Ford became Nixon’s vice president when Spiro Agnew himself was forced to resign after pleading no contest to tax evasion. According to the Constitution, congress must approve a new vice president when a replacement is needed during a presidential term. As Nixon’s crimes were increasingly exposed to the public the stakes were high when selecting a new vice president. Tip O’Neill who later became Speaker of the House and was friendly with Ford recalled in his memoirs that,
“Another reason we favored Jerry Ford was that we didn’t think the Republicans should benefit from Agnew’s resignation. While Jerry had been an excellent leaderin the Congress, he didn’t seem to have the desire, the personality, or the charisma to be elected president on his own. He had even said that in the event he was selected, he wouldn’t seek the presidency in 1976. We found that reassuring, although nobody was prepared to hold him to that promise.”
The mainstream media prefers to lionize former presidents when they die and Ford is regarded as a decent caretaker who restored confidence in the republic. Ford does deserve credit for not resorting to the politics of slash and burn when campaigning for reelection in 1976. Nixon’s electoral success was partly attributed to exploiting resentments of working class whites. These voters later became “Reagan Democrats” and combined with evangelical Christians and traditional supporters from business interests to form a powerful coalition.
Future Republican presidents Ronald Reagan, George Herbert Walker Bush and George W. Bush prevailed partly by exploiting the politics of division. Ford unleashed his running mate Senator Robert Dole into the “briar patch” but otherwise campaigned on his competence and experience. Carter opened a big lead following the Democratic convention but Ford closed strong in spite of his controversial pardon of Nixon and debate gaffes by both him and Dole. Ford lost in a squeaker but resisted the temptation to resort to race baiting as Ronald Reagan did in Philadelphia, Mississippi during the 1980 campaign.
Ford also deserves credit for the 1975 Helsinki Accords signed by the United States, Canada, the Soviet Union and most European countries. At the time conservative critics such as Ronald Reagan who ultimately challenged Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976 protested the agreement because it recognized the Soviet Union’s territorial gains after World War Two. However, the Helsinki Accords also reduced Cold War tensions and put the Soviets on record as supporting human rights. Consequently the Helsinki Accords served to undermine the Soviet regime’s legitimacy and facilitated the communist empire’s demise.
National healing and the Helsinki Accords are not small accomplishments for a president that wasn’t elected. However, there is a dark side to the Ford legacy: the rise of the neocons. Ford’s Chief of Staff was a young man named Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld was his Secretary of Defense. They persuaded Ford to cave under pressure from conservative critics in the assessment of Soviet military strength. As a result, CIA director George Herbert Walker Bush commissioned a competitive threat assessment known as “Team B” in July 1976.
Team B was comprised of ideologues such as Paul Nitze and they greatly exaggerated the Soviet military threat. Hence, under the Ford Administration a precedent was established for rewarding the views of ideologues over the assessment of national security professionals who knew their business. Although the Carter Administration gave little credence to Team B’s reports the national security bureaucracy was infected with an insidious cancer that ravaged its guts.
Senator Patrick Moynihan noted years later the CIA failed to predict the Soviet Union’s demise, as it should have. The iron triangle of the defense industry and bureaucracy needed to promote the myth of a formidable Soviet menace. This mindset is partly responsible for wasted billions of dollars spent on the delusional missile defense scheme known as “Star Wars.”
Ford partly surrendered to this pressure because of trouble on his political right. California Governor Ronald Reagan posed a serious challenge in the summer of 1976. Conservative critics such as Reagan had managed to make the word “détente” as dirty as the word “liberal” and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was viewed with contempt. Remarkable that Henry Kissinger who is considered a war criminal by many was also regarded as soft on communism by conservative ideologues.
Consequently Ford established the precedent of appeasing conservative ideologues to ensure his political survival. All politicians want to survive and perhaps most would’ve done the same. Unfortunately, Ford’s political weakness helped pave the way for the ascendancy of dark political forces responsible for much of America’s abysmal leadership today. And that too is part of Ford’s legacy.
ADDENDUM: My thanks to "Real History Lisa" for promoting a crossposting of the above topic at Progressive Historians. CLICK HERE to review comments from that community. Progressive Historians as one can infer from the name is a community blog devoted to analyzing history from a progressive perspective.