None of this had accomplished what Ford needed most: the legitimization of a congressional presidency. In November 1975, he repeated his determination to win a term on his own, even at the price of competing in every primary. He would, he vowed, "go right down to the wire in the convention in Kansas City and win there."
It is quite true, as Tom Braden pointed out, that when "the nation's end men begin to treat a serious politician as a joke, he is through." Precisely that happened to Ford. It started during his trip to Austria in the spring of 1975, when he slipped on a rain-slickened ramp while getting off his plane in Salzburg and fell on the stairs. That the incident happened in full view of reporters and cameramen meant that it was in full view of the world. "The image of klutz would never fade away after that," lamented Ron Nessen. Every time he stumbled, bumped his head, fell to the snow while on his skis, the image was compounded. Ford became famous for his gaffes, whether real or exaggerated.
The national perception was that the president could not be taken seriously. At the start of 1976, as Ronald Reagan announced his own candidacy, several columnists wrote that the first appointed president had become "a joke" and "a caretaker." John Osborne added that Ford was widely viewed as "a loser, a bumbler, a misfit President who for some reason or other . . . was prone to slip on airplane ramps, bump his head on helicopter entrances, entangle himself in the leashes of his family dogs, and fall from skis in front of television cameras that showed him asprawl in snow." The inevitable suspicion linked his difficulties to alcohol. The New York Times even speculated editorially that his abdication from competition for the 1976 nomination was not a farfetched possibility. "He fills the mind with the sense of how ordinary he is and how vulnerable," wrote Murray Kempton in Harper's . Ford's own poll-ster, Robert Teeter, found that when asked what the president had done that was particularly impressive, 61 percent replied, "Nothing," which is exactly what 41 percent said when asked what he had done that they did not like. Advised Teeter, "There is no clear perception of his presidency, of his goals, of where he is going." Neither was there "a clear public perception" that anyone was in control of the government.
All this was made to order for a challenge from the Republican right. Not only were the polls confirming Ford's plight, but private surveys were also showing strong support for Reagan. In a single month, the Californian advanced from twenty-three points behind Ford to an eight-point lead in the popularity polls. The very threat of Reagan had sensitized the administration against doing anything that might seem too liberal.
That Reagan would actually oppose the incumbent came as somewhat of a shock to the Ford camp. Even before he appreciated that he would be facing the challenge, Ford disliked the governor intensely. He thought the former movie actor was an opportunist who was milking his position for everything he could get. But he must have disliked the governor's potential power most of all. Fearing that Reagan might actually be nominated, Ford contemplated opposing him by running as an independent. More and more, Reagan was the choice of conservatives. During the California primary, Ford countered Reagan with commercials that warned, "Governor Reagan couldn't start a war. President Reagan could."
The long, hard-fought series of primaries failed to assure either man of the nomination. When Republicans arrived in Kansas City that August, the uncommitted delegates held the balance of power. Ford had begun with a satisfying "first" for his career, winning an election outside his Michigan district by topping Reagan in New Hampshire's kick-off primary. Then, in the northern and border states, he continued to do well, hoping to force his rival to concede the impossibility of removing the incumbent. But Reagan recovered in his own heartland, scoring impressive victories in the South and Southwest, winning especially big in his home state early in June.
Still, Ford had reasons for cautious optimism. His incumbency was a source of strength, balancing the weakness of his record. Another boost had been supplied by Reagan himself. Just as Ford's presidential politics and campaigning were obviously pitched toward the party's conservatives, his competitor's strength reached out toward the liberals with a pre-convention announcement of his intended running mate. The blow stunned conservatives who had regarded their man as a "true believer." Reagan's heretical choice for the vice presidency was Senator Richard S. Schweiker, a Pennsylvania Republican with a liberal voting record. A perceptible drift toward Ford from the GOP right then followed, a development that may have contributed significantly to the outcome.
In the battle between rival conservative factions, the purists behind Reagan managed to dominate the proceedings ideologically. The party platform, traditionally a statement of unifying principles, was clearly painted in Reaganite colors. Ford received only tempered praise and was hardly mentioned by name. The platform expressed reservations about détente and warned that agreements such as those signed at Helsinki "must not take from those who do not have the freedom, the hope of one day gaining it." There was only a vague reference to Watergate, and no direct acknowledgment of the existence of either Nixon or Kissinger. After Ford managed to win the nomination by receiving only 57 more votes than the necessary minimum of 1,130, he asked the convention to designate Senator Robert Dole of Kansas as his running mate. There was not much doubt that Dole's prime qualification was his acceptability to Reagan, but there was also fear that anybody to the left of the Kansan could spark a revolt leading to a draft of Reagan himself to complete the ticket. Osborne was correct in pointing out that substantial hostility to Ford's choice of a vice presidential candidate "would have demolished the flimsy triumph of his own nomination with a nigh unbearable humiliation."
The Democrats had already nominated Jimmy Carter, a former governor of Georgia, and Walter Mondale, a Minnesota, Hubert H. Humphrey-style liberal. Ford hardly ventured beyond the White House for much of the early part of the campaign, accentuating the fact that he was the president. The emphasis was on his role as a post-Watergate healer, reducer of inflation, and opponent of improvident Democrats. Still, without having to spell them out, Carter capitalized on the Nixon pardon and Republican responsibility for Watergate and for the 7.9 percent rate of inflation, the highest since the Great Depression. The campaign itself was dull: the Democrats had chosen their most conservative candidate since the 1920s, a man newly risen from obscurity, and the Republicans, a "nice guy who just couldn't be taken seriously."
Not even three Ford-Carter televised debates did much to relieve the boredom. The highlight was a Ford gaffe about Russian domination of Eastern Europe. In responding to a question from Max Frankel about the Helsinki agreement's seeming recognition of the Soviets' postwar boundaries, Ford said, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration." As though matters were not bad enough, his attempted clarification included the statement that "I don't believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. As a matter of fact, I visited Poland, Yugoslavia, and Rumania to make certain that the people of the United States are dedicated to their independence, their autonomy, and their freedom."
Every time Ford tried to clarify himself, he compounded the blunder. In his mind, it was all very clear: the United States did not accept Russian domination of Eastern Europe. Actually, the president thought it was all sound because Kissinger had briefed him about Helsinki. Even the Vatican secretary of state had signed the agreement because Russian control in the area was already a fact of life. But, as Ford later admitted to Jules Witcover, "it certainly came out the wrong way." William F. Buckley, Jr., called it "the ultimate Polish joke."
Ford was crushed by his inability to legitimize his presidency. He held out hope until the end, and he came very close. Of more than 81 million votes cast, Carter's plurality was 1.7 million. By virtually resurrecting the Solid South (except for Virginia and Oklahoma) and reaching into such northern industrial states as Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania, Carter won 297 electoral votes to Ford's 240. One vote was cast for Reagan. Inflation, unemployment, the Nixon pardon, and Watergate all swayed voters. Blacks voted heavily for Carter, giving the Democrat 94 percent of their vote, and he also won over the bulk of those primarily troubled by unemployment. Meanwhile, two segments of the old Democratic coalition, Jews and Catholics, turned out more heavily for Ford than they had for Nixon. Most telling was the finding that Ford, after his long congressional career and two years in the White House, was considered "experienced" by just 5 percent of the voters questioned. Furthermore, in the first presidential election since Watergate, the Democratic congressional victory was overwhelming.
Having risen to the White House under almost bizarre circumstances, Ford remained a congressional president, one who was designated to fill the void as provided by the Twenty-fifth Amendment. His experience offered little comfort for the prospects of future success under that mode of succession. Neither he nor his vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, the other Twenty-fifth Amendment appointee, was ever able to achieve the legitimacy of elective success. Ford was further burdened by being perceived as merely an extension of the Nixon administration, an impression virtually confirmed by the pardon. Nor did he escape the notion that he was merely the pawn of Henry Kissinger, imprisoned by times that were better left behind.