How Ford Became President Without Getting Any Votes

President Ford at a press conference, black and white photo.
Interim Archives / Getty Images

Becoming Vice President or President of the United States are no small feats. But between 1973 and 1977, Gerald R. Ford did both — without ever getting a single vote. How did he do that?

In the early 1950s, when Michigan's Republican Party leaders urged him to run for the U.S. Senate — generally considered the next step to the presidency — Ford declined, stating that his ambition was to become Speaker of the House, a position he called "the ultimate achievement” at the time. “To sit up there and be the head honcho of 434 other people and have the responsibility, aside from the achievement, of trying to run the greatest legislative body in the history of mankind,” said Ford, “I think I got that ambition within a year or two after I was in the House of Representatives.”

But after over a decade of putting forth his best efforts, Ford continually failed to be chosen as a speaker. Finally, he promised his wife Betty that if the speakership eluded him again in 1974, he would retire from Congress and political life in 1976.

But far from "returning to the farm," Gerald Ford was about to become the first person to have served as both Vice President and President of the United States without being elected to either office. 

Vice President Ford

In October 1973, President Richard M. Nixon was serving his second term in the White House when his Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned before pleading no contest to federal charges of tax evasion and money laundering related to his acceptance of $29,500 in bribes while serving as governor of Maryland.

In the first-ever application of the vice-presidential vacancy provision of the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, President Nixon nominated then-House Minority Leader Gerald Ford to replace Agnew.

On November 27, the Senate voted 92 to 3 to confirm Ford, and on December 6, 1973, the House confirmed Ford by a vote of 387 to 35. One hour after the House voted, Ford was sworn in as Vice President of the United States. 

When he agreed to accept President Nixon's nomination, Ford told Betty that the Vice Presidency would be "a nice conclusion" to his political career. Little did they know, however, that Ford's political career was anything but over. 

The Unexpected Presidency of Gerald Ford

As Gerald Ford was getting used to the idea of being vice president, a spellbound nation was watching the Watergate scandal unfold. 

During the 1972 presidential campaign, five men employed by Nixon's Committee to re-elect the president allegedly broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C.'s Watergate hotel. This was an attempt to steal information related to Nixon's opponent, George McGovern.

On August 1, 1974, after weeks of accusations and denials, President Nixon's Chief of Staff Alexander Haig visited Vice President Ford to tell him that the "smoking gun" evidence in the form of Nixon’s secret Watergate tapes had been exposed. Haig told Ford that conversations on the tapes left little doubt that President Nixon had taken part in, if not ordered, the cover-up of the Watergate break-in.

At the time of Haig's visit, Ford and his wife Betty were still living in their suburban Virginia home while the vice president's residence in Washington, D.C. was being renovated. In his memoirs, Ford would later say of the day, "Al Haig asked to come over and see me, to tell me that there would be a new tape released on a Monday, and he said the evidence in there was devastating and there would probably be either an impeachment or a resignation. And he said, 'I'm just warning you that you've got to be prepared, that these things might change dramatically and you could become president.' And I said, 'Betty, I don't think we're ever going to live in the vice president's house.'" 

With his impeachment almost certain, President Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974. According to the process of presidential succession, Vice President Gerald R. Ford was immediately sworn in as the 38th President of the United States.  

In a live, nationally televised speech from the East Room of the White House, Ford stated, "I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your president by your ballots, and so I ask you to confirm me as your president with your prayers." 

President Ford went on to add, "My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here, the people rule. But there is a higher power, by whatever name we honor Him, who ordains not only righteousness but love, not only justice but mercy. Let us restore the golden rule to our political process, and let brotherly love purge our hearts of suspicion and hate." 

When the dust had settled, Ford's prediction to Betty had come true. The couple moved into the White House without ever living in the vice president's house. 

As one of his first official acts, President Ford exercised Section 2 of the 25th Amendment and nominated Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York to be vice president. On August 20, 1974, both Houses of Congress voted to confirm the nomination and Mr. Rockefeller took the oath of office December 19, 1974. 

Ford Pardons Nixon

On September 8, 1974, President Ford granted former President Nixon a full and unconditional presidential pardon absolving him of any crimes he might have committed against the U.S. while serving as its president. In a nationally televised TV broadcast, Ford explained his reasons for granting the controversial pardon, stating that the Watergate situation had become “a tragedy in which we all have played a part. It could go on and on and on or someone must write the end to it. I have concluded that only I can do that, and if I can, I must.”

About the 25th Amendment

Had it happened prior to the ratification of the 25th Amendment on February 10, 1967, the resignations of Vice President Agnew and then-President Nixon would have almost certainly triggered a monumental constitutional crisis.

The 25th Amendment superseded the wording of Article II, Section 1, Clause 6 of the Constitution, which failed to clearly state that the vice president becomes president if the president dies, resigns, or otherwise becomes incapacitated and unable to perform the duties of the office. It also specified the current method and order of presidential succession.

Prior to the 25th Amendment, there had been incidents when the president was incapacitated. For example, when President Woodrow Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke on October 2, 1919, he was not replaced in office. First Lady Edith Wilson, along with the White House Physician, Cary T. Grayson, covered up the extent of President Wilson's disability. For the next 17 months, Edith Wilson actually carried out many presidential duties. 

On 16 occasions, the nation went without a vice president because of the vice president had died or become president through succession. For example, there was no vice president for almost four years after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, prompted Congress to push for a constitutional amendment. Early, erroneous reports that Vice President Lyndon Johnson had also been shot created several chaotic hours in the federal government.

Happing so soon after the Cuban Missile Crisis and with Cold War tensions still at a fever pitch, the Kennedy assassination forced Congress to come up with a specific method of determining presidential succession.

New President Johnson experienced several health issues and the next two officials in line for the presidency were 71-year-old Speaker of the House John Cormack and 86-year-old Senate President Pro Tempore Carl Hayden.

Within three months of Kennedy's death, the House and Senate passed a joint resolution that would be submitted to the states as the 25th Amendment. On February 10, 1967, Minnesota and Nebraska became the 37th and 38th states to ratify the amendment, making it the law of the land. 


  • "Presidential Succession." Justia, 2020.
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Longley, Robert. "How Ford Became President Without Getting Any Votes." ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, Longley, Robert. (2021, December 6). How Ford Became President Without Getting Any Votes. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "How Ford Became President Without Getting Any Votes." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).