President Gerald Ford’s road to the White House was singular in American history. Richard Nixon appointed Ford Vice President after the departure of Spiro Agnew. He chose Ford over several others because of Ford’s forthright, honest and considerate reputation as a person and as a congressman. He seemed to be a humble man who said, after becoming President, “I’m a Ford, not a Lincoln.” And that’s the way he orchestrated his presidency. The country needed the calming effect that Gerry Ford could offer.
Lyndon Johnson once said, “Gerry Ford played too much football without a helmet.” Some Washingtonians thought this was true, but the fact is Gerry Ford graduated from Yale Law School in the top twenty-five percent of his class. Among his classmates were Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Peace Corps Director Sargent Shriver. His was a bridge presidency. He appointed New York’s Governor Nelson Rockefeller as his Vice President, but Americans were very aware that neither one had been elected to the office. Ford’s tenure was short and lacked the milestones that marked other administrations.
Betty Ford took an active role in the social life of the White House. She planned menus and worked closely with the chefs. She brought her own style of gracious hospitality to the role of First Lady. Both she and the President showed a personal interest in and concern for their guests, and this was reflected in even the most formal affairs.
One of Ford’s first state dinners was given for President and Mrs. Leone of the Italian Republic on September 25, 1974. The state dining room, in which all official dinners are held, had two round head tables surrounded by twelve other round tables. Yellow table cloths, flowers in shades of yellow, vermeil flatware from several different administrations and china decorated with wildflowers all contributed to the warmth and friendliness of the President and First Lady.
One of Ford’s first presidential acts was the pardon of Richard Nixon for “any and all crimes” and it stirred up a storm. The President hoped it would heal the nation, but, according to Attorney General John Mitchell, the public as a whole, objected to pardoning Nixon when the men who acted on his behalf were disbarred or sent to jail (although Nixon was also disbarred).
Ford was sixty-two when he entered the White House and in fabulous physical condition. He still golfed, skied, swam, and played tennis. He was an artful ballroom dancer as was his wife, but the press made him out to be a clumsy buffoon, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. Unfortunately, his spill down the ramp of Air Force One on arriving in Salzburg didn’t help. Reporters noted the fall as an important event, and CBS even opened their news story about a campaign trip he was on as “remarkably free of gaffs.” Ford’s so-called newsworthy clumsiness even made him the brunt of a special program at a dinner in March 1976. Chevy Chase, the comedian, was the entertainment at the annual banquet of the Radio and Television Correspondents Association in Washington, D.C. Chase came out first and as the band played “Hail to the Chief,” he stumbled and fell across the entire width of the stage. He bumped his head on the rostrum and then said, “I have asked the Secret Service to remove the salad fork embedded in my left hand.” Ford laughed with everyone else but showed his own sense of humor. When it was his turn, he got up and pretended to get tangled in the tablecloth, dropping dishes and silverware on the floor. As he approached the podium, he scattered the text of his speech all over the place. The audience went crazy with laughter.
Once on a trip to Japan, Ford was scheduled to meet Emperor Hirohito. Protocol dictates a visiting head of state to call on the emperor in a mourning suit—black tie, tails and striped pants. President Ford’s valet forgot to pack the suit, so Ford had to borrow one from an officer at the American embassy. This would have been just fine except the officer was much shorter than the president, the cuffs of the trousers stopped at Ford’s ankles. Of course, the press had a field day at Ford’s expense.
Once Ford got lost in the White House, much to the dismay and embarrassment of the Secret Service. The family’s golden retriever, Liberty, was usually kept in a kennel on the first floor. Because she was about to deliver her puppies, they moved her to a room on the third floor. One evening, Liberty’s trainer had to leave the White House, so President Ford offered to keep the dog in his bedroom. “Mr. President,” said the trainer, “she’s no trouble at all. If she needs to go to the bathroom, she’ll just come and lick your face.” About 3 a.m., the president was awakened by a very wet kiss. President Ford got up, slipped on his robe and slippers, and took the elevator to the ground floor, went outside with Liberty, and waited until she returned. Going back to the mansion, he pressed the button for the elevator but nothing happened, the power had been cut off. So Ford and Liberty walked. He opened a door to the left of the elevator and climbed the stairs to the private quarters. At the top of the stairs was a door, but when he turned the knob, he found that it was locked. The third-floor door was also locked. Traipsing back downstairs to the first floor, he found the door had locked behind him. After going up and down the steps several times, looking in vain for some help, the President finally started pounding on the walls. The place at once sprang to life. Lights went on and Secret Service agents appeared, although a bit chagrined after finding out the problem. Ford told them not to worry—all he missed was a little bit of sleep.
President Ford left the White House never having won his own election to the office. He did leave the country intact though and President Carter, on his inaugural day, deeply moved Gerry and Betty Ford with his opening remarks. “For myself and for our nation,” said Carter after taking his oath, “I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land.”
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