If you aren't old enough to remember Aug. 9, 1974, it's kind of hard to explain the mood the day that Gerald Ford took the oath and became the first man to serve as both vice president and president without ever being elected to either office.
But it always seemed to me that cartoonist Garry Trudeau summed it up beautifully in his "Doonesbury" comic strip the next week, using one of the notorious passages from the taped Watergate conversations (Nixon telling his staff to "stonewall it" when being questioned by investigators). Trudeau's four–panel cartoon showed a stone wall, slowly being torn down to reveal the White House, bathed in sunlight — and the infamous quotations from the conversation hovering overhead.
That was the sensation. Whether you were a Republican or a Democrat, Gerald Ford was like a breath of fresh air. When he became president, it was like someone had pulled back the curtains and streams of sunlight illuminated everything.
When Nixon left the White House, the man who had been re–elected by a massive landslide less than two years earlier departed for his exile in California with a 24% approval rating. In contrast, only a week after becoming president, Ford enjoyed a 71% approval rating as Americans eagerly embraced him. And he remained popular with most Americans for about a month — until he issued a pardon to Nixon and reopened wounds that had only begun to heal.
By midday on Aug. 9, 1974, Richard Nixon had delivered his farewell address to the White House staff, he had left the White House grounds, and Ford had been sworn in. And the nation listened to what its new president had to say.
Americans quickly saw that Ford was Everyman — "a Ford, not a Lincoln," a little bit nervous, humble. When you saw Gerald Ford on your TV, you didn't have to struggle very much to imagine yourself in his place. The press had already told people that Ford was still the kind of guy who went outside in his bedroom slippers to get the morning paper, and he often made his own breakfast or lunch. His favorite food, we were told, was cottage cheese with ketchup on it.
You could imagine the pressure he must be feeling, and you found yourself rooting for him. You saw him and his advisers and his earnest press secretary, and you didn't think about whether you agreed with him on this issue or that one. You felt that you wanted him to do well because, by God, he was one of us.
To put it in terms to which modern observers can relate, think of George W. Bush's admonition after the Sept. 11 attacks that other nations were "either with us or against us." It was the same mentality in the Nixon White House. But, at least, when Bush talked about "us," he was including all Americans by default. He had his shortcomings, but Bush tended to see enemies only outside America's borders.
Nixon, on the other hand, saw numerous enemies lurking among his own countrymen.
After the sinister years of the Nixon presidency, Gerald Ford was truly a breath of fresh air.
Then, when he pardoned Nixon, whether it was the right thing to do or not, the sensation was like when you have the wind knocked out of you. I remember the Sunday afternoon in September when he announced the pardon. You could almost hear a sharp intake of breath across the nation and the sound of millions gasping for air.
Ford never really recovered from that backlash. He lost the good will of many Democrats and independents who would have gladly voted for him in 1976 if he had allowed Nixon's case to continue, uninterrupted, through the legal system. Instead of making jokes about him and ridiculing him on "Saturday Night Live," they would have stayed on his side.
In spite of the pardon, many people claimed that, at the rate that he had been gaining ground on Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ford would have won the election if it had been held a week later. I'm not so sure about that. It was a little uncertain at the time, but, in hindsight, I get the sense that Ford had peaked. It's true that he made great gains against an opponent who held a huge lead right after the party conventions, but I think the pardon issue was too great to overcome.
The most devastating political cartoon of the 1976 presidential campaign never mentioned Ford by name. It showed Carter answering questions from reporters. One reporter asked him what was the biggest obstacle Ford faced. Carter's one–word reply was "Pardon?" The message was heard, loud and clear.
Perhaps Ford was correct when he insisted that pardoning Nixon was the only way to put Watergate behind us. Perhaps he sacrificed his hopes of winning a full term of his own when he did that.
But in August 1974, everyone was on his side.