as 200,000 lives before East Timor became a sovereign state in 2002.
In 1976, Gerald Ford campaigned for the presidency against Democratic Party candidate Jimmy Carter, a former state governor unknown in national politics. Along the way, Mr. Ford endured the wrath of many voters angry that he pardoned Richard Nixon. Jimmy Carter narrowly defeated Gerald Ford, ending the political career of the only president who was never elected.
As for his legacy, many historians credit Gerald Ford with calming and healing the country after a shattering White House scandal, an economic crisis, and a divisive war in Vietnam. And, they say, Gerald Ford put that immense task ahead of his own political fortunes.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.