AN ORDINARY MAN
The Surprising Life and Historic Presidency of Gerald R. Ford
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For many Americans, President Gerald Ford was the genial accident of history who controversially pardoned his Watergate-tarnished predecessor, presided over the fall of Saigon, and became a punching bag on Saturday Night Live. Yet as Richard Norton Smith reveals in a book full of surprises, Ford was an underrated leader whose tough decisions and personal decency look better with the passage of time.
Drawing on hundreds of interviews and thousands of documents, Smith recreates Ford's hardscrabble childhood in Michigan, his early anti-establishment politics and lifelong love affair with the former Betty Bloomer, whose impact on American culture he predicted would outrank his own. As president, Ford guided the nation through its worst Constitutional crisis since the Civil War and broke the back of the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression--accomplishing both with little fanfare or credit (at least until 2001 when the JFK Library gave him its prestigious Profile in Courage Award in belated recognition of the Nixon pardon).
Less coda than curtain raiser, Ford's administration bridged the Republican pragmatism of Eisenhower and Nixon and the more doctrinaire conservatism of Ronald Reagan. His introduction of economic deregulation would transform the American economy, while his embrace of the Helsinki Accords hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union.
This definitive biography, a decade in the making, will change history's views of a man whose warning about presidential arrogance ("God help the country") is more relevant than ever.
1. FAMILY SECRETS
"So few people knew that I was not Jerry Ford’s son in Grand Rapids. It wasn’t a kept secret – but nobody talked about it. And we sure never talked about it in our house." - Gerald R. Ford
Nobody in the Ford household talked about the short, disastrous marriage between Dorothy Gardner and Leslie King that produced the 38th president of the United States in July, 1913. In filing for divorce later that year Dorothy charged her husband with sexual abuse. Two decades later, happily remarried and with her renamed son, Gerald Ford, Jr. enrolled in Yale Law School, Dorothy had her first husband jailed for his refusal to pay court ordered child support. Also revealed here for the first time is the future president’s bigamist step-grandfather, whose death in a 1909 train accident scandalized his family but went unmentioned by his famous grandson.
2. FORD, AMERICA FIRST, AND THE FBI
In February, 1942 J. Edgar Hoover personally blackballed Ford’s application to be an FBI agent after learning of Ford’s involvement while at Yale with the antiwar organization America First.
3. CONGRESSMAN FORD AND THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS
By 1962 an acknowledged Capitol Hill expert on defense and national security issues, Ford suspected the Soviet Union of clandestinely installing offensive nuclear weapons in Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Behind the scenes he pressured the Pentagon to step up surveillance flights of the island. CIA Director John McCone later credited Ford’s intervention for securing critical evidence cited by the Kennedy White House in justifying its blockade of Cuba and bringing a peaceful conclusion to the nuclear standoff.
4. THE WARREN COMMISSION
Mining Ford’s diaries and newly available transcripts, Smith disputes much that has been written about Ford’s role in the official investigation of JFK’s assassination. For example, Ford was both the first – and last – member of the presidential commission to suspect a foreign conspiracy. Smith probes Ford’s controversial relationship with the FBI, his jawdropping encounter in a Dallas jail with Jack Ruby, Lee Harvey Oswald’s killer, as well as his startling personal theory of Oswald’s motivation.
5. REPLACING AGNEW
A historical bombshell. Relying on participants who go public for the first time in over 40 years, Smith calls into question Ford’s own account of events leading to his selection as Vice President in October, 1973. In fact Ford discovered that Vice President Spiro Agnew was under investigation for corruption charges in neighboring Maryland in February of that year, at least six months earlier than he ever acknowledged. Far more ambitious than his “good old Jerry” persona, Ford had his eye on Agnew’s job should it become vacant. Luck was with him. Convinced that his preferred candidate for the job, former Texas Governor John Connally, could not be confirmed by a Democratic Congress, an embattled President Nixon reluctantly nominated Ford – whom he labeled “an honest Truman” – to replace Agnew on October 12.
6. THE WHITE HOUSE CLEANING THAT NEVER WAS
History might have been very different had Ford, on his first full day in office, accepted the resignation of Secretary of the Treasury William Simon, who advised him to replace the rest of Richard Nixon’s Cabinet immediately. Ford, balancing change against continuity, unwilling to tar innocent public servants with the Watergate brush, and reliant on Nixon holdovers to keep the government running, refused point blank. “No one leaves the airplane without a parachute,” he announced.
7. THE PARDON
Revealed for the first time...
- Betty Ford’s pivotal role in her husband’s rejection of any deal with Nixon Chief of Staff Alexander Haig leading to a pardon for the former president.Separate plans by Mel Laird and Elliot Richardson to shift the burden of a Nixon pardon from the new president to Congress – and how close they came to being implemented.
- The shadowy role played by an unorthodox Grand Rapids clergyman in emphasizing Christian mercy over Ford’s pragmatic desire to refocus the nation’s attention away from Nixon and his legal problems to a deteriorating economy and other pressing business.
- The real reason, according to his colleagues, why White House press secretary Jerald terHorst resigned his position (ostensibly due to the Nixon pardon).
- Before he died in 1982, Watergate Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski confided to friends that he had no intention of prosecuting Nixon - information withheld from the Ford White House, and strongly opposed by Jaworski’s own legal staff.
8. CAMPAIGN ‘76
Remember Ford’s famed “Polish gaffe” in a critical TV debate with Jimmy Carter. Its origins may surprise you. Also uncovered by the author: Bill Simon’s post-election appeal to the outgoing president to pardon former Nixon Attorney General John Mitchell. Ford rejected the idea out of hand. He never forgave Mitchell for lying to him about the original Watergate break-in.
9. SAYING NO TO RONALD REAGAN
The fullest account to date of a truly bizarre episode in American political history. In the summer of 1980 Ronald Reagan, the GOP’s presumptive nominee for president, asked Ford to make history by becoming his running mate. After several days of televised indecision, the courtship ended in failure, the elevation of George H. W. Bush - and a plot twist worthy of an O. Henry short story.
10. MONICA, BILL – AND JERRY
It is January, 1998. Rumors in Washington are swirling about an affair involving President Bill Clinton and a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. “Did you hear the news?” the irrepressible Betty Ford inquires. “Al Gore is one orgasm away from the presidency.” To Betty’s husband Clinton’s behavior was no joking matter. Yet he tells a golfing buddy his reaction to the news is no different from his reaction to an earlier presidential scandal. “I’m going to say the same thing I said when I forgave Nixon. We need to forgive Clinton. Sure he was wrong in what he did, but we need to get on and remember what’s good for the country.” True to his word, behind the scenes Ford tried to broker a compromise that would punish Clinton’s behavior while averting his impeachment. A resentful Republican leader strongly urged the former president to mind his own business. Six weeks later the same correspondent sought Ford’s help in gaining admission to an exclusive Palm Springs golf course.
"Richard Norton Smith had brought a lifetime of wisdom, insight, and storytelling verve to the life of a consequential president—Gerald R. Ford. Ford’s is a very American life, and Smith has charted its vicissitudes and import with great grace and illuminating perspective. A marvelous achievement!"
John Meacham, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, author of the New York Times bestsellers Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, Franklin and Winston, and Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush
"Richard Norton Smith’s monumental An Ordinary Man is a comprehensive, brilliant biography of Gerald Ford — solidly researched, crisply written, both objective and persuasive. This is the definitive work on Ford that will stand the test of time."
Douglas Brinkley, author of Silent Spring Revolution: John F. Kennedy, Rachel Carson, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and the Great Environmental Awakening
"This book is a page-turner! With a propulsive narrative style grounded in exhaustive research, Smith’s biography of Gerald Ford offers surprising insights into our underestimated thirty-eighth president. Rare is the history book that rewrites history. This is one."
Kristie Miller, author of Ellen and Edith: Woodrow Wilson’s First Ladies
"Gerald Ford is probably remembered more for how he got to the presidency than for what he did there. In this brilliant book, Richard Norton Smith tells the rest of the story. On every other page I found something I didn’t know, bringing new and important insights into how Ford kept the nation together and moved it past its most severe political crisis since the Civil War. It will become the definitive work on Ford and his presidency."
Bob Schieffer, CBS News
"In his groundbreaking biography, Richard Norton Smith elegantly captures Gerald R. Ford, from his Midwestern beginnings, prosaic with twists of tempestuousness, to his accidental though consequential turn as our thirty-eighth president and the graceful end to his ninety-three years. Rich in revelations and detail, it offers a definitive portrait of this extraordinary 'ordinary man.'"
Mark K. Updegrove, president and CEO of the LBJ Foundation and author of Incomparable Grace: JFK in the Presidency