David M. Shribman
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — We reach an American landmark on Friday that will be noted by few and celebrated by none: the 40th anniversary of the confirmation of Gerald Ford as vice president.
On the surface, there’s little reason to mark the ascent of anyone to a position that John Adams, the first man to occupy the vice presidency, described with some accuracy as “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived.”
There have been 47 vice presidents. It would be surprising if you could name a quarter of them.
There’s even less reason to note this occasion for a man such as Mr. Ford, one of 14 vice presidents to become president. For those who ascended, their most significant moments were in the White House, not in the humble vice-presidential cubbyholes where presidents tucked them away so they wouldn’t be a nuisance.
That said, the vice presidency and presidency of Mr. Ford stand apart.
He was the first vice president to move to the post under the 25th Amendment, which provides for a president to fill a vacancy in the vice presidency and for that nominee to be confirmed by a majority vote of both houses of Congress. Only Mr. Ford and his own vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, have become vice president by that route.
Mr. Ford — “a Norman Rockwell painting come to life,” in the words of George H.W. Bush at Mr. Ford’s funeral — was also the first president to gain the office without a direct vote of the people. That was a condition he noted in his first address as chief executive, when he asked Americans to “confirm me as your president with your prayers.”
Mr. Ford became vice president at the height of perhaps the greatest constitutional crisis of American history. President Richard Nixon was on the defensive about Watergate. His impeachment was likely. His vice president, Spiro Agnew, had resigned amid corruption charges.
The country was reeling, Washington was in upheaval. The nation needed a vice president, but even more it needed a sense of stability.
On Oct. 12, 1973, the telephone rang in the Ford home in Alexandria, Va. “Dad,” said Susan Ford, then 16, “the White House is calling.” Two hours later, Mr. Ford was at the executive mansion for the nationally televised announcement of his nomination as vice president.
The vice-presidential confirmation hearings were pro forma — but no breeze. Sen. Claiborne Pell, a Rhode Island Democrat, asked Mr. Ford whether he thought Mr. Nixon would survive as president.
“I think so,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot of help from a lot of people.”
In truth, Mr. Ford dreaded what might happen. He understood that if he succeeded Mr. Nixon, he would have to deal with more than simply the fallout from Watergate. There was an economic crisis, continued conflict in Vietnam, uncertainty overseas, and a lack of public trust in government.
Early in August, 1974, White House chief of staff Alexander Haig called Mr. Ford and asked whether he was ready “to assume the presidency in a short period of time.” Mr. Ford’s answer: “If it happens, Al, I am prepared.”
A week later in the Oval Office, Mr. Nixon told Mr. Ford: “Jerry, you will become president. I know you will do a good job.”
Mr. Ford answered: “Mr. President, you know I am saddened by this circumstance. You know I would have wished it to be otherwise. I was hoping you could continue. Under the circumstances I think your decision [to resign] is the right one.”
In his first days as president, Mr. Ford displayed perfect pitch. “I have not campaigned either for the presidency or the vice presidency,” he said upon taking office. “I am indebted to no man and only to one woman — my dear wife — as I begin this very difficult job.”
The pardon of Mr. Nixon took some of the luster off the new president, though many historians now believe Mr. Ford was right to rid himself and the presidency of such a monumental distraction. Even so, his was a presidency where routine ruled, which, given the circumstances, was a substantial achievement.
That lack of drama marked Mr. Ford’s life and his administration. Seldom has routine been so remarkable. In history’s mirror, Mr. Ford’s presidency is bigger than it appeared at the time.
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org