Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein



The heading on Evan Thomas' book review (New York Times, July 1) on Gerald Ford's presidency captures the sentiments of Washington's political leaders, both Republicans and Democrats, about "Jerry" Ford during his short tenure in the White House. He's the only president in U.S. history who was not elected as either president or vice president.

When the Center Held: Gerald Ford and the Rescue of the American Presidency, is an insider's account of Ford's presidency by Donald Rumsfeld, who served as his chief of staff and also Secretary of Defense. The two had served together in the House of Representatives, and Rumsfeld leaves no doubt about his admiration for Ford. He was a congressman from Grand Rapids Michigan who never aspired to be president, but was thrust into the White House in the 1970s when the ship of state needed stabilizing and might have foundered in the aftermath of the damaging Watergate scandal and Richard Nixon's resignation.

Rumsfeld describes the dire situation Ford faced when he took over the presidency on August 9, 1974: "What Nixon was passing over to Ford was a government so rocked by turbulence and trauma that it was a very real question whether the American experiment might be wrecked. Not since the Civil War had the institutions created by our country's Founders come into such doubt."

Many Americans remain puzzled about how Ford became president without being elected by the voters. The process started in December 1973 when the House of Representatives, in accord with the Constitution, voted by a large majority to elect Ford vice president to replace the disgraced Spiro Agnew who was forced to resign because of a bribery scandal. Ford held that office for only nine months before Nixon's resignation catapulted him into the White House.

Ford should be admired for candor in his State of the Union address to Congress on January 15, 1975: "I must tell you that the state of the Union is not good." (emphasis added) He continued: "I want to speak bluntly. I've got bad news, and I don't expect any applause. The American people want action, and it will take both the Congress and the President to give them what they want."

It's refreshing to hear honest talk from the nation's chief executive. Ford's calm bi-partisan approach and his decency in relations with others helped to soften the public's anxiety and heal the political wounds left by Nixon's divisive personality and impeachable crimes. As the country approached its 200th birthday on July 4, 1976, many Americans wondered if the next decade would be better, and quieter, than the one they just passed through.

The president's speech in Philadelphia on the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence displayed his confidence in America's future:

"The United States today remains the most successful reflection of humanity's universal hope. The world may or may not follow, but we lead because our whole history says we must. Liberty is for all men and women as a matter of equal and inalienable right. The establishment of justice and peace abroad will in large measure depend upon the peace and justice we create here in our own country, where we will lead the way."

Unwinding America's involvement in Vietnam was the most difficult task Ford faced during his short presidency. The humiliating way U.S. personnel were evacuated from Saigon when North Vietnamese forces entered the city in April 1975 was a searing experience for the country. Ford's steady leadership during that time and his later successful negotiations with Moscow on arms control won him wide support. But Vietnam and Watergate were a large burden for him in the 1976 presidential election.

In my view, Gerald Ford deserved to win a full term as president after his exemplary service to the country. But he was defeated in November 1976 by Georgia governor Jimmy Carter because the electorate wanted change, and a fresh team, in Washington. Now, forty-five years later, historians remember Ford as the accidental president who held the country together at a perilous time.

File last modified on Thursday, 13-SEP-2018 12:30 AM EST

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