The executives at Harper & Row, Publishers were smart back in 1979 when they chose a black-and-white photograph of a relaxed Gerald Ford to adorn the cover of his memoir, A Time to Heal. Surrounding Ford were wisps of smoke from his trademark pipe, creating an ethereal aura around him. You could almost hear him go puff-puff-puff between sentences. The profile of his wide forehead and prominent jaw exuded vigor while his broad shoulders reminded everybody of his football years at the University of Michigan. The photograph, in fact, conveyed an inner steadiness of purpose, his low-key demeanor offering up an oddly calming sensation for an all-powerful commander in chief. But that, in a nutshell, was the genius of Ford. His decency was palpable. Following the traumas of the Vietnam War and Watergate, he was a tonic to the consciousness of his times, a Middle American at ease with himself and the enduring values of our Constitution. “Nobody really knows that my real birthname wasn’t Ford,” the thirty-eighth president recalled. “People think of me as a brand name for even-keeledness. But I had plenty of adversity growing up. I just chose to accentuate the positive.”1
When Gerald Ford came into the world on July 14, 1913, in an ornate Victorian house on Woolworth Avenue in Omaha, Nebraska, he was named Leslie Lynch King Jr.2 His mother, the former Dorothy Ayer Gardner, had been a nineteen-year-old college student when she met and soon married the well-to-do Leslie King Sr. the previous year. Her infatuation faded fast: she later charged that King punched her at the least provocation. When he flew into another violent rage two weeks after she bore their son, brandishing a knife and threatening to kill both her and the baby, Dorothy packed up her belongings and her son and fled Omaha in the cold glare of an afternoon. That she did so in an era of mores that favored spousal battery over divorce bespeaks the steel in the stock behind Jerry Ford.
Baby in tow, Dorothy moved back to her parents’ house in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Comfortably prosperous thanks to its well-regarded furniture manufacturing industry, the state’s second-largest city was “one of those exceedingly agreeable, homelike American cities,” with rows of neat houses tucked amid rolling hills of surrounding farmland.3 But Grand Rapids was also decidedly unsophisticated, lacking large-scale municipal projects or much in the way of cultural activity. Relatively recent Dutch immigrants accounted for about half the local population; another quarter claimed Polish descent. The area’s progress was fueled largely by these newcomers eager to work hard for a share in the American dream.
Among the city’s residents was a descendant of early English settlers with a locally renowned surname. However, twenty-five-year-old Gerald Rudolf Ford was not related to the pioneering automaker Henry Ford, Michigan’s leading citizen. Ford was a paint salesman with little money and less education, having dropped out of the tenth grade, but he boasted all the bedrock virtues, including honesty, charity, and a deep-seated work ethic. Dorothy Gardner King recognized his merits immediately upon meeting him at an Episcopalian church social. Ford returned her interest. He was not put off by her status as a young divorce;e with a son. The couple married on February 1, 1917, and settled into a loving home.
Ford, however, never took out adoption papers for his stepson. Dorothy thought adoption would lessen her chances to procure child support from King. The couple did informally rename the child Gerald Rudolf Ford Jr. (His name would be legally changed on December 3, 1935, with the son choosing to spell his middle name “Rudolph” to give it a less Germanic cast.)4 The elder Fords told their son he had a different biological father when he was twelve or thirteen. But when Leslie L. King Sr. approached Jerry at Bill Skougis’s hamburger joint, located across from the high school, where the teen worked part-time after school, and told him he was his real father, Jerry was stunned.5 Although Jerry accepted King’s invitation to lunch, the encounter left him bitter at his birth father’s long absence and resentful of his apparent wealth. King, whose own father’s holdings included several businesses, land, and railroad stock, let out that he had come to Michigan from Wyoming to pick up a new Lincoln, detouring from Detroit to Grand Rapids on a whim to look up his abandoned son.6
The revelation of his true paternity made little impact, however, on the boy’s relationship with Gerald R. Ford Sr. Even at seventeen, the strapping youth had the good sense to recognize the firm but kind man who had raised him as his “real” dad. He admired the way his adoptive father plodded tirelessly through every detail of his business, always forgoing the quick buck in favor of steady progress toward measured financial success. He and Dorothy also devoted considerable time and effort to charitable undertakings. Among many such endeavors, the couple helped establish a community center in one of the city’s racially mixed, most disadvantaged neighborhoods.
Western Michigan was a resource-rich area, and young Jerry Ford grew up seeing pine logs floating down the Grand River and wooden furniture being loaded onto trains. When Grand Rapids celebrated its centennial in 1926 the city had plenty to be proud of—a first-rate public school system, a bustling railroad depot, regular air service to Detroit, four huge movie theaters, hundreds of grocery stores, five golf courses, a low tax rate, a church on practically every city block, and a ranking as the number-one tree city in America. Virtually every lawn was manicured, and homes displayed the Stars and Stripes year-round. Visitors came to Grand Rapids for conventions and reunions, often filling all eight thousand hotel rooms to capacity.7
By the late 1920s, the Ford household included four sons. Jerry and his half brothers divided their time among schoolwork, chores, and family fun. Because Michigan was blessed with blue lakes and pristine forests, many hours were spent outdoors. Early in the autumn of 1929 Gerald Ford Sr. founded the Ford Paint & Varnish Company with a partner and moved his brood into a big new house on Lake Drive in prosperous East Grand Rapids. The stock-market crash that October decimated his new venture and drained his family’s carefully kept savings. The Fords left their fine new house for cheaper quarters. A Dreiserian grimness now entered the Ford household as they struggled to avoid debt. But during the Great Depression no one in the Ford family ever went to bed hungry—a tribute to the probity of Dorothy and Gerald Ford Sr. and their sons.
In the first half of the twentieth century, Michigan was largely a Republican state. In Grand Rapids, most folks seemed to accept that they had been born into the GOP fold, and just stayed there. Long before Gerald Ford Jr. was old enough to understand the positions or even recognize the leaders of America’s two main political parties, he considered himself a diehard Republican. When Ford was growing up, Michigan’s leading political lights were its two U.S. senators, James Couzens and Arthur H. Vandenberg (from Grand Rapids)—both Republicans, naturally. Couzens, who had made a spectacular fortune as a founding partner in the Ford Motor Company, was irascible and politically independent. The consequences of Couzens’s deviation from the party by supporting Roosevelt’s New Deal programs were avidly discussed in the Ford household, along with many other civic matters that held lasting lessons for young Jerry.
In high school Jerry Ford was a good, but not too good, student; well-liked by his peers, Ford couldn’t turn his charm on—or off. The sturdy, blond youth’s agreeability arose from his instinct to offer, in George Bernard Shaw’s phrase, “the same manner to all human souls.” He was an uncomplicated teenager: a straight-arrow Eagle Scout and football star more interested in cars than girls. “Everybody had more good things about them than bad things,” Ford once told a classmate. “If you accentuate the good things in dealing with a person, you can like him even though he or she had some bad qualities. If you have that attitude, you never hate anybody.”8
Many of the highs of Jerry Ford’s young life came on the football field. He excelled at center on offense and as a linebacker on defense for his South High School team. His senior year—1930—they took the state championship, and Jerry was named to both the all-city and all-state squads. Ford was big, but deceptively quick—just as he would prove later in the political arena. What Ford learned from football, moreover, would focus his career in public service. The frequent football analogies in his remarks revealed a political strategy of approaching every challenge—be it votes to be won or seats in the House of Representatives to be picked up—the way a good coach looks at the yards to be gained to get to each first down and over the goal line. Discipline, preparation, teamwork, and adherence to a game plan may be the platitudes of the locker room but Ford carried them onto the political field. In fact, he used them to turn the Republican Party around in the 1960s, when he led the GOP team in the House to a winning cohesion that would stand the test of time. “You play to win,” he told the University of Michigan football squad in 1976 while running for president, “and that’s the only way I know to move ahead, whether you are on the gridiron or whether you are in classrooms or whether you are in politics or anything else.”9
Football also opened a world of possibilities. Although his exploits on the field won invitations for Ford to visit Harvard, Northwestern, and Michigan State, it was a group of University of Michigan alumni from his hometown who secured his education with a scholarship to play for their school. The Michigan football coach, Harry Kipke, found the prize recruit a part-time cafeteria job at Ann Arbor’s University Hospital to help Ford scrimp through college in the Depression years.10 The Wolverines went undefeated and took the Big Ten championships in both 1932 and 1933, with Jerry Ford cheering his teammates on from the bench. When most of the school’s starting roster graduated, Ford finally made the first string as a senior, and was named his team’s Most Valuable Player in 1934. Unfortunately, the star-depleted Wolverines lost seven of their eight games that season.
The exception came in Michigan’s racially charged contest that year against Georgia Tech, which had announced that its team would refuse to take the field with the Wolverines’ Willis F. Ward, on the grounds that the star receiver was African-American. After Michigan’s administrators agreed to the outrageous demand, Ford nearly took himself out of the game in protest, but decided that to do so would hurt his team even more. So on game day, when “one of the Georgia Tech linemen made the mistake of taunting the Michigan squad over its missing ‘nigger’”—as Ford’s press secretary Jerald F. terHorst would write decades later—“Ford and a Michigan guard blocked the lineman so savagely a few plays later that he had to be carried from the field on a stretcher.”11 The Wolverines won, 9 to 2.
Ford’s senior-year MVP award earned him a starting slot in the annual East–West Shrine Game in San Francisco on New Year’s Day 1935, and eight months later an even more coveted spot in the College All-Star Game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. The Bears won the latter contest, 5 to 0, but Ford played well enough to elicit offers from the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions, each of which dangled two hundred dollars a game for the coming fourteen-game season.12 However, in an era when becoming a professional athlete was neither a meal ticket nor a key to later success, Jerry Ford had a solid enough academic record to turn these offers down. “It was hard to walk away from the NFL,” Ford recalled. “But my ambition was to go to law school. Sometimes I’d daydream about how my life would have turned out differently if I had said ‘yes’ to the Lions or Packers.”13
After graduating with a B average and a major in economics and political science in 1935, Ford moved east and became boxing coach and assistant football coach at Yale University while trying to get into law school there. Yale’s officials finally relented in 1938. Even as he continued to coach, Ford swiftly proved them right to have given him a shot. Professor Eugene Rostow, a former undersecretary of state who was on Yale’s law school faculty at the time, later recalled Ford as “a very solid, straightforward, decent sort of bird of moderate ability. He worked hard, did reasonably well.”14 In fact, Ford earned his LLB in 1941 with grades that put him in the top third of his class. He got his highest mark at Yale in the legal ethics course.
While at Yale, Ford fell under the spell of the America First crowd, influenced by such contemporaries as Kingman Brewster, Potter Stewart, and Sargent Shriver. Ford adopted their essentially isolationist vision; still, by all accounts he was open-minded and void of ideological certitude. It would be World War II that transformed him into an internationalist.
Ford expanded his horizons in other directions while at law school. A fairly serious relationship with an aspiring model named Phyllis Brown turned into a thousand-dollar investment in a fledgling New York agency, which led to the football star’s posing in ski togs next to his girlfriend—in seventeen photographs splashed across five pages of the March 1940 issue of Look magazine. Ford’s modeling career would end with the relationship in 1942, shortly after the couple appeared on a flag-waving Cosmopolitan cover. On another visit with his girlfriend in New York City early in 1940, Ford heard Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie speak at a rally. Willkie, a successful Wall Street financier originally from Indiana, was rumpled, rational, robust, and a political outsider aggressively averse to harsh ideologies. He immediately appealed to the innately moderate Ford. Under Willkie’s influence, Ford began to abandon his collegiate flirtation with isolationism in favor of the internationalist view, which espoused planting a firm U.S. foothold on the world stage. Ford actively aligned himself with Willkie’s good-government stance against the prevailing party-boss patronage system of the day. Ironically, on his father’s advice Ford set out on his own crusade against that system by calling on western Michigan’s GOP power broker, Frank D. McKay.
From posh offices in an eponymous building that was then the tallest in Grand Rapids, McKay ruled a political fiefdom built on real estate, banking, and insurance. He exerted an iron-fisted control over virtually every patronage job at every level of government in Michigan’s Fifth District and beyond, plus the bulk of the state’s juiciest public contracts. Although he called himself “a businessman first and a politician second,” McKay was the man to see about working for a Republican presidential candidate in Michigan. “I thought, here I was, offering myself as a volunteer, that he would welcome me gladly, especially in my own hometown,” Ford reminisced later. “Well, he made me wait outside his office for four hours and, boy, was I mad. Finally he saw me, gave me three minutes, and good-bye. Nothing.”15
Ford took McKay’s rude reception personally, as political novices will. The unusual upshot would come later, when Ford would turn his wounded dignity toward a righteous quest to oust the egotist who had dared to brush him off. Late that July, however, Ford just watched and learned from the doings at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. Willkie’s chance at the nomination seemed to be fading as the delegate count stayed stalled after a sixth ballot. The continuing deadlock looked likely to hand the contest to Senator Robert Taft of Ohio. At that moment McKay offered to throw his support to Willkie—just when the reformist candidate needed it too desperately to turn him down. Willkie had no choice but to agree that, should he win, McKay could have undisputed sway over every patronage job in Michigan—not just the Fifth District. The price was high, but Wendell Willkie, the establishment outsider who had made a career of denouncing political bossism, shook the hand of Frank McKay and wrapped up the GOP presidential nomination on the next ballot.
The lessons Jerry Ford learned about politics that summer left an acrid aftertaste in his throat. He grew determined to topple the McKay machine. After passing the state bar exam and setting up a law partnership in Grand Rapids with Philip Buchen, a fraternity brother from the University of Michigan, Ford began meeting with other Republicans avid to overturn the status quo in western Michigan politics. The odds of a handful of amateurs dismantling such a tightly tuned machine grew even longer once the United States entered World War II. So many of the younger reformers in Ford’s loose-knit alliance signed up for the service after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, that the few left behind dubbed themselves the “Home Front” against McKay and all he stood for.
Ford was among those who deferred their political battles to take on the Axis powers. He joined the U.S. Naval Reserve on April 20, 1942, received his commission as an ensign and indoctrination at Annapolis, then reported as ordered to a navy preflight physical training unit headed by onetime heavyweight boxing champion Gene Tunney. Comfortably based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the new so-called physical-fitness specialist impressed the importance of conditioning upon the recruits. Some young officers in the same cushy position might have counted their lucky stars and kept quiet, but Jerry Ford wanted to see action. Yearning for sea duty, he was finally transferred to Norfolk, Virginia, for gunnery training and then ordered to report to the just-commissioned light aircraft carrier USS Monterey. The strange-looking carrier had a 622-foot flight deck ensconced on top of a cruiser hull surrounded by forty antiaircraft deck guns.
Lieutenant Ford’s primary duties were to oversee the antiaircraft gun crew on the fantail deck and to serve as the ship’s director of physical training. The enlisted men loved him for constructing a basketball court on the hangar deck. But he also took intense interest in his later secondary role as assistant navigation officer. In October 1943 the Monterey headed out from San Diego to join Admiral William “Bull” Halsey’s Third Fleet for some of World War II’s most storied South Pacific naval operations. On November 19, planes from the Monterey bombed Japanese troops at Gilbert Island for nearly a month. The combat moments wouldn’t cease. The Monterey, in fact, sank a Japanese cruiser and destroyer, with Ford directing the ship’s forty-millimeter guns.
Worse than the Japanese, however, was the hellacious weather the crew encountered. When Typhoon Cobra hit the fleet off the Philippines in December 1944, more than eight hundred sailors were lost, including six from the Monterey; Lieutenant Ford narrowly escaped being washed overboard in the sixty-knot winds. Slipping a gas mask over his face, Ford worked tirelessly with his bucket brigade to extinguish numerous fires.16 The ship itself sustained extensive damage and was put in dry dock for repairs. “Battered and spent,” the navy declared as it mothballed the Monterey, “unfit for service.”17
Ford spent the rest of the war on land, but his service record (ten battle stars) proved solid enough to earn him a promotion to the reserve rank of lieutenant commander before he was discharged from active duty in February 1946.
While in the Pacific theater, Ford had devoted some of his spare time tracking the progress of the Home Front back in Grand Rapids. In 1944, Buchen—kept out of the war by a polio-related disability—reported that the group’s leaders believed they had a shot at wresting control of the Kent County Republican Party from the McKay machine. To make their bid stick, they needed a popular, respected, squeaky-clean pillar of the community to put forward for county chairman. In his son’s absence, Gerald R. Ford Sr. leaped to mind on all counts; he not only supported the Home Front efforts but also was head of the county’s Office of Civil Defense. But the elder Ford rejected the offer.
The following Sunday, W. B. VerMeulen, the septuagenarian dentist who had formed Grand Rapids’s Home Front out of loathing for everything Frank McKay represented, got a call from Gerald Ford Sr. “He said he had just come home from church and there was a special delivery letter from Jerry in the Pacific,” VerMeulen recounted. Ford read parts of his son’s letter aloud over the phone. “Dad,” Jerry wrote, “if the Home Front ever asks you to do something, don’t turn them down. I’m going to get into this thing when I get back from service and I’ll take your place. So don’t turn them down.” Then Ford told VerMeulen that he would stand for GOP county chairman.18
The Home Fronters’ successful installation of Gerald Ford Sr. as Kent County’s Republican chairman barely put a dent in McKay’s machine, although the boss’s clout in the statehouse had already been softening under a spate of grand jury indictments for various forms of corruption. And McKay still had a mouthpiece in Washington: Congressman Bartel J. Jonkman. Like Senator Vandenberg and young Jerry Ford, Jonkman had started out as an isolationist firmly opposed to any U.S. involvement in foreign affairs, but unlike them had stayed so minded despite global events. Jonkman backed the war effort, of course, but he also advocated the immediate withdrawal of American troops—and, more to the point, American dollars—from faraway endeavors as soon as the fighting ended. Jonkman voted against the Marshall Plan and other recovery programs, while Senator Vandenberg sided with the internationalist position of the Truman administration.
Far from a populist, Bartel Jonkman spent most of his time in Washington toiling away at legislative and political matters while virtually ignoring his constituents back home. He seemed to consider his seat safe, relying on the backing of the McKay machine and the boost of Dutch ethnic pride. But the Home Front had other ideas in 1948. The group had an ex–University of Michigan center to push them through McKay’s line.
Upon his return to Grand Rapids, Jerry Ford had rejoined his former law partner Philip Buchen at a larger, well-regarded local firm. When not practicing law or working on his golf game at the Kent Country Club, Ford began to attract some notice for his work as a veterans’ advocate. He formed a vigorous association devoted to developing nice, affordable housing fast enough to accommodate all the returning servicemen struggling to rebuild civilian lives back home. Bolstered by the contempt his colleagues and the Home Front expressed for their congressman, Ford found himself drawn into action by Jonkman’s aggressive isolationism, a position his own wartime experiences had convinced him was wrong. So, on June 17, 1948, Ford announced his candidacy in the Fifth District’s Republican primary. Positioned as a dark horse, Ford attacked the campaign with everything he had. He assembled a highly motivated team of fellow Home Fronters around him, firmed up his positions, and worked up new game plans for promoting himself. In his own nice, approachable, effective way, Gerald Ford made friends, including some in powerful places, one by one on his way toward his goal.
Few observers gave the neophyte Ford much of a shot against McKay’s venerable political machine. The most notable vote of confidence in the challenger came from Senator Vandenberg, who met Ford in private to proffer his hearty encouragement. Ford’s conversion to the internationalist view fell right in line with the popular senator’s—and Ford was bright enough to recognize that the reason for Vandenberg’s popularity was the senator’s astute grasp of what Michigan’s voters wanted. Vandenberg couldn’t endorse Ford, or even encourage him in public, he explained; seeing how Ford couldn’t possibly win the primary, the senator would still have to live with Jonkman after the general election. (The state’s Democrats were so weak that a primary victory for a Republican was virtually the same as election.) Yet even Vandenberg’s whispered support would have a quiet bearing on the Fifth District race. And the senator could see that the young man’s tireless campaigning would have some impact on Grand Rapids’s voters.
For Jerry Ford was not only young but acted like it. He appeared anywhere and everywhere to shake hands and seduce votes. Jonkman, by contrast, made only cursory campaign visits to his home district. While few prospective voters might have called Jerry Ford charismatic, most readily acknowledged that at least he didn’t seem phony. In truth, Ford had developed a stump style he found comfortable. He combined his athlete’s backslapping bonhomie with simple, nice-guy good manners. He spoke pretty well but, more important, he listened brilliantly, offering his full attention to any voter who took the time to address him.
The conventional wisdom took a pounding in Michigan’s Fifth District that September. Ford not only won the Republican primary, he whipped Bartel Jonkman by 23,632 votes to 14,341.19 Thus began a political career that would suffer only a single defeat through the next thirty years. Not once in his thirteen congressional elections did Ford take less than 60 percent of the vote, and after 1948 he never faced another primary opponent.
Ford’s personal life took off in 1948 as well. On October 15, two and a half weeks before the general election that was sure to put him in the United States Congress, Gerald R. Ford Jr. married Elizabeth Ann Bloomer Warren, a vivacious young divorce;e who worked as a fashion coordinator at a large Grand Rapids department store. Like her new husband, Betty Ford had spent a few years under the bright lights of New York City, doing some modeling as well as a two-year stint dancing with the renowned Martha Graham Dance Company. Worldly, bright, and fun, the new Mrs. Ford was also astute, candid, and graced with a sly sense of humor. By 1957 the couple would have four children: Michael, John, Steven, and Susan. “Betty just lit me up,” Ford later said. “She touched me in a way no other woman ever could. She made me laugh and also feel protective of her.”20
On the political front, his assiduous constituent service, knack for campaigning, and moderate record on the day’s issues practically guaranteed Jerry Ford a long career in Congress. Complacency, however, was not in his character. Deceptively ambitious, from the very first Ford sought to grasp the priorities, proclivities, and pitfalls of the U.S. House of Representatives. He devised a game plan, and in his doggedly determined way he would punch it through, vote by vote, toward his goal of changing Congress as well as his party’s place within it.
Copyright © 2007 by Douglas Brinkley. All rights reserved.