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THE PRESIDENTS of the United States
Biographical Sketches

Thirty-Eighth President • 1974-77
Gerald Ford
Gerald Ford

Assuming office following President Nixon's resignation and quickly restoring public confidence, Ford regenerated the spirit of national unity. After serving 25 years in the House of Representatives, he had been appointed as Vice President under the 25th amendment to the Constitution. Although the first Chief Executive who had never been a candidate in a nationwide election, he was the first to undergo an exhaustive congressional investigation into his qualifications. His prime domestic concern was invigoration of the recessive economy. Abroad, he improved relations with the Soviet Union as well as China and spearheaded peacekeeping efforts in the Middle East and southern Africa.

Ford was born in 1913 at Omaha, Nebr. He was christened Leslie L. King, Jr., after his father, a wool dealer. About 2 years later, his parents divorced. His mother, Dorothy Gardner, took the infant to her family home in Grand Rapids, Mich. The following year, she remarried. Her new husband, Gerald R. Ford, a paint salesman, adopted the child and gave him his own name. Along with three younger half-brothers, Ford, Jr., learned the value of hard work and community involvement.

Ford studied at public primary and secondary schools. 1929 his stepfather had organized a small paint-manufacturing company, where Gerald worked during vacations. For 3 years while in high school, he was employed part time in a restaurant.

Elizabeth Ford
Elizabeth "Betty" Ford

After graduation in 1931, Ford enrolled at the University of Michigan and concentrated in economics. Working year round to help support himself, he held such jobs as busboy at the university hospital and dishwasher in a fraternity house. Despite this schedule and the attainment of a "B" average, he also managed to play football and was backup center on the school's national championship teams of 1932 and 1933. The next year, he made the first squad and was named as the team's "Most Valuable Player." In 1935 he took part in the College All-Star Game. That same year, he won his B.A. degree.

Rejecting bids to play professional football, Ford joined the athletic staff of Yale University. While serving as an assistant football and boxing coach, he attended law school, where he ranked in the top third of his class. During the summer of 1936, he worked as a seasonal ranger at Yellowstone National Park. In 1941 he was awarded an LL.B. degree.

Gerald Ford. (Photograph, 1974, by David Hume Kennerly.)

Before the year was out, Ford gained admittance to the Michigan bar and began practicing at Grand Rapids. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Navy as an ensign. He spent a substantial part of his tour of duty as an operations officer on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Monterey in the Pacific. Early in 1946 he was separated as a lieutenant commander.

Returning to Grand Rapids, Ford resumed his law career. His participation in civic organizations earned him two major awards for community service. In 1948 he married Elizabeth Bloomer Warren, a department-store fashion coordinator. They were to have three sons and one daughter, Michael, John, Steven, and Susan.

Meanwhile, Ford's stepfather, a local Republican leader, and Michigan's Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg, nationally known spokesman for a bipartisan internationalist foreign policy, had encouraged Ford in 1948 to challenge the district's incumbent U.S. Representative, an isolationist. After winning the Republican primary in a sweeping upset, Ford easily carried the general election.

In 12 subsequent bids for the same office, Ford regularly obtained more than 60 percent of the vote. During 25 years of service in the House of Representatives (1949-73), the last 8 years of which he functioned as Minority Leader, he advanced Republican policies, figured prominently in party affairs, played a key role on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, and aspired to the House speakership. As a member of the Warren Commission, he helped investigate the assassination of President Kennedy.

During the autumn of 1973, in the first application of the 25th amendment to the Constitution, President Nixon nominated Ford as Vice President to replace Spiro T. Agnew, who had resigned. After extensive hearings, both branches of Congress overwhelmingly confirmed the appointment.

Ford as a seasonal ranger at Yellowstone National Park during the summer of 1936. (National Park Service.)

On August 9, 1974, Nixon left office and Ford was inaugurated as the 38th President. One of his first actions, designed to contribute to national reconciliation in the wake of Watergate, was the pardon of his predecessor. Ford also nominated former New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller as his Vice President.

Ford's major domestic problem was the economy. Ailing since 1973, it had been weakened by soaring inflation, mounting unemployment, and a worsening energy crisis. Ford first focused on inflation. But, by the end of 1974, the unemployment rate had become critical and demanded his primary attention. From then on, his proposals met considerable opposition from the Democratic-controlled Congress—despite his long service there and his personal popularity among its Members.

Neither that body nor the President, who held fundamentally different economic philosophies, was able to forge anti-recession policies acceptable to the other. Ford, stressing economic restraint by the Government, favored indirect stimulation of the private business-industrial sector by such incentives as accelerated tax writeoffs for plant expansion in high unemployment areas. For this reason, he vetoed or threatened to veto a series of emergency job and public-works projects that Congress passed. On the other hand, Congress supported few of his legislative initiatives.

Pres. Ford with wife
President and Mrs. Ford shortly after his inauguration in 1974. (National Park Service, Special Collection.)

Nevertheless, Ford's veto power did help him exact compromises on several key issues, including emergency unemployment programs, housing subsidies, and energy policy. He also managed to obtain a congressional ceiling on Federal expenditures in exchange for his approval of an economic-stimulus bill authorizing income-tax reductions.

Ford's fiscal conservatism was further demonstrated by his refusal to sign legislation extending special monetary aid to financially troubled New York City until it and the State took more substantive remedial steps of their own.

In the area of energy, Ford espoused a policy of marketplace pricing and increased use of alternative energy sources, especially nuclear power. Congress rejected his proposals to lift controls on oil prices and deregulate natural-gas rates, and forced him to remove fees he had imposed on imported crude oil as a means of encouraging domestic production and conservation. Yet Congress was unable to devise energy measures Ford would approve.

To encourage the self-sufficiency of farmers and to prevent the imposition of undue governmental controls, Ford advocated an open agricultural market and low crop-support prices. His embargo on U.S. grain shipments to the Soviet Union, an anti-inflationary step to lower food prices, caused considerable resentment in the farm States.

Ford's most joyful domestic activity was presiding over the Nation's Bicentennial celebration, which culminated on July 4, 1976, with festivities across the land.

The President retained Henry A. Kissinger as Secretary of State, and stressed loyalty to traditional U.S. alliances and overseas commitments. On his three trips to Europe, he pledged to maintain support for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); signed, at Helsinki, a multilateral agreement that among other things confirmed certain post-World War II boundary changes; and participated in an economic conference of the major Western powers held at Rambouillet, France. He later hosted a similar meeting in Puerto Rico.

Ford in Oval Office
Ford at his desk in the White House. (National Park Service, Special Collection.)

Ford journeyed twice to Asia as well. He was the first American President to visit Japan while in office and reaffirmed U.S. friendship with that nation. He also conferred in Peking with Mao Tse-tung of the People's Republic of China.

A keystone of Ford's foreign policy was improvement of relations with the Soviet Union. Meeting at Vladivostok in 1974, he and Russian leader Leonid I. Brezhnev concurred on certain quantitative limitations on strategic nuclear arms. Two years later, the two powers agreed to limit underground nuclear tests.

In the Mideast, following arduous negotiations that Kissinger conducted as an intermediary, the administration scored a signal success in the disengagement of Israeli-Egyptian forces in the Sinai and Israeli-Syrian armies on the Golan Heights.

Ford strove early in his term to find means of preserving the anti-Communist governments of Cambodia and Viet-Nam. Congress rejected his proposals to increase military aid to these regimes, though it approved humanitarian assistance. Events rendered the disagreement moot, for in the spring of 1975 Communist-backed forces triumphed in both countries. The United States extended refuge to many thousands of exiles.

The Ford administration subsequently demonstrated strong concern over the fate of missing American prisoners-of-war, and vetoed Viet-Nam's admission to the United Nations. After the new Cambodian Government detained a U.S. merchant vessel, the Mayaguez, the President took stiff military action to gain her release.


Ford Presidential Library

Because of the state of affairs in southern Africa during Ford's last year in office, he sought to mediate a lessening of tensions. Limited aid to pro-Western forces in Angola's civil war proved unavailing, and Congress refused to approve more substantial sums the President recommended. Conflict between the government of Rhodesia and its antagonists also mounted, and civil unrest grew in South Africa.

Ford fought an uphill battle in his attempt to win reelection. Within the Republican Party, he was seriously challenged from the right, by ex-Governor of California Ronald Reagan. Smoothing Ford's path, late in 1975 Vice President Nelson A. Rockefeller, who had been a target of party conservatives, announced he would not be a candidate for another term. Nevertheless, Ford's race with Reagan was a close one through the primaries, and he did not triumph until the convention. He chose Kansas Senator Robert J. Dole as his running mate.

In his clash with Democrat Jimmy Carter, Ford upset early public-opinion polls that pointed to a Carter sweep and nearly won the election.

Ford rendered maximum assistance to the President-elect during the transition and won praise in Carter's inaugural address for what he had done to heal the Nation. The Fords retired to Palm Springs, Calif.

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2004