Gerald Ford was a classic average president. He did nothing to write home about, but nothing especially bad either. Some say that because he served only two and a half years, he was unable to leave much of a mark, but Warren Harding served the same length of time and ended up (in my judgment) the second best president of all time. Ford was just kind of there. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. When presidents “leave their mark” in a major way, it’s more often for the worse than the better. Of the eight presidents who served during my lifetime (from Nixon to Obama, not counting Trump), Ford ranks below only Carter and Clinton. I could live with an executive like Ford if I had to.
1. Peace (Foreign Policy)
Gerald Ford wisely continued Nixon’s policies of detente with the Soviet Union and China. He signed the Helsinki Accords, which finally accepted the post-World War II borders in Europe, and which also called for the respect of human rights and basic freedoms. The agreement was signed by the U.S., Canada, the Soviets, and all European countries (except Albania), though it was non-binding.
Unwisely, Ford asked Congress to fund emergency aid to South Vietnam when the North invaded. This was in December 1974, almost two years after the end of American involvement in Vietnam. Thankfully Ford’s proposal was voted down by a wide margin, and America didn’t get re-entangled in a lost cause. Ford then got on board with something better: when Saigon fell in April of 1975, and the South went communist, 130,000 Vietnamese refugees fled communist oppression. Ford agreed to resettle these refugees in the U.S.
Only two weeks after the fall of Saigon, in May of 1975, the communist government (the Khmer Rouge) in Cambodia seized the American merchant ship SS Mayaguez in international waters. Ford declared it an act of piracy and approved a military strike to rescue the hostages. You could argue this was the right thing, but the result was the deaths of more American lives than would have been the case if he had just used diplomacy to get the captives released. What happened was that the marines recaptured the ship and attacked the island of Koh Tang where they thought the hostages were being held. In the course of that military assault, 41 U.S. soldiers were killed, as the hostages were already being released elsewhere. This doesn’t count as a serious strike against Ford, but he should have delayed the operation and tried diplomacy first, because it’s likely the captives would have been released anyway. Basically, Ford fell into the trap of wanting to make a public show that the U.S. couldn’t be pushed around, instead of proving that as a last resort.
In other places: Ford commendably removed U.S. support from the racist governments of South Africa and Rhodesia. Not so commendably, he approved the invasion of East Timor by president and military leader of Indonesia, Suharto in 1975. Suharto killed one third of the local population (200,000) and annexed the territory.
2. Prosperity (Domestic Policy)
Ford inherited the stagflation left by the combined sins of Johnson and Nixon. Stagflation was inflation, recession, and unemployment all the same time. The inflation had been originally caused by Johnson’s Vietnam and Great Society fiascos. Then, trying to slow down inflation, Johnson raised taxes, which sent the economy into recession without curing inflation. Nixon inflamed the problem of inflation with loose money policies under the Federal Reserve.
Ford exacerbated the situation in one way while helping it in others. He raised taxes (a 5% surtax on incomes) and asked consumers to buy less. His WIN program (Whip Inflation Now) was ridiculed by many, though consumers did reduce their consumption which cut inflation down from 12.3 % (1974) to 7.8% (1975). But unemployment skyrocketed up to 8%.
Ford then reversed himself to try reversing the recession, proposing immediate tax cuts only three months after his tax hikes. Commendably, he also called for spending cuts, which are necessary for tax cuts to be meaningful. He would be the last Republican president to grasp this idea. He used his veto power with a vengeance — for a record breaking 66 times in 18 months — to reject excess spending in health, education, and social services. This spending restraint helped the economy somewhat, but not nearly enough; the sins of Johnson and Nixon were too much to overcome this way.
To his credit, Ford reversed Nixon’s loose money policy and left the Federal Reserve alone to its more naturally tight policies. By the time of the election in 1976, inflation had dropped to 4.9% (a mighty impressive drop from the 12.3% when he took office two years before). On the other hand, unemployment was still way up at 8%. What Ford should have done was intervene in the Fed to make its money policies even more tight. Alas, that would have to wait for Jimmy Carter.
Ford is to be commended on another front: for ending the government requirement that farmers set aside land for the purpose of not being planted (so as to artificially raise prices above market level by lowering the supply). By putting an end to this bad law, world food prices lowered with the increase of supply.
Ford’s worst action was to pardon Richard Nixon. He justified the pardon by saying that he wanted to spare the American people the trauma of a long trial, which he thought would do more harm than good. It was an absurdly feeble rationale, and it was no surprise that he got slammed with an avalanche of disapproval that cost him the election. Everyone was so outraged that Nixon would go free while his underlings went to prison. So then Ford — as if trying to make himself look as ridiculous as possible — decided that he would try pardoning everyone involved in the Watergate scandal. The Senate stopped him in his tracks.
Astonishingly, in recent decades, Ford’s pardon of Nixon has been taken as a good thing by historians and analysts. In 2001, the John F Kennedy Library Foundation went so far as to award Gerald Ford the Profile in Courage Award for his pardoning of Nixon. This is perverse. The rule of law is the core of the American system, and the president is not above the law. Ford was saying that the rule of law should take a back seat for the good of American morale.
Other than this, Ford’s liberty record is okay. In fact, shortly after pardoning Nixon, he introduced an amnesty program for military deserters and draft dodgers during the Vietnam War. To get amnesty, the draft dodgers had to perform public service jobs for two years. Ford should have pardoned them unconditionally — especially since he was willing to unconditionally pardon Nixon and everyone involved in Watergate! — but this was nonetheless a good thing for Ford to do. The Vietnam War was immoral, unnecessary, and disastrous, and citizens were right to protest it.
Ford was the only president who was never elected at all, either as president or vice-president. (Nixon had appointed him as vice-president to take over for Spiro Agnew who resigned over a tax-evasion scandal.) Most vice-presidents who were thrust unexpectedly into the presidency ended up doing a very good job — John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Chester Arthur, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman. (The two Johnsons, Andrew and Lyndon, were the dire exceptions.) Ford wasn’t as good as those five, but he wasn’t bad either. Here’s how I score him:
Peace. For asking Congress to get re-involved with Vietnam after a full decade of that disaster, I dock him 3 points. (Had his attempt succeeded, I would dock him tons more.) For the deaths of more Americans than would have been the case if he had used diplomacy to free the captives taken by Cambodians, I dock him one point. And for his tacit thumbs up to Suharto, another point. Otherwise Ford’s peace record is commendable.
Prosperity. Inflation went down during Ford’s term, but it only went down because of the recession/unemployment he helped somewhat to exacerbate. On the plus side, he proposed spending cuts along with his tax cuts, and left the Federal Reserve alone to its natural policies, which was a vast improvement on Nixon, though not enough: he should have had the money supply much more tightly restricted. Ford was not to blame for the stagflation he inherited from his two predecessors, but his solutions were holding measures at best. I score him 12 points.
Liberty. For his unacceptable pardon of Nixon, and the even more galling attempt to pardon everyone involved in Watergate, I dock him a total of 7 points. Otherwise, Ford’s liberty record is fine.
Peace — 15/20
Prosperity — 12/20
Liberty — 13/20
TOTAL SCORE = 40/60 = Average