In truth, Ford dreaded what might happen, and he understood that if he succeeded Nixon he would have to deal with more than simply the fallout of Watergate. There was an economic crisis, continued conflict in Vietnam, uncertainty overseas, a lack of public trust in government.
Early in August 1974, White House chief of staff Alexander M. Haig called Ford and asked if he were ready “to assume the presidency in a short period of time.” Ford’s answer: “If it happens, Al, I am prepared.”
A week later in the Oval Office, Nixon told Ford: “Jerry, you will become president. I know you will do a good job.”
Ford answered: “Mr. President, you know I am saddened by this circumstance. You know I would have wished it to be otherwise. I was hoping you could continue. Under the circumstances, I think your decision (to resign) is the right one.”
He added: “I am ready to do the job, and I think I am fully qualified to do it.”
The meeting between Nixon and Ford lasted one hour and 10 minutes. It was agonizing. Ford just wanted to be out of that room, away from the awkwardness that had overwhelmed both men. The silence of the car awaiting him outside the White House provided a great refuge.
In his first days as president, Ford displayed perfect pitch. “I have not campaigned either for the presidency or the vice presidency,” he said upon taking office. “I am indebted to no man and only to one woman — my dear wife — as I begin this very difficult job.”
Later, the pardon of Nixon took some of the luster off the new president, though many historians now believe Ford was right to rid himself and the presidency of such a monumental distraction. Even so, his was a presidency where routine ruled, which, given the circumstances, was a substantial achievement. His accomplishments, former newsman and Ford domestic policy adviser James Cannon wrote in a biography published this spring, were “methodically achieved by steadiness and common sense.”
It was the lack of drama that marked Ford’s life and his administration. Seldom has routine been so remarkable. In history’s mirror, Ford’s presidency is bigger than it appeared at the time.
North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.