I can't imagine what was going through Gerald Ford's head on August 9, 1974 as he solemnly took the oath of office to become the 38th President of the United States. Ford wasn't elected President, he never asked for the job. Ford wasn't even elected Vice President. Less than one year earlier, Ford was serving his 13th and perhaps final term as Congressman from Michigan's 5th district. Yet here he was, being sworn in to become the most powerful person in the world in the midst of a national constitutional crisis. How did this happen?
Gerald Ford had an interesting road to the presidency. He wasn't a child of privilege. Ford's mother Dorothy fled an abusive marriage when Gerald, then named Leslie King, was only days old. After seeking safety with family, Dorothy eventually met and married Gerald Rudolff Ford. The elder Ford provided, what the President later described as a "superb family upbringing." As a child, young Leslie King officially changed his name to Gerald Rudolph Ford Jr. Making Gerald Ford the only former King to ever become President of the United States.
Ford excelled academically and athletically. He attended the University of Michigan where he played for the Wolverines football team, helping to lead them to two national titles in 1932 and 1933. After college, he moved to New Haven, CT where he enrolled in Yale University to study law. He graduated in 1941, but like so many other young Americans his life plans changed on December 7, 1941. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Ford enlisted in the U.S. Navy. After the war, Ford ran for Congress. He won his first race and would serve in the House of Representatives continuously until 1973. Then everything changed.
Congress overwhelming supported his nomination and Ford became the 40th Vice President of the United States in December 1973. He convinced his wife, who was tired of politics, to support the idea by assuring her that the Vice President is more of a ceremonial position that doesn't really do anything. The next few years, he believed, would be easy as compared to the rough and tumble world of Congressional politics.
When it became evident that Richard Nixon was going to be impeached for his role in covering up the Watergate break-in and interfering with the instigation, Ford must have known that his life was going to become much more complicated than he ever could have imagined when he agreed to accept the nomination as Vice President. Facing tough midterm elections, Congressional Republicans turned on Nixon. Party leaders urged the President to resign immediately. They were prepared to join with Democrats to impeach the President for crimes against the United States. Nixon wisely listened and Gerald Ford, a man who didn't run for the office, was now President of the United States.
It is within this context, that President Ford made the most important and controversial decision of his presidency: he pardoned Richard Nixon. Ford, who in no way condoned the secretive illegal actions of the Nixon administration, wanted to move on from the issue. There was an uneasy cease fire in Vietnam. Inflation was wrecking the American economy. The US was pursuing a policy of detente toward the Soviet Union. The trial of a former president, that may drag on for more than a year, could prove to be a dangerous and painful distraction from the issues of the day. Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon, an affirmative statement that he had committed a crime, put the nation was going to move on.
Moving on from Nixon might have been done with the stroke of the President's pen, but moving forward with the business of the nation would not prove to be so easy. Because Ford did not run for the office, Ford had no clear agenda. He was a Congressman, and a good one, but he had not spend months crafting policy statements and laying the groundwork for domestic agenda or foreign policy. He was thrust into the administration by the 25th Amendment and became President as a result of Nixon's crimes. He didn't ask for this. He had to put together a new cabinet, introduce himself to the nation, work with Congress, and even move his family into the White House all in a matter of weeks. Ford was hamstrung from the beginning.
The midterm elections of 1974 were a disaster for the Republican Party. The GOP broke from Nixon when they realized that he put their electoral prospects in jeopardy in 1974. Even though Nixon was gone, the damage to the Republican brand was done. Democrats strengthened their control of both houses of Congress; essentially making any legislation they passed veto proof. Throughout the remainder of his term, Democrats had very little to gain politically by working with the President.
Ford's lack of an agenda hampered him when dealing with the issues of the day. When South Vietnam fell to the communist North, Ford could do nothing to help stop the crisis. When the economy worsened, Ford introduced a policy that proved to be little more than a public relations stunt. The W.I.N (Whip Inflation Now) campaign, encouraged Americans to reduce their spending. It didn't help. Over the course of the recession Ford urged Congress to raised taxes to fight inflation and then reduce taxes to combat unemployment. The message was messy, confusing, and did little to inspire confidence in the Ford administration.