Jerry Ford's career had always exemplified the Sam Rayburn dictum that "the best way to get along is to go along." As Charles W. Colson told Seymour Hersh, "Nixon knew that Ford was a team player and understood how to work with a wink and a nod." His rise had obviously more to do with availability than with ability. He was the perennial good guy, a product of traditional American midwestern conservatism. That included all the exhortations upholding virtue, patriotism, and individualism, as well as old prejudices against government spending. Jerald terHorst, the newspaperman who became Ford's first presidential press secretary, has written that if Ford "saw a school kid in front of the White House who needed clothing, he'd give him the shirt off of his back, literally. Then he'd go right in the White House and veto a school-lunch bill."
Ford's own beginnings were in the best Horatio Alger tradition. Born Leslie King, Jr., in Omaha, Nebraska, on 14 July 1913, he became Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr., when his divorced mother married a Grand Rapids, Michigan, paint salesman who legally adopted the boy. His athletic abilities at the University of Michigan helped him reach Yale Law School, where he finished in the top third of his class. "He's not dumb," one of his teachers, Eugene Rostow, later recalled. "He got high grades and he coached the freshman football team on the side." His athletic career continued in the navy during World War II, when, after indoctrination at Annapolis, he became director of physical training on a ship that joined the Third Fleet in the South Pacific. He saw combat during many naval engagements and almost lost his life when a typhoon struck the area on 18 December 1944, killing eight hundred men.
Along with many war veterans, the young lawyer became involved in local politics. Even before the war, his own internationalism had led him to work for the nomination of Wendell Willkie in 1940. His continuation of that position inevitably led to support for President Harry S. Truman's programs for European recovery. Nor did he have any doubts about the need to block Soviet expansionism. A conservative who liked to consider himself a centrist, he first won elective office in a 1948 primary contest by defeating a veteran Republican congressman by 23,632 to 14,341. In that overwhelmingly Republican district, he had little trouble against his Democratic opponent that November.
His ambition was to become Speaker of the House, and he seemed to rise toward that quickly, more rapidly, in fact, than Republican progress toward obtaining a congressional majority. Ideologically, he was flexible, more concerned with winning, although he did manage to wind up backing Dwight D. Eisenhower for the Republican nomination in 1952. Making friends as he went along, he also made progress on Capitol Hill, and that included a senior spot on the Appropriations Committee. He joined the "Young Turks" against the continued leadership of Congressman Charles Halleck by becoming chairman of the House Republican Conference during the Eighty-eighth Congress. His prime qualification was that he had made few enemies and was compatible with all elements in the House. That positioned him for the final assault against Halleck, the Hoosier conservative. On 4 January 1965, the Republicans caucused and chose Ford as their new minority leader by a vote of 73–67. As vice president under Nixon, he demonstrated his loyalty and began to hedge only when the Watergate defenses became shaky. His swearing-in as president was accompanied by a national feeling of relief. It was, as Ford put it, "a time to heal."