Ford was born Leslie Lynch King, Jr., on July 14, 1913, at 3202 Woolworth Avenue in Omaha, Nebraska, where his parents lived with his paternal grandparents. His mother was Dorothy Ayer Gardner, and his father was Leslie Lynch King, Sr., a wool trader and son of prominent banker Charles Henry King and Martha Alicia King (née Porter). Dorothy separated from King just sixteen days after her son's birth. She took her son with her to the Oak Park, Illinois home of her sister Tannisse and brother-in-law, Clarence Haskins James. From there, she moved to the home of her parents, Levi Addison Gardner and Adele Augusta Ayer in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Dorothy and King divorced in December 1913; she gained full custody of her son. Ford's paternal grandfather Charles Henry King paid child support until shortly before his death in 1930.
Ford later said his biological father had a history of hitting his mother. James M. Cannon, a member of the Ford administration, wrote in a Ford biography that the Kings' separation and divorce were sparked when, a few days after Ford's birth, Leslie King threatened Dorothy with a butcher knife and threatened to kill her, Ford, and Ford's nursemaid. Ford later told confidantes that his father had first hit his mother on their honeymoon for smiling at another man.
After two and a half years with her parents, on February 1, 1916, Dorothy married Gerald Rudolff Ford, a salesman in a family-owned paint and varnish company. They then called her son Gerald Rudolff Ford, Jr. The future president was never formally adopted, however, and he did not legally change his name until December 3, 1935; he also used a more conventional spelling of his middle name. He was raised in Grand Rapids with his three half brothers from his mother's second marriage: Thomas Gardner Ford (1918–1995), Richard Addison Ford (born 1924), and James Francis Ford (1927–2001).
Ford also had three half-siblings from his father's second marriage: Marjorie King (1921–1993), Leslie Henry King (1923–1976), and Patricia Jane King (born 1925). They never saw one another as children and he did not know them at all. Ford was not aware of his biological father until he was 17, when his parents told him about the circumstances of his birth. That year his father Leslie King, whom Ford described as a "carefree, well-to-do man who didn't really give a damn about the hopes and dreams of his firstborn son", approached Ford while he was waiting tables in a Grand Rapids restaurant. The two "maintained a sporadic contact" until Leslie King, Sr.'s death.
Ford was involved in The Boy Scouts of America, and earned that program's highest rank, Eagle Scout. In later years, Ford received the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award in May 1970 and Silver Buffalo Award from the Boy Scouts of America. He is the only U.S. president who is an Eagle Scout. Scouting was so important to Ford that his family asked that Scouts participate in his funeral. About 400 Eagle Scouts were part of the funeral procession, where they formed an honor guard as the casket went by in front of the museum. A few selected scouts served as ushers inside the National Cathedral.
Ford attended Grand Rapids South High School and was a star athlete and captain of his football team. In 1930, he was selected to the All-City team of the Grand Rapids City League. He also attracted the attention of college recruiters.
Attending the University of Michigan as an undergraduate, Ford played center and linebacker for the school's football team, and helped the Wolverines to undefeated seasons and national titles in 1932 and 1933. The team suffered a steep decline in his 1934 senior year, however, winning only one game. Ford was the team's star nonetheless, and after a game during which Michigan held heavily favored Minnesota (the eventual national champion) to a scoreless tie in the first half, assistant coach Bennie Oosterbaan later said, "When I walked into the dressing room at half time, I had tears in my eyes I was so proud of them. Ford and [Cedric] Sweet played their hearts out. They were everywhere on defense." Ford later recalled, "During 25 years in the rough-and-tumble world of politics, I often thought of the experiences before, during, and after that game in 1934. Remembering them has helped me many times to face a tough situation, take action, and make every effort possible despite adverse odds." His teammates later voted Ford their most valuable player, with one assistant coach noting, "They felt Jerry was one guy who would stay and fight in a losing cause."
At Michigan, Ford became a member of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity (Omicron chapter) and washed dishes at his fraternity house to earn money for college expenses. Following his graduation in 1935 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics, he turned down contract offers from the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers of the National Football League to take a coaching position at Yale and apply to its law school. Ford continued to contribute to football and boxing, accepting an assistant coaching job for both at Yale in September 1935.
Ford hoped to attend Yale's law school beginning in 1935 while serving as boxing coach and assistant varsity football coach. Yale officials at first denied his admission to the law school, because of his full-time coaching responsibilities. He spent the summer of 1937 as a student at the University of Michigan Law School and was eventually admitted in spring 1938 to Yale Law School. Ford earned his LL.B. degree in 1941 (later amended to Juris Doctor), graduating in the top 25 percent of his class. His introduction to politics came in the summer of 1940 when he worked in Wendell Willkie's presidential campaign. While attending Yale Law School, he joined a group of students led by R. Douglas Stuart, Jr., and signed a petition to enforce the 1939 Neutrality Act. The petition was circulated nationally and was the inspiration for the America First Committee, a group determined to keep the U.S. out of World War II.
Ford graduated from law school in 1941, and was admitted to the Michigan bar shortly thereafter. In May 1941, he opened a Grand Rapids law practice with a friend, Philip W. Buchen, who would later serve as Ford's White House counsel. But overseas developments caused a change in plans, and Ford responded to the attack on Pearl Harbor by enlisting in the Navy.
Ford received a commission as ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve on April 13, 1942. On April 20, he reported for active duty to the V-5 instructor school at Annapolis, Maryland. After one month of training, he went to Navy Preflight School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he was one of 83 instructors and taught elementary navigation skills, ordnance, gunnery, first aid and military drill. In addition, he coached in all nine sports that were offered, but mostly in swimming, boxing and football. During the one year he was at the Preflight School, he was promoted to Lieutenant Junior Grade on June 2, 1942, and to Lieutenant in March 1943.
For his naval service, Gerald Ford earned the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with nine engagement stars for operations in the Gilbert Islands, Bismarck Archipelago, Marshall Islands, Asiatic and Pacific carrier raids, Hollandia, Marianas, Western Carolines, Western New Guinea, and the Leyte Operation. He also received the Philippine Liberation Medal with two bronze stars for Leyte and Mindoro, as well as the American Campaign and World War II Victory Medals.
Ford was a member of several civic organizations, including the Junior Chamber of Commerce (Jaycees), American Legion, AMVETS, Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, Sons of the Revolution, and Veterans of Foreign Wars.
In 1992 the U.S. Navy Memorial Foundation awarded Ford its Lone Sailor Award for his naval service and his subsequent government service.
Gerald R. Ford was initiated into Freemasonry on September 30, 1949.
On October 15, 1948, at Grace Episcopal Church in Grand Rapids, Ford married Elizabeth Bloomer Warren (1918–2011), a department store fashion consultant. Warren had been a John Robert Powers fashion model and a dancer in the auxiliary troupe of the Martha Graham Dance Company. She had previously been married to and divorced from William G. Warren.
After returning to Grand Rapids, Ford became active in local Republican politics, and supporters urged him to take on Bartel J. Jonkman, the incumbent Republican congressman. Military service had changed his view of the world. "I came back a converted internationalist", Ford wrote, "and of course our congressman at that time was an avowed, dedicated isolationist. And I thought he ought to be replaced. Nobody thought I could win. I ended up winning two to one." During his first campaign in 1948, Ford visited voters at their doorsteps and as they left the factories where they worked. Ford also visited local farms where in one instance, a wager resulted in Ford spending two weeks milking cows following his election victory. Ford was known to his colleagues in the House as a "Congressman's Congressman".
Ford was a member of the House of Representatives for 25 years, holding the Grand Rapids congressional district seat from 1949 to 1973. It was a tenure largely notable for its modesty. As an editorial in The New York Times described him, Ford "saw himself as a negotiator and a reconciler, and the record shows it: he did not write a single piece of major legislation in his entire career." Appointed to the House Appropriations Committee two years after being elected, he was a prominent member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. Ford described his philosophy as "a moderate in domestic affairs, an internationalist in foreign affairs, and a conservative in fiscal policy."
In the early 1950s, Ford declined offers to run for both the Senate and the Michigan governorship. Rather, his ambition was to become Speaker of the House.
In November 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Ford to the Warren Commission, a special task force set up to investigate the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Ford was assigned to prepare a biography of Lee Harvey Oswald, the accused assassin. The Commission's work continues to be debated in the public arena.
In 1964, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson led a landslide victory for his party, securing another term as president and taking 36 seats from Republicans in the House of Representatives. Following the election, members of the Republican caucus looked to select a new Minority Leader. Three members approached Ford to see if he would be willing to serve; after consulting with his family, he agreed. After a closely contested election, Ford was chosen to replace Charles Halleck of Indiana as Minority Leader.
As Minority Leader in the House, Ford appeared in a popular series of televised press conferences with famed Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen, in which they proposed Republican alternatives to Johnson's policies. Many in the press jokingly called this "The Ev and Jerry Show".
During the 8 years (1965–1973) he served as Minority Leader, Ford won many friends in the House because of his fair leadership and inoffensive personality. An office building in the U.S. Capitol Complex, House Annex 2, was renamed for Gerald Ford as the Ford House Office Building.
On October 10, 1973, Vice President Agnew resigned and then pleaded no contest to criminal charges of tax evasion and money laundering, part of a negotiated resolution to a scheme in which he accepted $29,500 in bribes while governor of Maryland. According to The New York Times, "Nixon sought advice from senior Congressional leaders about a replacement. The advice was unanimous. 'We gave Nixon no choice but Ford,' House Speaker Carl Albert recalled later".
Ford was nominated to take Agnew's position on October 12, the first time the vice-presidential vacancy provision of the 25th Amendment had been implemented. The United States Senate voted 92 to 3 to confirm Ford on November 27. Only three Senators, all Democrats, voted against Ford's confirmation: Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, Thomas Eagleton of Missouri and William Hathaway of Maine. On December 6, the House confirmed Ford by a vote of 387 to 35. One hour after the confirmation vote in the House, Ford took the oath of office as Vice President of the United States. Ford's brief tenure as Vice-President was little noted by the media as reporters were preoccupied by the continuing revelations about the Watergate scandal - a political scandal resulting from the discovery of a series of crimes committed during the 1972 presidential election and allegations of cover-ups by the White House.
Following Ford's appointment, the Watergate investigation continued until Chief of Staff Alexander Haig contacted Ford on August 1, 1974, and told him that "smoking gun" evidence had been found. The evidence left little doubt that President Nixon had been a part of the Watergate cover-up. At the time, Ford and his wife, Betty, were living in suburban Virginia, waiting for their expected move into the newly designated vice president's residence in Washington, D.C. However, "Al Haig [asked] to come over and see me," Ford later related, "to tell me that there would be a new tape released on a Monday, and he said the evidence in there was devastating and there would probably be either an impeachment or a resignation. And he said, 'I'm just warning you that you've got to be prepared, that things might change dramatically and you could become President.' And I said, 'Betty, I don't think we're ever going to live in the vice president's house."
When Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974, Ford assumed the presidency, making him the only person to assume the presidency without having been previously voted into either the presidential or vice presidential office. Immediately after taking the oath of office in the East Room of the White House, he spoke to the assembled audience in a speech broadcast live to the nation.
On September 8, 1974, Ford issued Proclamation 4311, which gave Nixon a full and unconditional pardon for any crimes he might have committed against the United States while President. In a televised broadcast to the nation, Ford explained that he felt the pardon was in the best interests of the country, and that the Nixon family's situation "is a tragedy in which we all have played a part. It could go on and on and on, or someone must write the end to it. I have concluded that only I can do that, and if I can, I must." When he announced the Nixon pardon, Ford also introduced a conditional amnesty program for Vietnam War draft dodgers who had fled to countries such as Canada. Full pardon for the draft dodgers, however, did not come about until the Carter Administration.
After Ford left the White House in 1977, the former President privately justified his pardon of Nixon by carrying in his wallet a portion of the text of Burdick v. United States, a 1915 U.S. Supreme Court decision which stated that a pardon indicated a presumption of guilt, and that acceptance of a pardon was tantamount to a confession of that guilt. In 2001, the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation awarded the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award to Ford for his pardon of Nixon. In presenting the award to Ford, Senator Ted Kennedy said that he had initially been opposed to the pardon of Nixon, but later stated that history had proved Ford to have made the correct decision.
On September 16, 1974, President Ford announced a program for the Return of Vietnam Era Draft Evaders and Military Deserters. This proved to be controversial, as it provided a means for those who were against the Vietnam War to erase any remaining criminal charges and for those who were given punitive discharges as a result of being against the war to have them converted to Clemency Discharges. The Proclamation established a Clemency Board to review the records and make recommendations for receiving a Presidential Pardon and a change in Military discharge status.
The economy was a great concern during the Ford administration. One of the first acts the new president took to deal with the economy was to create the Economic Policy Board by Executive Order on September 30, 1974. In response to rising inflation, Ford went before the American public in October 1974 and asked them to "Whip Inflation Now". As part of this program, he urged people to wear "WIN" buttons. At the time, inflation was believed to be the primary threat to the economy, more so than growing unemployment. They felt as though controlling inflation would work to fix unemployment. To rein in inflation, it was necessary to control the public's spending. To try to mesh service and sacrifice, "WIN" called for Americans to reduce their spending and consumption. On October 4, 1974, Ford gave a speech in front of a joint session of Congress and as a part of this speech kicked off the "WIN" campaign. Over the next nine days 101,240 Americans mailed in "WIN" pledges. In hindsight, this was viewed as simply a public relations gimmick without offering any means of solving the underlying problems. The main point of that speech was to introduce to Congress a one-year, five-percent income tax increase on corporations and wealthy individuals. This plan would also take $4.4 billion out of the budget bringing federal spending below $300 billion. At the time, inflation was over twelve percent.
The federal budget ran a deficit every year Ford was President. Despite his reservations about how the program ultimately would be funded in an era of tight public budgeting, Ford signed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, which established special education throughout the United States. Ford expressed "strong support for full educational opportunities for our handicapped children" according to the official White House press release for the bill signing.
The economic focus began to change as the country sank into the worst recession since the Great Depression four decades earlier. The focus of the Ford administration turned to stopping the rise in unemployment, which reached nine percent in May 1975. In January 1975, Ford proposed a 1-year tax reduction of $16 billion to stimulate economic growth, along with spending cuts to avoid inflation. Ford was criticized greatly for quickly switching from advocating a tax increase to a tax reduction. In Congress, the proposed amount of the tax reduction increased to $22.8 billion in tax cuts and lacked spending cuts. In March 1975, Congress passed, and Ford signed into law, these income tax rebates as part of the Tax Reduction Act of 1975. This resulted in a federal deficit of around $53 billion for the 1975 fiscal year and $73.7 billion for 1976.
When New York City faced bankruptcy in 1975, Mayor Abraham Beame was unsuccessful in obtaining Ford's support for a federal bailout. The incident prompted the New York Daily News' famous headline "Ford to City: Drop Dead", referring to a speech in which "Ford declared flatly ... that he would veto any bill calling for 'a federal bail-out of New York City'". The following month, November 1975, Ford changed his stance and asked Congress to approve federal loans to New York City.
One of Ford's greatest challenges was dealing with the continued Vietnam War. American offensive operations against North Vietnam had ended with the Paris Peace Accords, signed on January 27, 1973. The accords declared a cease fire across both North and South Vietnam, and required the release of American prisoners of war. The agreement guaranteed the territorial integrity of Vietnam and, like the Geneva Conference of 1954, called for national elections in the North and South. The Paris Peace Accords stipulated a sixty-day period for the total withdrawal of U.S. forces.
The accords had been negotiated by United States National Security Advisor Kissinger and North Vietnamese politburo member Le Duc Tho. South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu was not involved in the final negotiations, and publicly criticized the proposed agreement. However, anti-war pressures within the United States forced Nixon and Kissinger to pressure Thieu to sign the agreement and enable the withdrawal of American forces. In multiple letters to the South Vietnamese president, Nixon had promised that the United States would defend his government, should the North Vietnamese violate the accords.
In December 1974, months after Ford took office, North Vietnamese forces invaded the province of Phuoc Long. General Trần Văn Trà sought to gauge any South Vietnamese or American response to the invasion, as well as to solve logistical issues before proceeding with the invasion.
As North Vietnamese forces advanced, Ford requested aid for South Vietnam in a $522 million aid package. The funds had been promised by the Nixon administration, but Congress voted against the proposal by a wide margin. Senator Jacob Javits offered "...large sums for evacuation, but not one nickel for military aid". President Thieu resigned on April 21, 1975, publicly blaming the lack of support from the United States for the fall of his country. Two days later, on April 23, Ford gave a speech at Tulane University. In that speech, he announced that the Vietnam War was over "...as far as America is concerned". The announcement was met with thunderous applause.
Ford faced two assassination attempts during his presidency, occurring within three weeks of each other and in the same state; while in Sacramento, California, on September 5, 1975, Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, a follower of Charles Manson, pointed a Colt .45-caliber handgun at Ford. As Fromme pulled the trigger, Larry Buendorf, a Secret Service agent, grabbed the gun and managed to insert the webbing of his thumb under the hammer, preventing the gun from firing. It was later found that, although the semi-automatic pistol had four cartridges in the magazine, the weapon had not been chambered, making it impossible for the gun to fire. Fromme was taken into custody; she was later convicted of attempted assassination of the President and was sentenced to life in prison; she was paroled on August 14, 2009.
In reaction to this attempt, the Secret Service began keeping Ford at a more secure distance from anonymous crowds, a strategy that may have saved his life seventeen days later; as he left the St. Francis Hotel in downtown San Francisco, Sara Jane Moore, standing in a crowd of onlookers across the street, pointed her .38-caliber revolver at him. Moore fired a single round but missed because the sights were off. Just before she fired a second round, retired Marine Oliver Sipple grabbed at the gun and deflected her shot; the bullet struck a wall about six inches above and to the right of Ford's head, then ricocheted and hit a taxi driver, who was slightly wounded. Moore was later sentenced to life in prison. She was paroled on December 31, 2007, having served 32 years.
Ford reluctantly agreed to run for office in 1976, but first he had to counter a challenge for the Republican party nomination. Former Governor of California Ronald Reagan and the party's conservative wing faulted Ford for failing to do more in South Vietnam, for signing the Helsinki Accords and for negotiating to cede the Panama Canal (negotiations for the canal continued under President Carter, who eventually signed the Torrijos-Carter Treaties). Reagan launched his campaign in autumn of 1975 and won several primaries before withdrawing from the race at the Republican Convention in Kansas City, Missouri. The conservative insurgency convinced Ford to drop the more liberal Vice President Nelson Rockefeller in favor of Kansas Senator Bob Dole.
Ford considered a run for the Republican nomination in 1980, foregoing numerous opportunities to serve on corporate boards to keep his options open for a grudge match with Carter. Ford attacked Carter's conduct of the SALT II negotiations and foreign policy in the Middle East and Africa. Many have argued that Ford also wanted to exorcise his image as an "Accidental President" and to win a term in his own right. Ford also believed the more conservative Ronald Reagan would be unable to defeat Carter and would hand the incumbent a second term. Ford was encouraged by his former Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger as well as Jim Rhodes of Ohio and Bill Clements of Texas to make the race. On March 15, 1980, Ford announced that he would forgo a run for the Republican nomination, vowing to support the eventual nominee.
After securing the Republican nomination in 1980, Ronald Reagan considered his former rival Ford as a potential vice-presidential running mate, but negotiations between the Reagan and Ford camps at the Republican National Convention were unsuccessful. Ford conditioned his acceptance on Reagan's agreement to an unprecedented "co-presidency", giving Ford the power to control key executive branch appointments (such as Kissinger as Secretary of State and Alan Greenspan as Treasury Secretary). After rejecting these terms, Reagan offered the vice-presidential nomination instead to George H.W. Bush.
In October 2001, Ford broke with conservative members of the Republican party by stating that gay and lesbian couples "ought to be treated equally. Period." He became the highest ranking Republican to embrace full equality for gays and lesbians, stating his belief that there should be a federal amendment outlawing anti-gay job discrimination and expressing his hope that the Republican Party would reach out to gay and lesbian voters. He also was a member of the Republican Unity Coalition, which The New York Times described as "a group of prominent Republicans, including former President Gerald R. Ford, dedicated to making sexual orientation a non-issue in the Republican Party".
Ford died on December 26, 2006, at his home in Rancho Mirage, California, of arteriosclerotic cerebrovascular disease and diffuse arteriosclerosis. His age at the time of his death was 93 years and 165 days, making Ford the longest-lived U.S. President. On December 30, 2006, Ford became the 11th U.S. President to lie in state. The burial was preceded by a state funeral and memorial services held at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on January 2, 2007. After the service, Ford was interred at his Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Ford died on the 34th anniversary of President Harry Truman's death, thus becoming the second U.S. President to die on Boxing Day. He was the last surviving member of the Warren Commission. His wife, Betty Ford, died on July 8, 2011. Like her husband, Betty also died at age 93. They are the longest lived Presidential couple.
Ford was the only person to hold the presidential office without being elected as president nor vice-president. The choice of Ford to fulfill Agnew's vacated role as vice president was based on his reputation for openness and honesty.
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