One of America's shortest running presidents was also its longest lived. Gerald Ford died on Tuesday evening at the age of 93. Despite Lyndon Johnson's proclamation that Ford was a man "who cannot walk and chew gum at the same time," he restored a sense of dignity and decency to the White House in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal.
Here's a bit of US presidential trivia for you. Gerald Ford was the only US president not to be elected as both vice president and president. In 1973, Spiro Agnew resigned amidst the Watergate scandal, and Ford became the first vice president to be appointed under the provisions of the 25th Amendment. When President Nixon resigned on August 8, 1974, Ford moved into the Oval Office. After surviving an intraparty challenge from Ronald Regan, he ultimately lost the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter, spending 895 days in the White House—the shortest tenure of any president who didn't die in office.
An orthodox conservative, Ford wanted to tear down the social structures built by Democrats under Roosevelt, Kennedy and Johnson. But Congress was dominated by Democrats at the time, meaning there was little opportunity to push through any major legislation to that effect. Instead, Ford spent the large part of his presidency exercising his veto power. In barely two years, Ford vetoed 66 bills. Congress overturned 12 of them, more than any other president since Andrew Johnson. In an ironic twist, one of his longest lasting legacies was his appointment of John Paul Stevens to the Supreme Court. Stevens is the longest serving incumbent on the Court and widely considered its liberal anchor.
To make matters worse, Ford inherited an economy in the grips of stagflation (high inflation, low growth). Inflation hit double-digits for the first time in 1974 and the unemployment rate reached nearly 9%. Ford was famous for his quirky "Whip Inflation Now" campaign, where he urged Americans to stop inflation by wearing buttons. Little more than a public relations gimmick, the campaign did little to solve the underlying economic problems, which continued well into the Carter administration. The stock market, on the other hand, began a two-year boom soon after Ford assumed the presidency. After falling over 37% in the last two years of Nixon's term, the S&P 500 returned 37% in 1975 and 24% in 1976.
Ford was perhaps best known for his controversial pardon of Richard Nixon for crimes committed during the Watergate scandal. Ford justified the decision on the grounds of national healing, but the public outcry was so large that he was forced to appear in front of Congress and assure the public he made no promises of a pardon before becoming president. That single act came to define his presidency and may have cost him the 1976 election.
In the end, without the mandate of a popular election, Ford was never able to assert himself during his presidency. But he performed his job admirably during a difficult time, successfully restoring trust and pride to a badly damaged office.