A President with a Purpose
Leadership lessons from Gerald R. Ford
As 2007 began, and several aspirants prepared to announce their candidacies for our nation’s highest office, Americans paused to celebrate the life of Gerald R. Ford, our only chief executive never elected either president or vice president (his predecessors in both offices having resigned). His presidency was, in that sense, accidental. It was, nonetheless, purposeful and filled with leadership lessons worthy of emulation by his successors.
Ford was by all accounts a good and decent man, born without privilege, hard-working and determined, serious as a student, and gifted on the football field. He earned a law degree, served with honor in the U.S. Navy during World War II, and, in his first bid for public office, defeated an isolationist incumbent for his party’s nomination. For a quarter-century, the voters of Grand Rapids returned him as the representative from Michigan’s fifth congressional district, always with more than 60 percent of the vote. He served longer in Congress than any other U.S. president. His great ambition was to serve as Speaker of the House.
By the time I left my interview with then Vice President Ford in July 1974—I was a newly selected White House Fellow, making the rounds for my placement—I had a glimpse of his qualities. He had immediately set me at ease by inquiring about my interest in public service. He was genuinely interested in education and asked how I would compare my experiences as a student at Brigham Young, Oxford, and Harvard. He listened intently and, before our meeting ended, offered to answer any questions I might have. My first question concerned the qualities he valued most in his staff, and how he organized those around him. His answer was revealing. Like most leaders he looked for intelligence, loyalty, and trustworthiness (he was, after all, an Eagle Scout). But he added that he liked a staff filled with some youth and much energy as well as those with experience and judgment. He sought to surround himself with those who had fresh eyes and new ideas to be mentored by those with greater maturity. Though he viewed his staff very much as a team, he worried about groupthink and a circle-the-wagons mentality. I left his office encouraged, even inspired. I little knew, when I accepted his subsequent offer, that I would begin work on August 9, the day he was sworn in as our thirty-eighth president, nor that the subsequent experiences would inform my academic work decades later.
Less than three months after Ford became president, the 1974 mid-term elections dealt his party a devastating blow: the Democrats gained 49 seats in the House, while Republican candidates won barely 40 percent of the national vote. Yet two years later, after defeating Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination, Ford came from 31 percentage points behind to almost defeat Jimmy Carter, losing by less than 2 percent of the popular vote.
Now, nearly 30 years after he left office, we can assess more clearly Ford’s presidency and the legacy he left. We measure presidents in part by how they mold and shape the circumstances they inherit. With the exception of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, no president has inherited a situation as difficult as that Ford faced when he took the oath of office. The United States was mired in an unpopular war that had divided the country and produced much anger, resentment, and mistrust. For the first time, a president had resigned, in the wake of the worst political scandal in our history. National confidence and Americans’ trust in their political leaders had eroded.
Less remembered but equally threatening was a deeply troubled economy. During the three months before Richard Nixon resigned, the wholesale price index was rising at an average annual rate of 37 percent, the most explosive outburst of inflation in U.S. history. Unemployment was also increasing, prompting economists to coin a new phrase to describe the phenomenon: “stagflation.” The year before, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries had imposed an embargo on oil shipments to the United States, illuminating the danger of our rising dependence on uncertain foreign sources to meet our energy needs. Everything assumed to be nailed down seemed to be coming loose.
Unlike Lincoln and Roosevelt, who had a full four months to prepare between election in November and inauguration on March 4 the following year, Ford received only one day’s formal notice that he would become president. He had never aspired to the presidency. But he came to the office with more than his considerable experience in the ways of government. He brought three defining qualities that would characterize his stewardship: a driving purpose, a willingness to eschew political expediency, and a deep commitment to principle.
The touchstone of his years in the White House, his driving purpose, was a sustained effort to heal—to heal the divisions over Vietnam, to heal the people’s distrust of government officials, to heal the destructiveness of inflation. Ten days into office, he addressed the annual Convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and courageously announced an amnesty program for the more than 50,000 Vietnam War draft evaders. Characteristically, his program called for an “earned” amnesty that gave young Americans in whom he had so much confidence a second chance.
Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Library
Three weeks later, he stunned the nation by issuing a full and unconditional pardon to Richard Nixon for any offenses he had committed during his years in the Oval Office. Ford could foresee that without such a pardon, the indictment, prosecution, trial, probable conviction, and lengthy appeals process would consume the nation’s attention and energy for the next three to five years. He realized that his action would offend many Americans’ sense of justice. He recognized the personal political damage he would suffer. But political expediency was never his guide. Many who once opposed his decision to pardon Nixon have come to recognize its wisdom.
His stewardship of the economy involved two defining principles—fiscal responsibility and a steadfast embrace of market mechanisms as the best way to allocate resources. He declared in his first State of the Union address that he would propose no new spending programs until the federal budget was balanced. In his desire to establish fiscal discipline, he vetoed 66 bills. And despite large opposition majorities in Congress, only 12 of those vetoes were overridden. He launched a regulatory reform movement in transportation and energy that each succeeding administration embraced and enlarged, helping to transform the U.S. economy into the envy of the world. At a time when protectionist pressures were intense, he successfully pursued trade liberalization. The unifying theme of his economic policies was attention to the long-term interests of the nation and a willingness to accept short-term adjustments, however painful.
He worked with Congress to reform welfare by emphasizing incentives for individuals to work. The Earned Income Tax Credit was enacted in 1975, and later expanded in 1986, 1990, 1993, and 2001 under Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush. Today, it continues to enjoy bipartisan support as one of the most effective tools for dealing with poverty. Blueprints for Fundamental Tax Reform, developed during his administration, laid the groundwork for the Tax Reform Act of 1986, the last major bipartisan overhaul of our tax system.
Scholars of management today write much about the “tone at the top.” Like all presidents, Gerald Ford established a tone that permeated the executive branch. He was a down-to-earth American to whom his fellow countrymen could relate. His decency, openness, and integrity became the hallmarks of his administration. Having never been through the ordeal of a presidential campaign, he owed no favors and had made no commitments. This gave him great freedom in selecting his advisers and cabinet officers. He made the most of the opportunity, assembling perhaps the most distinguished and capable cabinet of any twentieth-century president. Five of his cabinet held Ph.D.s — Henry Kissinger, James Schlesinger, Earl Butz, John Dunlop, and David Matthews. Himself a graduate of the University of Michigan and Yale Law School, Ford chose Edward Levi, president of the University of Chicago, as his Attorney General. Seven who served in his cabinet were graduates or former faculty members of Harvard—Kissinger (State), Schlesinger (Defense), Elliott Richardson (Commerce), Dunlop (Labor), Caspar Weinberger (Health, Education, and Welfare), William Coleman (Transportation), and James Lynn (Office of Management and Budget).
Ford put the national interest above all else. As the economy slid into recession in December 1974, he met with a delegation of Michigan senators, representatives, automobile executives, and union leaders seeking support for a $700 federal rebate to stimulate new auto sales and jump-start the economy. He politely and firmly refused. At the urging of his vice president, former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, he met with New York state and city officials who wanted a federal bailout of New York City, which he was told was on the verge of bankruptcy. Again, using the national interest as his touchstone, he politely refused. A banner headline the next day read, “Ford to City: Drop Dead.”
His willingness to do what he considered right earned him the respect of colleagues on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue and on both sides of the political aisle. Perhaps that was because he resisted soaring rhetoric and inflated promises. He often reminded his staff that one can disagree without being disagreeable.
Viewed through the lens of history, Ford succeeded remarkably in two and a half years. His actions helped heal the wounds from Vietnam. He restored through his unquestioned character Americans’ confidence in the integrity and decency of their political leaders. By the time he left office, inflation had fallen to low single digits, unemployment was declining, and real growth was expanding. The free-market principles he espoused and practiced set a pattern for economic policy that succeeding administrations have largely followed for nearly three decades.
His warmth and integrity left him with many friends—and few, if any, enemies. What is less well appreciated is his skillful conduct of the presidency during some of our most difficult hours. Gerald Ford renewed American confidence and restored a much-needed sense of trust in government and its leaders. He built a solid foundation for the future while healing a troubled nation. His principled leadership deserves Americans’ admiration as well as their respect.
Roger B. Porter, Ph.D. ’78, IBM professor of business and government in the Kennedy School of Government and master of Dunster House, teaches (among other courses) “The American Presidency.” He served as special assistant to President Ford from 1974 to 1977.