About Richard Norton Smith’s Book Titled “An Ordinary Man: The Surprising Life and Historic Presidency of Gerald R. Ford”

From a Wall Street Journal review by Michael Barone headlined “‘An Ordinary Man’ Review: Underestimating Gerald Ford”:

“I am a Ford, not a Lincoln,” Gerald Ford said at the time of his vice-presidential confirmation hearing in 1973. It was a Michigan politician’s way of saying that he was an ordinary man.

But he wasn’t, as Richard Norton Smith reveals in his superb, ironically titled, biography. The portrait of Ford that emerges from “An Ordinary Man” brings to mind what Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, said of Lincoln’s ambition: “a little engine that knew no rest.” Mr. Smith’s Ford is a man of modest beginnings who, with hard work and occasional guile, made his way to the country’s chief magistracy.

Growing up, Ford was outwardly sunny; inwardly, he remembered feeling “not much better than an orphan.” He stuttered, Mr. Smith tells us, and had a fierce temper. For years he was called “Junie,” a nickname that made him “junior” to the man his mother married when he was 3, a Grand Rapids salesman named Gerald Ford. But his stepfather never officially adopted him, and originally he was junior to the father whom his mother divorced soon after his birth, a man who was said to be abusive.

Gerald Ford Jr.’s little engine of ambition started chugging early on. He rose at 6 a.m. to stoke the family’s coal furnace; he was a quietly good student, always prepared, and a fine athlete. Work, hard work, was one secret. Another appears from Mr. Smith’s account of the adult Mr. Ford advising his son Steve on how to make the high-school football team. “There’s nobody who can snap for punts, and I’m going to show you how,” he said. Success was more likely “if you can do one thing that nobody else can do.”

It worked for the son as it had, four decades earlier, for the father. Ford had played center for his high-school team and, later, for the University of Michigan. His coach there recommended him for an assistant football coaching job at Yale, and he proceeded to talk himself into Yale Law. In his class were two future Supreme Court justices, two governors, a U.S. senator, a secretary of state—and an assistant coach and B student who became president.

During his Yale days and soon after, Mr. Ford, though at heart a Midwesterner, found himself attracted to the glamour of East Coast life. He dated a New York model—and modeled himself. He skied at Stowe, Vt., went to Broadway plays and even invested in a model agency—details many of us may be surprised to learn. Despite his brief membership in America First, the pro-isolationist organization, he attended the 1940 Republican National Convention as part of the gallery cheering for the internationalist Wendell Willkie.

Once the U.S. entered the war, Ford served on the Monterey, an aircraft carrier that nearly sank in a 1944 typhoon. While in the Navy he found time to urge his stepfather to head a Grand Rapids reform group targeting corruption-plagued Frank McKay—Michigan’s longtime Republican boss, a “Rotarian caudillo,” in Mr. Smith’s phrase—and to hold a spot for his return.

After the war, Ford did indeed return to Michigan, to run for Congress and court Betty Bloomer Warren, a Grand Rapids girl who had gone to New York to study with Martha Graham’s dance troupe and come home again. Ford’s race for Congress, in 1948, was against Republican incumbent Bartel Jonkman, an isolationist who, unlike Michigan Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, retained his views after Pearl Harbor. Ford, with behind-the-scenes encouragement from Vandenberg, ran as an internationalist. His strategy included, as usual, hard work—campaigning nonstop and organizing hundreds of volunteers, who helped him beat Jonkman by nearly 25 points. Only after that victory did Jerry and Betty hold their wedding.

In the House, Ford again worked hard, answering mail on the day it arrived and taking paperwork home. He impressed senior colleagues enough to get a seat on the Appropriations Committee in his second term and on subcommittees handling defense and intelligence matters. His attention to detail and nonpartisanship prompted Lyndon Johnson to appoint him, over more senior House Republicans, to the Warren Commission investigating the assassination of President Kennedy. To that assignment he devoted hours of diligent research, Mr. Smith says. He was the first to suggest and the last to dismiss the possibility of foreign involvement.

After the LBJ landslide in 1964, Ford unseated Minority Leader Charles Halleck. In a 2-1 Democratic House, the alternatives he proposed to Johnson’s Great Society had no chance of passage. Rather than rely on any bipartisan conservative coalition, he sought to “drive Southern Democrats into the arms of the Administration where they belong on votes that will hurt them in their home congressional districts,” Mr. Smith writes. In this he had some success.

When the Watergate scandal broke, Ford expressed faith in Richard Nixon, a friend for nearly 25 years, but also called for public testimony from Nixon aides and the release of the White House tapes. When Spiro Agnew was forced to resign the vice presidency in October 1973—the victim of his own scandal—Nixon’s choice of replacements was limited. His favorite, John Connally, as a party-switcher, couldn’t be confirmed by a Democratic Congress. Jerry Ford, as a colleague with a reputation for candor, could.

Thus began the eight-month vice-presidency of Gerald Ford, “the worst job I ever had,” as he put it. He was whipsawed between the institutional responsibility not to undercut the president and the need to prepare to be president himself. Mr. Smith describes, in nuanced detail, how Ford gradually stopped defending Nixon and how, prompted by Betty, he was careful not to promise a pardon in return for Nixon’s resignation.

Ford entered the White House in August 1974 as the Eisenhower Republican he had been since the 1950s, internationalist, sympathetic to civil rights, more interested in balancing the budget than cutting taxes. Previous habits—surrounding himself with “accomplices with sharp elbows” (the young Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney), listening more than talking in meetings—served him well. His hard work on Pentagon budgets enabled him to out-negotiate Leonid Brezhnev at an arms-control summit in Vladivostok, the Soviets’ eastern port city.

After Democrats’ gains in the 1974 off-year elections, Ford was unable to move Congress to vote 1 cent to defend South Vietnam against Communist attack. Joe Biden, then in his first Senate term, told him: “I will vote for any amount for getting the Americans out. I don’t want it mixed with getting the Vietnamese out.” Nonetheless Ford, whose tribulations Mr. Smith describes in Kübler-Ross terms (especially denial, anger and acceptance), was able to get many more American allies out of Saigon than Mr. Biden chose to evacuate from Kabul, Afghanistan, 46 years later.

Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon in September 1974 reduced his job rating and political leverage, though it was praised later by Edward Kennedy and many Democrats. Other decisions also proved wiser than they seemed at the time. He was an early initiator of deregulation, which spurred innovation in telecom, trucking and freight rail. His instinct proved correct that the Helsinki Accords with the Soviet Union would advance human rights and undermine what he was loath to call an evil empire. In the 1976 election, he came within 25,579 votes in Ohio and Mississippi of ridding himself of the dubious distinction of being America’s only unelected president.

Mr. Smith, former head of the Ford presidential library (and several others), is the author of admired biographies of Thomas Dewey, Herbert Hoover and Nelson Rockefeller—exemplars of a Republican tradition to which Gerald Ford also belongs. It had its political base in the precincts of mainline Protestantism and a governing philosophy of moderate progressivism—a tradition, Mr. Smith recognizes mordantly, defunct today. Mr. Smith brings exhaustive research and graceful prose to this engrossing biography of a not-so-ordinary man who, it turned out, had an extraordinary life.

Michael Barone, senior political analyst at the Washington Examiner, was a longtime principal co-author of “The Almanac of American Politics.”

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