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.