When it comes to American presidents, Gerald Ford—the 38th President of the United States, and the only one who was never elected to the office—generally doesn’t get much historical acclaim. He occupied the Oval Office for only two-and-a-half years, from August 1974 to January 1977, and in many ways, perhaps, his brief tenure was overshadowed by the even more dramatic events that preceded it, such as the Vietnam War and Watergate, and by the events that followed, such as the Iranian hostage crisis and the rise of Ronald Reagan. In a 2015 poll, an assortment of Presidential scholars ranked Ford just 24th on their list of the greatest U.S. presidents, behind even the relatively obscure figures such as James K. Polk and Grover Cleveland. Despite all that, Ford made many accomplishments for which he deserves credit. Here are a few.
- He started the healing of the social rift left by the Vietnam War. In September 1974, the Ford Administration announced a clemency program, in which draft evaders and military deserters could avoid imprisonment and return to the U.S., as long as they affirmed their allegiance and spent two years working in a public service job. “Reconciliation calls for an act of mercy to bind the nation’s wounds and to heal the scars of divisiveness,” Ford explained at the time.
- He fought pirates. After a U.S. merchant ship, the Maraguez, and its crew of nearly 40 Americans were seized by Cambodia’s communist Khmer Rouge, Ford made the tough decision to send the U.S. military on a rescue mission. Though the force suffered heavy casualties, both the ship and its crew eventually were returned to the U.S.
- He had the guts to appear at a Congressional hearing. Ford was the first president since Woodrow Wilson in 1919 to testify to Congress, and he put himself in the hot seat voluntarily. In October 1974, he appeared before a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee to defend his unpopular and heavily criticized pardon of predecessor Richard Nixon. Ford insisted that the pardon hadn’t been prearranged.
- He was our first comedian president. During Ford’s time in office, he frequently was the subject of mockery, due to mishaps such as a stumble down the steps of Air Force One during an official visit to Austria. It only got worse with the debut of a popular new TV show, Saturday Night Live, in which comedian Chevy Chase portrayed him as a habitual bumbler. In an effort to improve his image, Ford bravely invited Chase to perform at a White House dinner, and himself got off a memorable one-liner, mimicking Chase by saying, “I’m Gerald Ford, and you’re not.” Ford went on to allow his press secretary, Ron Nessen, to host an SNL episode, and even gave the “Live from New York” introduction from the Oval Office.
- He survived two assassination attempts. During a visit to the state Capitol in Sacramento, California in 1975, Charles Manson follower Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme tried to kill Ford, but was wrestled to the ground by a Secret Service agent before she could get off a shot. He had another close call three weeks later, when a deranged political extremist and sometime FBI informant named Sara Jane Moore actually fired two bullets at the President outside the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. The first shot narrowly missed him, and the second went awry when a bystander grabbed her arm, giving a police officer a chance to disarm her.
- He almost made one of the biggest comebacks in Presidential election history. Ford trailed Jimmy Carter by as much as 33 percentage points in the Gallup Poll during the 1976 Presidential campaign, making it look as if a blowout election was in store. But instead, Ford managed to close the gap, and actually led in the final Gallup tally with 49% to Carter’s 48%, before losing narrowly 47% to 50% in the actual popular vote in November 1976.
Covering the life of Gerald Ford from boyhood through his presidency, Gerald R. Ford: A Test of Character premieres Friday, May 27, at 9/8c on National Geographic.