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1973 Twenty-five Years Ago

June 2024
2min read

A Ford in Your Future

On December 6 Gerald R. Ford was inaugurated as Vice President, becoming the first to attain that office under the terms of the Twenty-fifth Amendment, enacted in 1967. Spiro T. Agnew’s resignation two months earlier had left America without a Vice President for the seventeenth time, and while the Republic had managed to survive on the previous sixteen occasions, this time it actually meant something. With President Richard M. Nixon getting mired deeper in Watergate every day, chances were good that whoever became his Vice President would soon succeed to the Presidency.

As the first unelected Vice President, Ford—the House minority leader and a long-time congressman from Michigan—faced much greater scrutiny than any of his elected predecessors. While the voting public usually considers nothing more profound than which candidate got off the best wisecrack in the vice-presidential debate, Congress sent out 350 FBI agents, who dug up seventeen hundred pages of evidence. One zealous G-man even interviewed a high school football opponent to see if Ford had been a dirty player. As expected, the investigation found Ford to be an unexceptionable man of ordinary capabilities, which certainly made him qualified (if not overqualified) to be Vice President. Ford had been chosen over better-known men like Ronald Reagan, John Connally, and Nelson Rockefeller precisely because of his relentlessly vanilla background.

During the confirmation hearings Ford reiterated his intention of retiring from public office in 1976. When asked about a pardon of Nixon should he succeed to the Presidency, Ford replied, “I do not think the public would stand for it.” Both houses approved his nomination by lopsided margins, and in his Inaugural address he showed his Michigan roots by saying, “I am a Ford, not a Lincoln.”

As Vice President, Ford found the demands on his time oppressive and the Secret Service’s presence stifling. (Things were worse for his daughter Susan, still in high school, who suffered every teenager’s worst nightmare when her father realized he could check Secret Service logbooks to find out what time she had gotten in the night before.) The greatest strain of all was trying to remain loyal to his boss. As Nixon’s emotional stability deteriorated along with his political position, Ford got used to being called into the President’s office and patiently listening to him rant and ramble for hours. At first Ford believed Nixon to be innocent of wrongdoing, but as the revelations and evasions continued, the Vice President had to refrain from asking too many questions for fear of learning things he didn’t want to know.

One big blow came shortly after Ford’s Inauguration when a panel of experts reported on an eighteen-minute gap in a subpoenaed Oval Office tape. Nixon’s advocates had accused his secretary, Rose Mary Woods, of accidentally causing the gap by pressing the wrong pedal during a telephone call. When Woods protested that she had been on the phone for only five minutes, the President’s chief of staff, Alexander Haig, scoffed: “I’ve known women that think they’ve talked for five minutes and then have talked an hour.”

On January 15, however, the panel reported that the tape contained five separate erasures that could not have been created in the way Woods recalled. Since the gap covered the time when Nixon and his aide H. R. Haldeman were discussing how to respond to the Watergate burglary, suspicion of hanky-panky was widespread. It remains so to this day among those who still care. Nothing was ever proved, however, and Nixon always disclaimed responsibility for the gap. (Ford later wrote that he believed Nixon’s denial “because I knew he wasn’t adroit mechanically.”) The culprit may have been an overzealous subordinate—always a problem for Nixon—but in the end it didn’t matter. The tapes that remained untampered with would provide all the evidence his accusers needed.

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