WASHINGTON -- Within 17 days in the autumn of 1975 -- first in Sacramento, then in San Francisco -- two separate handgun-wielding women attempted to assassinate the president. Had either succeeded, and each was close enough to have done so, the nation would have had a third president in 14 months, and a second consecutive one who had never been on a national ticket. Gerald Ford survived to continue with an 895-day presidency during which the nation regained its equilibrium after Watergate and Vietnam.
The only president to have reached the Oval Office without first appearing on a ballot for either vice president or president, Ford became vice president (under the 25th Amendment) when scandals forced Richard Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, to resign. Ford became president when Nixon resigned. Had Ford been assassinated, his vice president, Nelson Rockefeller (also confirmed by Congress under the 25th Amendment), would have become president. Today, with the nation seemingly more irritable and depressed than at any time since then, it is well to fondly remember the 38th president, which Donald Rumsfeld does in “When the Center Held: Gerald Ford and the Rescue of the American Presidency.” Readers can tickle from this book a reason for looking on the bright side of, or at least for an inadvertent benefit from, the 45th president.
Ford was the most accomplished athlete ever to hold the nation’s highest elective office: For three seasons he was the center (hence Rumsfeld’s title) on University of Michigan’s football teams, two of which were undefeated national champions. Yet because of a few public stumbles related to a football-weakened knee, he is remembered as awkward. His lack of rhetorical nimbleness, one instance of which might have cost him the 1976 election, elicited condescension from critics, few of whom were, as he was, graduates of Yale Law School.
When he was sworn in as president on Aug. 9, 1974, only 36 percent of Americans expressed trust in government, down from 77 percent in 1964. And the inflation rate was 10.9 percent, the highest since 1947: nothing destroys faith in government faster than its currency failing as a store of value. To cauterize the Watergate wound, Ford pardoned Nixon, an act both statesmanlike -- it spared the nation additional years of rancor -- and politically damaging: Ford’s job approval plunged 31 points. And he was clueless about inflation, urging people to drive less and buy cheaper groceries. Rumsfeld, who served as Ford’s White House chief of staff and then secretary of defense, delicately says this “perplexed a number of our country’s top economists.”
In January 1975, in his first State of the Union address, delivered three months before the last helicopters lifted the remnants of the U.S. presence in Vietnam off the roof of the Saigon embassy, Ford said: “The state of the Union is not good.” Ronald Reagan agreed and began planning his attempt to wrest the 1976 Republican nomination from Ford.
That fate had dealt Ford a miserable hand of cards did not discombobulate him, largely because, as Rumsfeld says, he had not “come to the Oval Office with an outsized view of himself.” Never having campaigned other than in Michigan’s 5th Congressional District (Grand Rapids), he nevertheless won the 1976 GOP nomination, and probably would have won the election if, during a debate with Jimmy Carter, he had inserted the word “permanently” in his statement that Eastern European peoples did not “consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union.”
Rumsfeld, who calls Ford “the president we always wanted that we didn’t know we had,” tiptoes up to a comparison with today’s Washington when he says the city “can be a magnet for sizable personalities” and that Ford’s “saving grace” was that he was not like that: “His calm, thoughtful and steadfast nature was remarkable in Washington, D.C., even in his own day, and some might assert even more so now.” Do tell.
The current president’s contribution -- unintended but not insignificant -- to America’s civic health might be to help cure the country of unreasonable fastidiousness regarding presidential aspirants. For a while, at least, many voters will be less inclined than they once were to measure candidates with a political micrometer that encourages voters to be excessively finicky, rejecting candidates for minor blemishes, only to wind up with one who is all blemish. More than four decades on from Ford’s accidental presidency, this man who wore plaid trousers and wore power lightly is a reminder that the nation can always do worse than to embrace normality.