Welcome to the Jungle: America After Vietnam
                                       AP US History 2007
    Gerald Ford

Ranjan Asrani

Author's Bio

Douglas Brinkley was born December 14, 1960, and is now the director of the Theodore Roosevelt Center, as well as a professor of history at Tulane University. He has written numerous biographies on such esteemed people as Henry Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Rosa Parks, as well as many other historical works. He is also an editor for Vanity Fair, Los Angeles Times Book Review, and a contributor to the New York Times. He was won numerous awards for his works, and was even titled "America's new past master" by the Chicago Tribune.

The Silent President

     Gerald R. Ford, a biography of whom the book derives its title, is a comprehensive study of the 38th President. It stretches through his childhood in Nebraska, his rise to politics, his friendships with the soon-to-be presidents Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, his term as President and his eventual death at age ninety-three in 2006. It extensively analyzes his policies as president, as well as his role as the Nation's "healer"1 after Nixon's Watergate. It portrays Ford as a president who, contrary to popular belief, contributed greatly to the nation's recovery. As Brinkley states, "He left the presidency in far better shape than he had found it!perhaps better than it had been in decades."2
     Gerald Ford was born in Omaha, Nebraska, on July 14, 1913, as Leslie Lynch King, Jr. Early in his life, his mother moved them to her parents' house in Grand Rapids, Michigan to escape her abusive husband. She married Gerald Rudolf Ford Sr., a local paint salesman, on February 1, 1917. Gerald Ford Jr. grew up a normal teenager, "a straight-arrow Eagle Scout and football star more interested in cars than girls."3 However, instead of accepting the numerous football-scholarships offered to him, he decided to pursue a law degree at Yale University. He was accepted into the law program in 1938 and graduated in 1941 in the top 25 percent of his class. He opened a law firm with his friend, but soon enlisted in the army after Pearl Harbor. Before he applied, however, he had become disillusioned with the party-boss patronage system in Michigan, ruled over by Frank D. McKay of the GOP. When he returned from the war, in which he had several near-death experiences, he ran for the House of Representatives against Bartel J. Jonkman and surprisingly won in a 2 to 1 ratio. With this election, he held the Grand Rapids regional area congressional seat from 1949 to 1973 as a moderate Republican. In 1973, Nixon's vice-president Spiro Agnew resigned, leaving a void that Nixon called Ford to fill. He was voted in by a landslide in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, and took up the mantle as vice-president. He had been the only one Nixon was allowed to nominate as Vice-President, mainly because he was well-liked in the House of Representatives. However, his term would only last through the following year, as the Watergate events came to light, and he was given the mantle of President without ever asking for it.
     As Vice-President, Ford became Nixon's ambassador to Congress, as well as president of the Senate. He then took the role of lobbyer for the president, and he traveled all over the country to defend his friend and president from the Watergate charges placed against him. During his term, Ford "flew 118,000 miles to make nearly five hundred personal appearances in forty states."4 Richard Nixon, however, was failing to cover up his involvement in Watergate and by 1974, Nixon's hidden tapes had been revealed to the Supreme Court, and Nixon was headed towards impeachment. Ford, though he had continued campaigning even while Nixon's guilt was becoming clearer, stepped to the side as the concrete proof came out. The presidency was passed from Nixon to Ford in the Oval Office, when Nixon resigned his office on August 8, 1974. The next day, Ford was sworn in as the 38th President of the United States, stating in his inaugural address, "my fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over"5. He was now the only man in the history of the United States to be both Vice-President and President without being elected by popular vote. He nominated Nelson A. Rockefeller as his Vice-President on August 20. Using his popularity, he tried to coax other groups over to his side, and also declared an amnesty for Vietnam draft dodgers. However, most of this popularity was lost on September 8, 1974 as Ford pardoned Nixon for any crimes he may have committed, leading to suspicion on how Ford gained the presidency. This act severely hurt Ford's chances in the next election, as well as garnered extreme animosity from all the Nixon-haters in the decades to come. He also used his popularity to deal with the economic status of the country. Because of the financial crises at the time, Ford rallied his "Whip Inflation Now" protest group, a plea "to Americans to stop wasting money and resources, especially fuel."6 To escape his decreasing popularity at home, he traveled abroad, even striking a friendship with Leonid Brezhnev, General Secretary of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. Vietnam, however, was still on many peoples' minds. Ford announced that the war was finished, and began evacuating soldiers and South Vietnamese, even going so far as to say that all South Vietnamese who escaped were welcome to a place in the United States. At the end of this tension, "America's only unelected president did what his four predecessors could not: he extricated the United States from Vietnam's long running civil war."7
     However, even this did not gain much positive attention for Ford. The way Americans saw it, the President had come out and said that the war in Vietnam had been fought for nothing, that "it had been for nothing that 8.75 million Americans had served, that 154,000 had been seriously wounded, and that more than 58,000 had died."8 Ford's popularity was boosted, however, by the Mayaguez incident which occurred on May 12, 1975, and involved the seizure of a U.S. merchant ship by a Cambodian patrol boat. Though the captors treated their prisoners extremely well, Ford still sent troops in, as well as negotiators. The rescue team found Cambodian troops they hadn't expected and were not equipped to fight; while negotiations retrieved the captured Americans, 41 Marines died in the gunfight on Koh Tang against an army they hadn't expected to find. However, many Americans believed that "the president had done a damn good job"9 in handling the crisis. This resulted in a rise in popularity for Ford, and the incident became a lasting image of American resolve. Ford soon announced his candidacy for the 1976 Republican presidential campaign. Most of the dissension to his candidacy came not from the Democrats, but from Republicans who thought his policies were too liberal! he had always been moderate. It was during his campaign for the nomination that there were two assassination attempts on his life. Since both were made by women, it gave him a chance to quip to his wife: "I'm going to have to review my support for the Equal Rights Amendment. These women are trying to kill me."10 His humor was something he would keep throughout the rest of his life. As New York went through a financial crisis, Ford told the nation that the Federal government would not spend money to help one city, when the city itself could not take care of its finances. This polarized some voters and resulted in a loss of the state of New York to Jimmy Carter, his opponent in the election. By removing numerous people in his cabinet, such as Rockefeller and Schlesinger, Ford was able to de-Nixonize his candidacy in order to win the nomination, though this gave him a negative image as well. The people saw it as booting out his most loyal friends just to win the election. However, several examples of clumsiness had been found through his campaign and term, and this became the main insult from his opponents. Comedians like Chevy Chase ridiculed him, creating the image of a bumbling Ford, one that would hurt Ford severely in the future. Even though Ford won the nomination, lukewarm support from Reagan ultimately lost him the election against Jimmy Carter. Ford would later blame the loss on the lack of support from Reagan, something that could have helped him in states he lost by 1 or 2 percent. Carter won in the closest presidential contest since 1916, prompting Billy Graham to state "With the low Republican registration in this country I think Mr. Carter should be asking himself how he came so close to losing."11 Carter, however, surprised many as he thanked Ford at the Inauguration Ceremony for all he had done, sparking a genuine friendship between them, even though they disagreed on many issues. At the end of his term, and in the years to follow, Americans would realize that Ford had done the job that needed to be done and had been the right man for the job. He was "the kind of President Americans wanted!and didn't know they had"12 until he was gone.
     In his retirement years, Ford would write numerous books, as well as retain the friendship of both Nixon and Carter. When Reagan ran, Ford supported him, just as he had supported all other Republicans. He was always a loyal person. Ford and Carter traveled around the world advocating talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization. Ford also sat on numerous corporate boards, and his sense of humor endeared him to the public. He discussed Watergate and Nixon's pardon with many reporters, and history finally came to show that the pardon had been the right thing to do. Ford advocated a rebuke to Clinton's Lewinski Affair, instead of an impeachment. The public now saw him as a great figure, an honest man who had always done what was right. When he died on December 26, 2006 at his home in California, "his obituary ran for three full pages in the New York Times."13 The name most commonly used to describe him was "healer". A man who, 30 years after his presidency, "had risen to the rank of 'near-great president.'" Ford was finally getting the recognition he deserved.
     Brinkley's thesis is that Ford was not as bumbling, as ill-fitted for presidency, nor as useless as many Americans believe. He provides copious evidence to battle opponents who find that Ford did nothing while in office except pardon Nixon, which they also see as a mistake. He wishes to argue against those who see Ford as clumsy, those who are usually aided by Chevy Chase's Saturday Night Live and even the numerous jokes made by Lyndon Johnson. Most of all, he wishes to portray a man who deserves the rank of "near-great" for his many accomplishments. His in-depth biography contributes to the statement made on the back of the book: "He left the presidency in far better shape than he had found it!perhaps better than it had been in decades."14 He presents much evidence to support his claim, and is able to develop his thesis quite well. However, there are numerous shortcomings.
     Jeremy Lott, a book reviewer for The Washington Times, explains that "Mr. Brinkley's Ford is a sort of Mighty Mouse, come to save the nation from the "ultraconservative" threat."15 Lott believes that most facts against Ford are "downplayed"16 and only a "grand narrative of Ford as our Moderate, Centrist, Nonpartisan, Nondivisive, Healer of the Country's deepest Wounds."17 This sarcasm is true; the picture painted of Ford by Brinkley puts him in the same class as the Roosevelts. David S. Broder, however, disagrees. He only faults Brinkley on portraying Ford as "the ringleader in all these efforts"18, pertaining to "the revolts that moved Ford into the post of Republican leader of the house."19 He agrees with most claims made by Brinkley, and if Brinkley is a little too sympathetic to Ford, it is understandable because of both Brinkley's and Ford's "preference for a more tolerant, pragmatic version of conservatism."20
     Douglas Brinkley grew up in the era of Nixon, Ford, and Carter. In his introduction he states a "thank you" to his mother and father "who brought me to hear Gerald Ford speak´when I was eleven years old."21 This automatically conveys a sense of bias on Brinkley's part, as he already feels a connection to the subject material and holds him in high esteem. His novel is centered on the unselfish aspect of Ford, "his Ford is almost devoid of ego."22 The image he presents is "cartoonish"23, a Ford who is inherently unselfish and has "a rock-hard moral core."24 This is where Brinkley's book crosses the line from mere biography to a biased account. He presents a Ford with no faults, no problems!the "healer of a nation,"25 which is a problem throughout the book. However, the book does present a great in-depth look at Ford and, taken as a slightly biased biography, effectively portrays the life of Gerald R. Ford much better than many other biographies. The statement that the book is "a highly sympathetic but largely accurate appraisal of Ford's accomplishments"26 is an excellent way to describe it.
     Brinkley seems to believe that America recovered from its long financial depression and its political suspicion solely through the presidency of Gerald Ford, which, based on his assumption, paints Ford as a god-like President. Though this might be his opinion, and his book clearly states examples to it being true, the 38th President cannot be called the savior of the country. He may have done great things, he may have been a "healer,"27 but the political system wasn't fixed, and he was not the main catalyst in the recovery of the economy. Brinkley's believes Ford is the end-all and be-all of Presidents, but his presidency didn't mark any watersheds in American history. Brinkley's Ford is a Mighty Mouse, while the "real Ford beat out a congressman for his Grand Rapids seat, in part because the local political boss had slighted the young wannabe volunteer."28
America changed dramatically from the 1970's through the new millennium, though not directly because of Ford. He did regain the people's trust in their government, albeit a few decades after his presidency. His major accomplishment would have been his removal of troops from Vietnam, something four other presidents could not do. He didn't change any previously held values, practices, or ideas during his tenure; he merely stabilized America, though this in itself can be called a great accomplishment. Many other political or artistic figures have had a bigger influence then Gerald Ford, and the little impact he had can be seen through history textbooks. Hardly a paragraph is spent on his term; merely the fact that he pardoned Nixon and so failed to be reelected. (He won the John F. Kennedy Foundation "Profile in Courage Award" "for his controversial decision to pardon Richard Nixon,"29, something that he always firmly believed in and finally verified as the right thing to have done.)
     Ford's era did not have a significant impact on America today; he was overshadowed by Nixon's Watergate and Reagan's economic policies. However, he was able to fix many things during his term, and if he was not the president everyone expected him to be, he was good enough for the job. He may have been great, he may have been near-great; he may have been useless; he may have been the only president to remove America from Vietnam. He certainly was, however, a stoic and honest man, a loyal and humble friend, the 38th President of the United States, our "'accidental' president whose innate decency and steady hand restored the presidency after its greatest crisis."30


1. Brinkley, Douglas. Gerald R. Ford. 175 Fifth Avenue: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2007 160. 2. Brinkley, Douglas Back Cover 3. Brinkley, Douglas 5. 4. Brinkley, Douglas 54. 5. Brinkley, Douglas 63. 6. Brinkley, Douglas 77. 7. Brinkley, Douglas 99. 8. Brinkley, Douglas 99. 9. Brinkley, Douglas 103. 10. Brinkley, Douglas 121. 11. Brinkley, Douglas 141. 12. Brinkley, Douglas 145. 13. Brinkley, Douglas 159. 14. Brinkley, Douglas Back Cover. 15. Lott, Jeremy. Gerald Ford as Mighty Mouse. Op-Eds & Articles: Washington Times, 2007 1. 16. Lott, Jeremy. 17. Lott, Jeremy. 18. Broder, David Gerald R. Ford. Washington Post Writers Group: Washington Post, 2007 1. 19. Broder, David. 20. Broder, David. 21. Brinkley, Douglas Introduction. 22. Lott, Jeremy. 23. Lott, Jeremy. 24. Brinkley, Douglas Back Cover. 25. Brinkley, Douglas 160. 26. Broder, David. 27. Brinkley, Douglas 160. 28. Lott, Jeremy. 29. Brinkley, Douglas 158 30. Brinkley, Douglas Inside Cover.

Copyright 2007 AP United States History. All Rights Reserved.