Politics
3:44 am
Mon August 18, 2014

An Unprecedented Transfer Of Power Marked Ford's Presidency

Originally published on Mon August 18, 2014 6:11 am

Forty years ago, America was getting to know a new president: Gerald Ford. He took office after scandal forced the resignation of Richard Nixon, famously declaring: "My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over."

Taking on the presidency meant a transfer of power unlike any the country had ever seen. Ford often said he had never aspired to the White House. But there he was, in the summer of 1974.

"When he walked into the Oval Office, it had been stripped bare of every memento and every paper. It was like a piece of rental housing," says Barry Werth. He's the author of 31 Days, which looks at President Ford's first month in office.

Beyond moving in, there was a long list of problems for the new guy to deal with.

"The Cold War was at its height," Werth says. "Vietnam was winding down in a dangerous way. We were having crisis in the Middle East. The first oil shocks. Extreme inflation."

Werth says Ford was tasked with declaring his independence from Nixon to show that everything was going to change, while also showing a continuity of government.

Ford realized quickly that if he were seen solely as a caretaker president — with no plans to seek the office on his own in 1976 — he'd immediately be considered a lame duck. That would make his job even tougher.

In those first days he began looking for a vice president. Some of those potential choices would play prominent roles in American politics for decades to come.

At the time, Pennsylvania Sen. Hugh Scott talked to NPR about some candidates he'd discussed with the new president. "I mentioned a couple of names, including Rockefeller and Bush. Some very well qualified names came up: Sen. Dominick of Colorado, Sen. Javits and Sen. Dole, and others," he says.

That's Bush as in George H.W. Bush, and Dole as in Sen. Bob Dole. Also angling for the job was Donald Rumsfeld, who much later served as secretary of defense. Eventually, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller got the VP job.

That first week, Ford also addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress. He pledged "communication, conciliation, compromise and cooperation."

For all the political drama, Ford's personal story and laid-back demeanor was just as interesting to many observers. For 10 days, Ford and his family continued to live in their split-level suburban home in Alexandria, Va. He commuted 10 miles to the White House. One memorable image from that week (above, in slideshow) shows the family — the president, Betty Ford and two of their children — in their knotty, pine-paneled kitchen reading the morning papers and drinking coffee.

David Hume Kennerly was an award-winning photojournalist who became Ford's official White House photographer.

"That picture was taken just before he was ready to go out the door to go to the White House. That was normal," Kennerly says. "They were talking about normal family things: Who's gonna get the dry cleaning, who's gonna do this, who's gonna do that."

Kennerly says they looked like an average American family because they were. The public wished Ford well and immediately took to him.

Then, in September, Ford pardoned Richard Nixon. He insisted it was necessary for the country to move beyond Watergate. But it would change public perception overnight, and end much of the goodwill he enjoyed in those very first days.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

On a Monday, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

And I'm Kelly McEvers. Forty years ago this week, America was getting to know a new president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT GERALD R. FORD: My fellow Americans, our long, national nightmare is over.

MCEVERS: That is from Gerald R. Ford's first speech as president after scandal forced the resignation of Richard Nixon. Then a month later came this moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FORD: A full, free and absolute pardon onto Richard Nixon for all offenses against the United States, which he...

MCEVERS: Those are by far the most remembered moments of the Ford presidency. But in between came a transfer of power unlike any the country has seen. Here's NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Gerald Ford often said that he had never aspired to the White House. But here he was in the summer of 1974 after the first ever resignation of a U.S. president.

BARRY WERTH: When he walked into the Oval Office, it had been stripped bare of every memento and every paper. It was - you know, it was like a piece of rental housing.

GONYEA: That's Barry Werth, author of the book "31 Days," which looks at President Ford's first month in office. There was a long list of problems for the new guy to deal with.

WERTH: The Cold War was at its height. Vietnam was winding down in a dangerous way. We were having crises in the Middle East, the first oil shocks, the extreme inflation.

GONYEA: And there was this.

WERTH: He had in one sense, to declare his independence from Nixon, to show that everything was about to change and in another sense show that there was going to be continuity in government.

GONYEA: These clips are from NPR News that week 40 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BARRY SCHWEID, BYLINE: Henry Kissinger spent the day at the White House helping the new president get the message across that no abrupt changes are to be expected in U.S. foreign-policy. Ambassadors from 57 nations trooped into the Roosevelt room individually or in groups. First, the NATO countries.

GONYEA: Ford realized quickly that if he were seen solely as a caretaker president, with no plans to seek the office on his own in 1976, then he'd immediately be considered a lame duck, making his job even tougher. In those first days, he began looking for a vice president. Some of the potential choices would play prominent roles in American politics for decades to come. At the time, Pennsylvania Senator Hugh Scott talked to NPR about some of the candidates he'd discussed with the new president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SENATOR HUGH SCOTT: I mentioned a number of names there, including Rockefeller and Bush. And some very well-qualified senators came up, Senator Dominic of Colorado, Senator Javits and Senator Dole for instance and others.

GONYEA: That's Bush, as in George H.W. Bush. Dole is Senator Bob Dole, also angling for the job was Donald Rumsfeld. Eventually Ford chose New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller as his VP. That week Ford also addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress. He pledged, quote, "communication, conciliation, compromise and cooperation."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FORD: I do not want to honeymoon with you. I want a good marriage.

(LAUGHTER)

GONYEA: For all the political drama, just as interesting was Gerald Ford's own personal story. Remember the nation knew very little about him at this point. For 10 days Ford and his family continued to live in their split-level suburban home in Alexandria, Virginia. He commuted 10 miles to the White House. One memorable image for that week shows the family, the President, Betty Ford and two of their children in their knotty pine paneled kitchen reading the morning papers and drinking coffee. David Hume Kennerly, an award-winning photojournalist, who became Ford's official White House photographer took that photo.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVID HUME KENNERLY: That picture was taken right before he got ready to go out the door - down to the White House and that was normal, like misses - they were talking about normal family things, like who's going to get the dry cleaning, who's going to, who's going to do that.

GONYEA: Kennerly says they look like an average American family because they were. The public wished Ford well and immediately took to him. Then in September he pardoned Richard Nixon. Ford insisted it was necessary for the country to move beyond Watergate. But it would change public perception overnight and end much of the goodwill he enjoyed those very first days. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.