Gerald R. Ford - The first month



For a while, the new president managed to convince Americans that he could salvage what was best from the past. Ford liked to boast that he had many rivals but no enemies, and this was the most telling mark of his strength. Not only would he keep intact the domestic and foreign policy staffs of the preceding administration—including, of course, Henry Kiss-inger—but Alexander Haig, who had virtually run the government during Nixon's final days, would remain for the duration as chief of the White House staff. At the same time, the contrast between Ford and his predecessor was emphasized by the creation of a "good old Jerry" image. And Betty Ford, unlike the more reticent Pat Nixon, quickly began to receive a major share of media attention. She became known as an independent, urbane, and sophisticated personality, an image that caught the public's fancy. Indeed, that August was characterized by a collective sense of relief: the American people were eager to admire the human qualities of their first unelected chief executive.

Just about the only discord came from the Republican party's right wing. First, there was Ford's disclosure on 19 August 1974, at a Chicago convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, that he would institute a conditional amnesty program for young men who had been draft evaders or military deserters during the Vietnam War. He followed that announcement the next day by nominating Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York as the second man to fill the vice presidency under the provisions of the Twenty-fifth Amendment. The New Yorker had long been anathema to the party's conservatives. Many disliked him as the prime symbol of the wealthy "eastern establishment." Although his policies as governor had shifted to the right in recent years, he was still associated with liberal attitudes on such issues as social services and civil rights. A nightmarish prospect was the specter of Ford stepping down after 1976 to make way for "Rocky." His presence accelerated the rebellion from what Kevin Phillips called the "new right." Ford quickly attempted to allay such horrors by saying he would probably seek the nomination for himself. As one who could hardly avoid conflict-of-interest involvement, the multimillionaire New Yorker was subjected to lengthy and intense scrutiny instead of a pro forma proceeding. Not until December was Rockefeller confirmed.

Ford was making the most of his presidential honeymoon. By late August, a Gallup poll commissioned by the New York Times showed that 71 percent of the American people approved of his performance. Perhaps even more significant was the fact that only 3 percent had unfavorable impressions. The ratings were significant not only for Ford but for the Republican party as well. The midterm elections were hardly more than two months away. How badly would the voters punish GOP candidates for Watergate? Although not yet perceived, there were already hints of what was to come.





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