Gerald Ford: President of the United States, 1974-1977

Picture of President Gerald Ford - an official portrait.

Gerald R. Ford Library

Republican Gerald R. Ford became the 38th President of the United States (1974-1977) during a period of turmoil in the White House and mistrust in government. Ford was serving as the Vice President of the U.S. when President Richard M. Nixon resigned from office, placing Ford in the unique position of being the first Vice President and President never elected. Despite his unprecedented path to the White House, Gerald Ford restored Americans’ faith in its government through his steady Midwestern values of honesty, hard work, and genuineness. However, Ford’s controversial pardon of Nixon helped sway the American public to not elect Ford to a second term.

Dates: July 14, 1913 – December 26, 2006

Also Known As: Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr.; Jerry Ford; Leslie Lynch King, Jr. (born as)

An Unusual Start

Gerald R. Ford was born Leslie Lynch King, Jr., in Omaha, Nebraska, on July 14, 1913, to parents Dorothy Gardner King and Leslie Lynch King. Two weeks later, Dorothy moved with her infant son to live with her parents in Grand Rapids, Michigan, after her husband, who was reportedly abusive in their short marriage, threatened her and her newborn son. They were soon divorced.

It was in Grand Rapids that Dorothy met Gerald Rudolf Ford, a good-natured, successful salesman and owner of a paint business. Dorothy and Gerald were married in February 1916, and the couple began calling little Leslie by a new name -- Gerald R. Ford, Jr. or “Jerry” for short.

The senior Ford was a loving father and his stepson was 13 before he knew Ford was not his biological father. The Ford’s had three more sons and raised their close-knit family in Grand Rapids. In 1935, at the age of 22, the future president legally changed his name to Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr.

School Years

Gerald Ford attended South High School and by all reports was a good student who worked hard for his grades while also working in the family business and at a restaurant near campus. He was an Eagle Scout, a member of the Honor Society, and generally well-liked by his classmates. He was also a talented athlete, playing center and linebacker on the football team, which garnered a state championship in 1930.

These talents, as well as his academics, earned Ford a scholarship to the University of Michigan. While there, he played for the Wolverines football team as a back-up center until securing the starting spot in 1934, the year he received the Most Valuable Player award. His skills on the field captured offers from both the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers, but Ford declined both as he had plans to attend law school.

With his sights on Yale University Law School, Ford, after graduating from the University of Michigan in 1935, accepted a position as boxing coach and assistant football coach at Yale. Three years later, he gained admittance to the law school where he soon graduated in the top third of his class.

In January 1941, Ford returned to Grand Rapids and started a law firm with a college friend, Phil Buchen (who later served on President Ford’s White House staff).

Love, War, and Politics

Before Gerald Ford had spent a full year at his law practice, the United States entered World War II and Ford enlisted with the U.S. Navy. In April 1942, he entered basic training as an ensign but was soon promoted to lieutenant. Requesting combat duty, Ford was assigned a year later to the aircraft carrier USS Monterey as the athletic director and gunnery officer. During his military service, he would eventually rise to an assistant navigator and lieutenant commander.

Ford saw many battles in the South Pacific and survived the devastating typhoon of 1944. He completed his enlistment at the U.S. Navy Training Command in Illinois before being discharged in 1946. Ford returned home to Grand Rapids where he practiced law once again with his old friend, Phil Buchen, but within a larger and more prestigious firm than their previous endeavor.

Gerald Ford also turned his interest to civic affairs and politics. The following year, he decided to run for a U.S. Congressional seat in Michigan’s Fifth District. Ford strategically kept his candidacy quiet until June of 1948, only three months before the Republican primary election, to allow less time for the long-time incumbent Congressman Bartel Jonkman to react to the newcomer. Ford went on to win not only the primary election but the general election in November.

In between those two wins, Ford won a third coveted prize, the hand of Elizabeth “Betty” Anne Bloomer Warren. The two were married on October 15, 1948, in the Grace Episcopal Church of Grand Rapids after dating for a year. Betty Ford, a fashion coordinator for a major Grand Rapids department store and a dance teacher, would become an outspoken, independent-thinking First Lady, who successfully battled addictions to support her husband through 58 years of marriage. Their union produced three sons, Michael, John, and Steven, and a daughter, Susan.

Ford as a Congressman

Gerald Ford would be re-elected 12 times by his home district to the U.S. Congress with at least 60% of the vote in each election. He was known across the aisle as a hardworking, likable, and honest Congressman.

Early on, Ford received an assignment to the House Appropriations Committee, which is charged with overseeing governmental expenditures, including, at the time, military spending for the Korean War. In 1961, he was elected Chairman of the House of Republican Conference, an influential position within the party. When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, Ford was appointed by newly sworn-in President Lyndon B. Johnson to the Warren Commission to investigate the assassination.

In 1965, Ford was voted by his fellow Republicans to the position of House Minority Leader, a role he held for eight years. As Minority Leader, he worked with the Democratic Party in ​the majority to forge compromises, as well as advance his Republican Party’s agenda within the House of Representatives. However, Ford’s ultimate goal was to become Speaker of the House, but fate would intervene otherwise.

Tumultuous Times in Washington

By the close of the 1960s, Americans were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their government due to ongoing civil rights issues and the long, unpopular Vietnam War. After eight years of Democratic leadership, Americans hoped for change by installing a Republican, Richard Nixon, to the presidency in 1968. Five years later, that administration would unravel.

First to fall was Nixon’s Vice President, Spiro Agnew, who resigned on October 10, 1973, under accusations of accepting bribes and tax evasion. Urged by Congress, President Nixon nominated the affable and reliable Gerald Ford, a long-time friend but not Nixon’s first choice, to fill the vacant vice presidential office. After consideration, Ford accepted and became the first Vice President not to have been elected when he took the oath on December 6, 1973.

Eight months later, in the wake of the Watergate scandal, President Richard Nixon was forced to resign (he was the first and only President to ever do so). Gerald R. Ford became the 38th President of the United States on August 9, 1974, rising through the midst of troubled times.

First Days as President

When Gerald Ford took office as the President, he not only faced the turmoil in the White House and American’s eroded trust in its government, but also a struggling American economy. Many people were out of work, gas and oil supplies were limited, and prices were high on necessities like food, clothing, and housing. He also inherited the ending backlash of the Vietnam War.

Despite all of these challenges, Ford’s approval rate was high because he was viewed as a refreshing alternative to the recent administration. He reinforced this image by instituting a number of small changes, like commuting for several days into his presidency from his suburban split level while transitions were being completed at the White House. Also, he had the University of Michigan Fight Song played instead of Hail to the Chief when appropriate; he promised open-door policies with key congressional officials and he chose to call the White House “residence” rather than a mansion.

This favorable opinion of President Ford would not last long. A month later, on September 8, 1974, Ford granted former President Richard Nixon a full pardon for all crimes that Nixon had “committed or may have committed or taken part in” during his time as president. Nearly immediately, Ford’s approval rate plummeted more than 20 percentage points.

The pardon outraged many Americans, but Ford stood resolutely behind his decision because he thought he was simply doing the right thing. Ford wanted to move past the controversy of one man and proceed with governing the country. It was also important to Ford to restore credibility to the presidency and he believed that it would be difficult to do so if the country stayed mired in the Watergate Scandal.

Years later, Ford’s act would be considered wise and selfless by historians, but at the time it faced significant opposition and was considered political suicide.

Ford’s Presidency

In 1974, Gerald Ford became the first U.S. President to visit Japan. He also made goodwill trips to China and other European countries. Ford declared the official end of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War when he refused to send American military back into Vietnam after the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese in 1975. As the final step in the war, Ford ordered the evacuation of remaining U.S. citizens, ending America’s extended presence in Vietnam.

Three months later, in July 1975, Gerald Ford attended the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Helsinki, Finland. He joined 35 nations in addressing human rights and diffusing Cold War tensions. Though he had opponents at home, Ford signed the Helsinki Accords, a non-binding diplomatic agreement to improve relations between the Communist states and the West.

In 1976, President Ford hosted a number of foreign leaders for America’s bicentennial celebration.

A Hunted Man

In September 1975, within three weeks of each other, two separate women made assassination attempts on Gerald Ford’s life.

On September 5, 1975, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme aimed a semi-automatic pistol at the President as he walked a few feet away from her at Capitol Park in Sacramento, California. Secret Service agents foiled the attempt when they wrestled Fromme, a member of Charles Manson’s “Family,” to the ground before she had a chance to fire.

Seventeen days later, on September 22, in San Francisco, President Ford was fired upon by Sara Jane Moore, an accountant. A bystander likely saved the President as he spotted Moore with the gun and grabbed for it as she fired, causing the bullet to miss its target.

Both Fromme and Moore were given sentences of life in prison for their presidential assassination attempts.

Losing an Election

During the Bicentennial Celebration, Ford was also in a battle with his party for the nomination as the Republican candidate for the November presidential election. In a rare occurrence, Ronald Reagan decided to challenge a sitting president for the nomination. In the end, Ford narrowly won the nomination to run against the Democratic governor from Georgia, Jimmy Carter.

Ford, who had been seen as an “accidental” president, made a huge misstep during a debate with Carter by declaring that there was no Soviet domination in Eastern Europe. Ford was unable to back-step, eroding his efforts to appear presidential. This only furthered public opinion that he was clumsy and an awkward orator.

Even so, it was one of the closest presidential races in history. In the end, however, Ford could not overcome his connection to the Nixon administration and his Washington-insider status. America was ready for a change and elected Jimmy Carter, a newcomer to D.C., to the presidency.

Later Years

During Gerald R. Ford’s presidency, more than four million Americans returned to work, inflation decreased, and foreign affairs were advanced. But it is Ford’s decency, honesty, openness, and integrity that are a hallmark of his unconventional presidency. So much so that Carter, although a Democrat, consulted Ford on foreign affair issues throughout his tenure. Ford and Carter would remain life-long friends.

A few years later, in 1980, Ronald Reagan asked Gerald Ford to be his running mate in the presidential election, but Ford declined the offer to potentially return to Washington as he and Betty were enjoying their retirement. However, Ford remained active in the political process and was a frequent lecturer on the topic.

Ford also lent his expertise to the corporate world by participating on a number of boards. He established the American Enterprise Institute World Forum in 1982, which brought former and current world leaders, as well as business leaders, together each year to discuss policies impacting political and business issues. He hosted the event for many years in Colorado.

Ford also completed his memoirs, A Time to Heal: The Autobiography of Gerald R. Ford, in 1979. He published a second book, Humor and the Presidency, in 1987.

Honors and Awards

The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library opened in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on the campus of the University of Michigan in 1981. Later the same year, the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum was dedicated 130 miles away, in his hometown of Grand Rapids.

Ford was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in August 1999 and two months later, the Congressional Gold Medal for the legacy of his public service and leadership to the country after Watergate. In 2001, he was awarded the Profiles of Courage Award by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, and honor that is bestowed upon individuals who act according to their own conscience in pursuit of the greater good, even in opposition to popular opinion and at great risk to their careers.

On December 26, 2006, Gerald R. Ford died at his home in Rancho Mirage, California, at 93 years old. His body is interred on the grounds of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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Ogle-Mater, Janet. "Gerald Ford: President of the United States, 1974-1977." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Ogle-Mater, Janet. (2023, April 5). Gerald Ford: President of the United States, 1974-1977. Retrieved from Ogle-Mater, Janet. "Gerald Ford: President of the United States, 1974-1977." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).