Gerald R. Ford Foundation Addresses Presidential Transitions Through Crisis
Michigan’s claim to the Presidency is Gerald Ford – who took over during a tumultuous time following Vietnam, Watergate, and Richard Nixon’s resignation.
The Executive Director of the Gerald R. Ford Foundation in Grand Rapids says President Ford’s transition was different in its own right, but the tension was not unheard of.
Gleaves Whitney says, “We’ve had a lot of instances in U.S. history where there have been pretty tense transitions. You only have to go back to the Civil War for the most tense of all. Because after Lincoln was elected, all of the sudden you had these southern states secede. Eleven in all and eventually, war break out. So nothing we are doing today compares to that. There have been other very intense and rancorous transitions. If you go back to John Adams for example. Look at the Founding Fathers. We tend to put them on marble statues but a lot of times they didn’t get along. When John Adams lost the election to Thomas Jefferson it was very highly contested, the election of 1800. Adams refused to join Jefferson in the transition. So it happens occasionally.”
“It’s happened three or four times where there’s been a deliberate attempt to not support the incoming president. And then an additional two or three times in which the President is not present for the swearing in or the inauguration, but there was no ill intent. That’s where Gerald Ford comes in. Back in 1973 to ’74, many will remember that we were right in the midst of Watergate, the Vietnam War was winding down, there was an energy crisis. A lot of pressures. But it was Watergate that really stuck in the craw of the American people and a lot of Congress.”
Then when Nixon’s Vice President, Spiro Agnew resigned, “everybody assumed that the 25th Amendment – which had just been passed in 1967, so it would be about seven years later and was the first time it was used after the passage of the amendment – everybody assumed Nixon would be able to pick his Vice-President. And of course when he picked Gerry Ford we thought ‘OK, we would have the order of succession.’ But at that time there were a group of Democrats in the House who attempted a constitutional coup and we forget that. But there was a New York representative and she wanted to hold up Ford’s confirmation as Vice President in the Senate. Because of the order of succession that would have meant a democrat would’ve been Vice President because he was Speaker of the House. So it would have overturned the election results of 1972, which were an overwhelming landslide by Richard Nixon, a Republican, by having a democrat Speaker of the House in the presidency. Because Ford would not have been confirmed and Nixon would have to resign because of Watergate.”
But Whitney says it didn’t get very far. “To Speaker Carl Albert’s enormous credit, he said ‘there’s no way we’re going to let this happen. We’re not going to work and conspire with the Senate to make it happen.’ But still it was a constitutional crisis at the time in the same way that January 6 (2021) made people in the nation sit up and say, you know our constitution is a precious document. The United States is a very wonderful country. It has had a rule of law and peaceful transition of power for the most part more than two centuries. We’ve got to protect it.”
Ultimately, Gerald Ford was chosen and confirmed, and ultimately greeted Nixon for his departure from the White House. “With all transitions there are burdens and challenges. But there are also opportunities. When President Nixon resigned and President Ford had the opportunity to become President… President Ford and Mrs. Ford did a couple things to make sure the world would know there would be continuity. When the Nixons were leaving aboard Air Force One… President and Mrs. Ford went out there. The TV cameras showed them saying a very courteous goodbye.”
Ford knew he had to restore trust and be transparent with the American people. Whitney says Watergate and the Pentagon Papers added a high level of tension throughout the country. “President Ford knew that he had to rebuild trust in the institution of the Presidency because of what Nixon had been doing. Mishandling and abusing the office as President. And then before him, the Pentagon Papers had come out just a few years earlier, showing several Presidents had lied about Vietnam. So the Presidency was falling into disarray. The media were growing extremely skeptical. And President Ford knew to restore trust he had to demonstrate trust himself by expressing his thoughts to the American people with candor. Being transparent. Making sure there was access to the administration. Being forthright during press conferences and answering questions in an honest, forthright manner. So these were the things he started to do.”
“But he also knew that words matter. He acknowledged that the bonds had been strained. But he said in all his private and all of his public acts as the American people’s President, he was going to follow his personal instincts for openness and candor with full confidence and honesty. He always figured that would be the best policy.”
The Gerald R Ford Presidential Library and Museum in Grand Rapids is closed to the public because of the pandemic – but when it reopens visitors are welcome to learn more about the transition from Nixon to Ford and the efforts that were made to heal and unify the country.