WASHINGTON -- Those who believe that a kindly Providence keeps a watchful eye on America's welfare can cite the fact of Gerald Ford. On Aug. 9, 1974, at a moment when the nation was putting aside an unhappy, tormented president, and was aching for serenity in high places, to the center of national life strode an abnormality -- a happy, normal man as president.
Watergate and a presidential resignation were only two of the nation's problems that August. The mid-'70s were years when everyday things could no longer be counted on -- inflation was undermining the currency as a store of value, and lines at gasoline pumps testified to the power of foreigners to get between the Americans and their best friends, their automobiles. Ford was a political sedative for a nation with jangled nerves.
He was one of five presidents who never got elected to the office. (The others were John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson and Chester Arthur.) He was the only person to be president without receiving any popular or electoral votes for president or vice president. He was about as exotic as ... well, as he was fond of saying, he was ``a Ford, not a Lincoln.''
He was born in Omaha and represented a western Michigan district, and much was made, rightly, of his Midwesternness. In the years before the Southern ascendancy in the Republican Party, the party spoke in the flat Midwestern cadences of the senator who had been Mr. Republican when Ford came to the House in 1949 -- Robert Taft of Ohio. When Ford became minority leader in 1965 -- replacing an Indianan, Charles Halleck -- the second-ranking Republican was Leslie Arends and the Senate minority leader was Everett Dirksen, both of Illinois.
Ford was an ``accidental president,'' but there are reasons why accidents happen as they do. Call it the cunning of history, or an irony of American life, but this underestimated graduate of the Yale Law School served a purpose Nixon did not have in mind when he nominated him to replace the disgraced Vice President Spiro Agnew. Nixon probably hoped Ford's popularity in the House would enable him to rally House Republicans against impeachment. Instead, Ford's presence in the vice presidency probably made his former House colleagues less afraid of impeachment.
There is a photograph of the House Chamber when President Truman was delivering one of his State of the Union addresses. Scattered through the chamber in front of Truman were four future presidents -- Congressman Kennedy, Sen. Johnson, Congressman Nixon, Congressman Ford. Never before or since have four consecutive presidents gone directly from the legislative branch to national elective office.
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