Nixon was followed in office by his Vice President, Gerald R. Ford. Ford is the only All-American athlete to serve as President. He played for the University of Michigan and was even offered a pro football contract, which he declined. After law school, Ford served in the Navy during World War II, being discharged as a lieutenant commander. He served aboard the USS Monterrey, a light aircraft carrier assigned to Admiral Halsey’s Third Fleet, as an athletic director, gunnery officer and eventually the assistant navigator. He earned ten battle stars during the war.
After the war, Ford returned to his law practice in Michigan and ran for a seat in the House of Representatives as a Republican in 1948. He upset the isolationist Representative Bartel J. Jonkman in the Republican primary, and defeated the Democratic candidate, Fred J. Barr, in the general election by a vote of 74,191-46,972. Ford was re-elected twelve times, never with less than 60% of the vote.
In the House, Ford served on the Public Works Committee and the powerful Appropriations Committee. He gained prominence as a member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, and became its ranking minority member in 1961. During the Truman administration, Ford built a moderately conservative voting record, internationalist in foreign affairs and conservative on domestic issues. He supported the Marshall Plan, aid to underdeveloped countries and increases in defense spending. He voted against the repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act and a minimum wage increase. In 1952, Ford became an early supporter of Dwight D. Eisenhower for the Republican Presidential nomination. Ford later said that his only real regret from this period was his failure to speak out against the anti-Communist witch-hunt of Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Ford was a personal friend of Vice President Richard Nixon dating back to their service together in the House of Representatives in the late 1940s. Ford defended Nixon when some Republicans wanted to drop Nixon from the ticket in 1956, and was an early backer of Nixon for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1960.
In 1961, Ford was awarded the Distinguished Service Award from the American Political Science Association. The citation commended his “diligent application to committee work and mastery of highly complex defense matters” and referred to him as a “Congressman’s Congressman.” In 1963, the “Young Turks” in the House Republicans ousted the chairman of the House Republican Conference, Iowa Representative Charles Hoeven, and elected Ford to the position. Later that year, Ford was one of two House members appointed by President Johnson to the Warren Commission investigating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Ford completely supported the findings of the Warren Commission that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, and along with Warren Commission special assistant John R. Stiles, published his own supporting conclusions in a book entitled “Portrait of an Assassin” in 1965.
During the Kennedy-Johnson years, Ford opposed the creation of Medicare and called the Johnson administration’s war on poverty “a lot of washed-up old programs.” At the 1964 Republican convention, Ford nominated Governor George Romney of Michigan for President, but supported the candidate who defeated Romney for the nomination, Senator Barry Goldwater.
Ford’s greatest ambition was to someday become Speaker of the House. His first important step towards that goal came in January 1965. Ford ran for the leader position of his party in the House against the incumbent Representative Charles A. Halleck of Indiana. Ford defeated Halleck by a vote of 73-67, becoming the Minority Leader. This meant that if the Republicans could gain control of the House, Ford, as head of the majority party, would become Speaker.
During the Nixon administration, Ford became a consistent supporter of his old friend’s policies. He supported Nixon’s policy of “peace with honor” in Vietnam, the retrenchment of social welfare programs, détente with the Soviet Union, and recognition of Communist China. He even supported the administration’s anti-inflation program of wage and price control, even though he had always opposed such measures in the past.
In 1970, Ford led a movement to impeach liberal Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. Liberal Democrats in the Senate had defeated two Nixon nominees to the Supreme Court, Clement Haynsworth and G. Harold Carswell, both judicial conservatives. Ford cited Douglas’ work on behalf of the Parvin Foundation, a charitable organization with alleged ties to organized crime, as well as some off-the-bench comments in an attempt to say the same ethical standards used to disqualify the two conservatives should also disqualify Douglas from serving. When members of the House asked him if he truly considered Douglas’ actions worthy of impeachment, Ford made a comment that came back to haunt later him when Nixon was threatened with impeachment. Ford said that “An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment of history; conviction results from whatever offenses two-thirds of the [Senate] considers to be sufficiently serious to require removal of the accused from office.” Ford was unwilling later to have that same standard applied to President Nixon. He claimed that removal of a President should require more conclusive evidence of wrongdoing than needed for the removal of a justice.
With the Democrats firmly in control of the House of Representatives, Ford realized that his dream of becoming Speaker would never come true. He decided to run for re-election once more in 1974, and then retire when his term ended in 1977. He never got the chance to run for re-election in 1974.
In October 1973, Vice President Agnew resigned in the face of bribery and tax evasion charges. For the first time since the passage of the 25th Amendment, a President would appoint a new Vice President, rather than the office remaining vacant for the rest of the term. Ford was not President Nixon’s first choice to fill the vacant Vice Presidency. But Ford was a moderate Republican liked by the members of both parties, and with a reputation of absolute honesty, he was the only candidate who could stand an intense FBI investigation and pressure of the Democratic dominated confirmation hearings. Ford was confirmed by a vote of 92-3 in the Senate and 387-35 in the House of Representatives.
When President Nixon resigned in August 1974, Ford became the first President to reach the office without ever receiving a single electoral vote. Ford then appointed New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller as his Vice President, which gave us a President and Vice President, neither of which ever received an electoral vote.
As President, Ford presided over the end of the Vietnam War. He gave draft evaders clemency and pardoned former President Nixon for any crimes he may have committed while in office, which ended the Watergate scandal crisis. He also survived two assassination attempts in just over two weeks. In 1976, he lost a very close election for a full term of his own, and retired.