“Half Right and Half Wrong.”
There's more to Gerald Ford, "the son of a bitch pardoned the son of a bitch,” than Watergate.
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“Half Right and Half Wrong”
Imagine this scene at the Gallup Poll headquarters on September 8, 1974: They’re on day three of a four-day poll. If Richard Nixon was found guilty of crimes arising from Watergate, they asked Americans, should President Ford pardon him? Could he?
It was Nixon’s turn. A trial seemed like a foregone conclusion. It had been six months since Nixon had been named a co-conspirator by a grand jury, two months since the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment against him, and 31 days since he became the first president to resign. The “Watergate Seven” had already been sentenced.
The news was moving fast, but Gallup was keeping up. By September 8th, they had completed most of the interviews.
And then, at 11am, there’s a press conference from the Oval Office. Some people at Gallup stop what they’re doing, but others keep on working. They continued asking Americans to imagine a hypothetical event as it became a reality.
The next day, Gallup was left with a decisive result: 58% of Americans had wanted Nixon tried, not pardoned. They wanted accountability, and in their eyes, Ford had denied them the opportunity. Maybe they’d been wrong about him, too. Had this unelected president made a “secret deal” with Nixon? Had this been the plan all along?
Ford’s approval ratings, which were 71% when he took office, plummeted. And then his presidency began in earnest, and it was, as they so often are, buffeted by events out of his control. By early 1975, only 37% of Americans thought he was doing a good job. In 1976, months before his first national election, 55% believed that he had done the wrong thing.
There was little Ford could do. The most expedient way to dull a scandal is to provide a distraction, but Watergate had little competition.
As the presidential election approached, Ford’s rivals used the pardon to their advantage. Late last year, I wrote about Ford’s first national election for Slate; he was primaried by Ronald Reagan at the RNC and lost to Jimmy Carter in the national election.
And then, something interesting happened. Americans never forgave Nixon for Watergate, but their perception of Ford shifted over a relatively short period of time.
From 1986 to 2000, Gallup found that Americans consistently considered Nixon to be the worst president in American history. In a 2016 Quinnipiac poll, George W. Bush took the honor, but Nixon was a close second.
In 1986, 54% of Americans told Gallup that they believed that Ford had done the right thing. Carl Bernstein may have told Bob Woodward “the son of a bitch pardoned the son of a bitch” in 1974, but four decades later, Woodward called the pardon “an act of courage.” In 2011, Senator Ted Kennedy awarded Ford a “Profiles in Courage” medal. Kennedy, who had criticized the pardon in the 1970s, said history had proven that it was right for the country. “I think that in some ways it was vindication for him, of his action to pardon former president Richard Nixon,” Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, John F. Kennedy’s daughter, told CBS news.
Ford’s pardon, however, inspired a rise in cynicism about the office that has never waned. That’s a central issue in my fellowship project. To understand how that happened, and how a president can renew the electorate’s faith in the presidency, I need to learn more about Ford. I sent my big-picture thoughts to Brooke Clement, Director of the Gerald R. Ford Library & Museum, who answered them with help from Dr. Mirelle Luecke, Curator at the Ford Museum.
Here are my takeaways:
At 17, Ford “was really startled” to meet his biological father for the first time.
Most people believe that a president’s family should paint the perfect picture, and their biography should represent the idealized American family.
Ford was born Leslie Lynch King, Jr., son of Leslie Lynch King, Sr. and Dorothy Gardener. A few days later, King threatened to kill his wife, newborn son, and his nursemaid. Sixteen days later, his mother left his father, who was abusive. A couple of years later, Gardener married Gerald Ford, who embraced her toddler as his own.
They were a happy family, but how they came to be one wasn’t discussed. Ford suspected that the man he called his father may not be his biological father by “inference” and “innuendo,” but there was no reason to push the subject. And no one. King stayed away for 17 years.
This isn’t a new story. Ford had always been open about his birth father, but I hadn’t seen him discuss how he met King until Clement sent me a January 10, 1974 appearance on the Dick Cavett Show.
During Ford’s senior year in high school, King showed up at the restaurant and announced that he was Ford’s father–but he didn’t call him Ford. “I was a little startled to be identified by Leslie,” Ford recounted during the interview.
Ford described the meeting without bitterness or shame, so Cavett pressed: Did he resent King? Yes, Ford said, and while he had been open about his mother’s domestic abuse, he didn’t mention it. He didn’t offer a laundry list of things his father had missed or how much Ford, who was captain of the football team, had accomplished in spite of him. Instead, he focused on that exact moment in time: His stepfather was struggling financially. Ford made $2 a week at the restaurant, where he worked five days a week during lunch. King, who was in town to pick up a new Lincoln or Cadillac, obviously had money, but he didn’t offer to help them.
Ford was indeed a feminist.
In February, I wrote about Ford’s prediction that the first woman vice president would become the first woman president. It speaks to our time, but it would have been significant to me, as a woman presidential historian, at any time. It’s easy to find sexism, or the implication of it, in the archives, but what I’ve seen from Ford suggests he was a feminist. “I believe that President Ford would consider himself a feminist,” Ms. Clement confirmed.
He was raised by a strong woman, and then he married one. “He was extremely proud of his wife and the contributions she made to this country,” Ms. Clement noted, and those contributions were plentiful: Betty Ford raised breast cancer awareness in 1974 when she publicly discussed her mastectomy. She supported a woman’s right to choose, the women’s rights movement, the Equal Rights Amendment, and more. And of course, there’s the Betty Ford Center in California.
He didn’t regret pardoning Nixon.
Ms. Clement quoted a line from A Time to Heal, Ford’s memoir: “Once I determine to move, I seldom, if ever, fret.”
Ford accepted, rather than aspired or bemoaned, his ascension to the president.
While Ford was in the House of Representatives for 25 years, he had never run in a national election until he was president. After he was sworn into office on August 9, 1974, Ms. Clement pointed out, he said, “I have not sought this enormous responsibility, but I will not shirk it.” She thinks “this statement best explains how he felt about holding these offices, even though he never was elected to either.”
That ascension was very fast.
Ms. Clement reminded me to consider the timeline. “Remember how little time he had to prepare for the role,” she said. He never had time to “strategize with aides about what policies and initiatives he wanted his administration to pursue.”
At the time, Ford was publicly recognized for helping the country heal.
Ford called Watergate our “long national nightmare” and thought the pardon would, among other things, help the country move on. Jimmy Carter acknowledged Ford’s efforts, she reminded me, during his inaugural address: “For myself and for our Nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land.”
“These 895 days were an important time of healing, openness, and forgiveness,” Ms. Clement added, citing the pardon, an amnesty program for Vietnam War draft evaders, and welcoming refugees from Southeast Asia after the end of the Vietnam War.
He embodied the values we should look for in a president.
“Many people have remarked that they thought President Ford was too nice,” Ms. Clement acknowledged, but he also had the kind of qualities we should value in a president. “Ford embodied included integrity and compassion.”
For the latest on Ford, Ms. Clement suggested I revisit recent talks at the library:
Also, their upcoming conference on the Vice Presidency will be live-streamed.
Thank you to Ms. Clement and Dr. Luecke.