On August 9, 1974, amid the turbulence of the Watergate moment, Gerald R. Ford found himself in the extraordinary circumstance of assuming the presidency of the United States without first having faced the American electorate as a candidate for president or vice president.
Ford handled the unsettling transition as gently as he could.
"I assume the Presidency under extraordinary circumstances never before experienced by Americans," the new President told the American people in a televised address on the hot August day when he took over the office that had been abandoned by the disgraced Richard Nixon. "I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your President by your ballots, and so I ask you to confirm me as your President with your prayers."
Ford, who died Tuesday at age 93, tried to put the best spin on his assumption of the presidency. "My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over," he declared. "Our Constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule."
As genuine and decent a fellow as may have been--and, having enjoyed the opportunity to interview Ford several times, I do believe he was that--the new President got that last line wrong.
The people did not rule.
The presidency fell to a man who had never been elected by the voters of more than the single US House district in Michigan that Ford had represented for several decades. That's not the way a democracy is supposed to work.
Ford had been a popular and well-positioned member of the Republican minority in the House when in the fall of 1973, following the abrupt resignation of corrupt former Vice President Spiro Agnew, the congressman was plucked from relative obscurity by Nixon to fill the No. 2 position in the land. According to the then relatively new 25th Amendment to the Constitution, which set up procedures for filling a vacant vice presidential office, Ford had to be confirmed by the House and Senate.
Yet, only three senators -- Maine's William Hathaway, Wisconsin's Gaylord Nelson and Missouri's Thomas Eagleton--voted against Ford's confirmation to serve as vice president, as did a handful of House members. The concerns expressed by the dissenters varied. But underpinning them was a recognition that a man who had not faced the national electorate could assume the presidency.
Less than one year later, after Nixon was forced to resign, Ford did, indeed, become the nation's chief executive.
As President, Ford served more ably and honestly than many of his successors. But he was, and will always be, remembered as an accidental President. Perhaps that is not fair to him, but nor is it fair to the American people to have a President assume office in such a dysfunctional manner.
There will be a bit of discussion about how best to honor Ford. But, in truth, the best way to honor this former President is to close the Constitutional loophole that allowed him to become President. The presidency is already too regal to permit chief executives to annoint their successors--and, perhaps, to extract the promise of a full presidential pardon or some other favor, as critics suggested Nixon did with Ford.
It would be better to return to the old, pre-25th Amendment, practice of allowing an abandoned vice presidential office to remain vacant and allowing the Speaker of the House to assume the presidency in an emergency situation. It would be better still to set up a healthier procedure--perhaps even a special national election, along the lines regularly employed in other countries--to choose a new vice president.
Whatever the solution, the fact remains that something should be done.
There is a great deal of talk these days about how best to cure what ails American democracy. There are plenty of issues to address. But if Americans ever get serious about restoring the battered infrastructure of democracy, they will want to close the loopholes that allow someone who has never faced the great mass of American voters--and, theoretically, who has not faced any voters--to become President.
John Nichols' new book, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure for Royalism has been hailed by authors and historians Gore Vidal, Studs Terkel and Howard Zinn for its meticulous research into the intentions of the founders and embraced by activists for its groundbreaking arguments on behalf of presidential accountability. After reviewing recent books on impeachment, Rolling Stone political writer Tim Dickinson, writes in the latest issue of Mother Jones, "John Nichols' nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic, The Genius of Impeachment, stands apart. It concerns itself far less with the particulars of the legal case against Bush and Cheney, and instead combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use of the "heroic medicine" that is impeachment with a call for Democratic leaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by the founders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"
The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com