[From the Howard the Duck series, 1976 see When Carter stumped Rochester in ’76. And Howard the Duck.]
In keeping with our Presidential visits to Rochesters series, on October 31st, 1976, President Gerald Ford spoke before 10,000 at a rain-swept Rochester-Monroe County Airport.
According to Yanek Mieczkowski in Gerald Ford’s Near Miracle on 1976 (American History), at 2 a.m. November 3rd, when President Gerald Ford went bed after watching the late election returns, he knew that his opponent Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter held the upper hand.
The night before, the Democrat and Chronicle had gone to press without declaring a winner. About an hour and a half after Ford went to sleep, the national tv networks began calling the election for Carter.
On November 4th, the D & C reported on Ford’s concession phone call. Ford– the unelected, unexpected and accidental president — lost a very tight election. Despite trailing at on point in the polls by 33 points, Ford narrowed the final gap to 50.1 – 48% (297 – 240 in the Electoral College).
When the 1976 campaign began, Ford faced two major obstacles. First, Ford was the only President never to have been elected to the office. Second, following President Nixon’s resignation in the wake of the Watergate scandal, Ford gave Nixon a full pardon precluding future legal action against the now-disgraced former president.
On October 10, 1973 in the wake of bribery charges, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned. Previously (or since) only John C. Calhoun had resigned the vice presidency (Calhoun left to run for the Senate).
Nixon nominated Ford — then House Minority Leader — to replace Agnew, which Ford did on December 2nd, 1973. Hence, nine months after, when Nixon resigned, Ford became an unelected President. Or — as Ford would call himself — the unexpected and accidental president.
The track record of previous vice presidents who ascended to the presidency was mixed. After the deaths of William Henry Harrison, William McKinley and John Kennedy respectively, John Tyler, Theodore Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson did win re-election bids.
But after the death of Zachary Taylor, Milliard Fillmore sought election to a full term in 1852, but at the Whig National Convention, Fillmore lost on the 53rd ballot to General Winfield Scott, the hero of the Mexican War. Following Harding’s death in 1923, Chester Arthur made a case for his re-election. But the so-called Republican Half-Breeds were solidly behind James G. Blaine, the eventual nominee. At the Convention, Arthur received only 25% of the delegate vote. After Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson fared the worst. After being impeached and being a Democrat, Johnson was not considered by the Republican Party. Johnson did seek the nomination at the 1866 Democrat Convention. But on the 22nd ballot, former New York governor Horatio Seymour was chosen; President Johnson received only four votes, all from Tennessee. Nine years later — in what must have felt like redemption — Johnson was elected as Tennessee’s senator.
At the onset of the 1976 campaign, Ford was hampered by questions about his legitimacy as president. Emboldened by Ford’s unelected status, Ronald Reagan ran a vigorous campaign for the Republican nomination. Reagan tended to see Ford as an appointed interim president who should not be afforded the full respect of incumbency by the Republican Party.
As the Convention at the Kemper Center in Kansas City opened, the outcome was unclear. On the first ballot, Ford was narrowly nominated 1187 to 1070 for Reagan.
Briefly, a dream ticket of Ford for President and Reagan for Vice President was considered. But, as Ford’s Chief of Staff Dick Cheney said, after the bruising campaign; “Ford wasn’t eager to have Reagan on the ticket. Reagan wasn’t eager to be on the ticket.” Reagan would tepidly endorse Ford and was largely a no-show on the campaign trail.
With wounds healed, four years later during the 1980 campaign, a plan for a reverse dream ticket — Reagan for President and Ford VP — was floated, envisioned as a kind of co-presidency. But the details of the scheme were vague, and Reagan chose George H. W. Bush.
Instead of Reagan, Ford chose Robert Dole as his running mate. At the time, Nelson Rockefeller was serving as Ford’s Vice President. Rockefeller held the distinction as the only vice president appointed by a president who himself had been an appointed vice president. Apparently, Rockefeller did not strongly push Ford for the vice presidential nod in 1976.
On September 16th, Dole and Rockefeller campaigned and held a joint press conference in Rochester. As headlined by the D & C, the two did not always see eye to eye on the issues. Twenty years later, after Dole lost to Clinton in the 1996 election, Dole gained the dubious distinction as the only man to run for vice president and president and lose both times.
Ultimately, it was Ford’s decision to pardon Nixon that cost Ford the most.
As seen in three plaques on the Veteran’s Memorial Walk of Honor in Highland Park, the Watergate scandal was coming into focus as early as July 1972 — while Nixon was revving up his re-election campaign.
Despite the scandal, Nixon won his 49 state landslide.
By the time Nixon nominated Ford for vice president in December 1973, speculation and investigations into Watergate had intensified. By the summer of 1974 as impeachment proceedings were discussed in Congress, it became clear Nixon might be forced from office.
When Nixon did resign, within a month President Ford gave the full and unconditional pardon for any crimes Nixon may have committed against the United States while president.
The timing of Ford’s appointment as vice president and Ford quick pardon led to charges that Nixon and Ford had made a “corrupt bargain,” the term used by Elizabeth Holtzman when on the House Judiciary Committee. That is, Nixon had resigned — and maybe even appointed Ford as vice president — with the understanding that a President Ford would shield Nixon from any criminal prosecution. Ford strongly denied the allegations, saying at one point: “There was no deal, period, under no circumstances.”
Whether or not there had been a quid pro quo deal — a corrupt bargain — between Nixon and Ford, Ford’s decision to pardon the former president was unpopular by a 2-1 margin. The resentment over Ford’s decision carried over into the election. According to Mieczkowski, post-election studies showed — Democrats aside — about 7 percent of the Republicans never forgave Ford. While Ford always defended his actions, in later years he suggested the pardon very may well have lost him the election.
Recently, Hillary Clinton’s troubles with her emails and the FBI have raised the issue of presidential pardons. Democratic pollster Pat Caddell said Clinton should accept a pardon from President Obama if she wins the November election. That is — as Ford did — Obama could pardon Clinton from any future criminal charges arising from her tenure as Secretary of State. Caddell also thinks it is even more likely Obama may offer a pardon if Hillary loses.
Some have speculated whether a President Clinton would pardon herself, herself as Secretary Clinton.
Nonetheless, despite these obstacles — the unelected status and the pardon — Ford stayed close to Carter throughout the campaign. As Mieczkowski says:
During the last 10 days before the election, the Ford campaign unleashed a massive advertising blitz and, by November 2, Ford had pulled even with Carter in the polls. It was one of the greatest political comebacks in history.
Ford was making his case to the American people that after Nixon’s resignation Ford had effectively guided the country through what Ford had called, “our long national nightmare.”
When Ford spoke at the Rochester airport , the election in two days was still up in the air. Ford offered his closing appeal:
I ask you on November 2, to not only confirm me with your prayers but to confirm me with your ballots. And I won’t let you down.
As told by Mieczkowski, on Election Day, Cheney flew back to Washington with Ford. Cheney noted on the flight across the country there wasn’t a cloud in the sky:
It was just brilliant sunshine. And that meant we were going to get high voter turnout in a lot of the cities in the Democratic areas. So by the time we landed, I was concerned.
Actually. the 1976 turnout was relatively low. But when the results from Hawaii came in at 3:45 a.m. EST, the comeback had fallen short.
A week after the election, presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy spoke at a seminar for 100 business executives sponsored by RIT at the Top of the Plaza in downtown Rochester.
In 1968, McCarthy had run as anti-war Democrat. In 1976, McCarthy ran as an Independent, taking a libertarian stance on civil liberties, promising to create full employment by shortening the work week, favoring nuclear disarmament, attacked the Internal Revenue Service. His campaign was hampered by ballot access issues, including exclusion from New York. He received .091% of the national popular vote.
McCarthy drew most of his votes from Carter. In such a close election, his candidacy might have shifted the outcome to Ford. At the RIT conference, McCarthy addressed claims that he had been a “spoiler” (helping Carter more than Ford) in the just completed election. McCarthy candidly answered that he was glad Carter had prevailed: “If Ford had won, I would have been blamed for whatever happened in the next four years.”
McCarthy’s candidacy echo claims that in 2000 the Green Party’s Ralph Nader “spoiled” the election for Al Gore by siphoning off Gore votes in the crucial state of Florida. Unlike McCarthy, Nader never said he wished Gore had won or that he was responsible for the next 4 or 8 years of George Bush.
As seen in When Carter stumped Rochester in. And Howard the Duck., at .091% McCarthy probably bested another third party candidate, Howard the Duck, whose 1976 campaign cratered when he was caught in an interspecies love nest.
During the 1976 campaign, pundits frequently point to two dramatic and significant moments: at the second debate in San Francisco when Ford said, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration” and in interview with Playboy magazine when Carter confessed that he had lusted after women other than his wide Rosalyn. Recently, researchers have argued these moments were not as significant as they seemed.
Ford’s comment about no Soviet domination in Eastern Europe drew immediate and sometimes withering criticism. After the debate, journalist Lou Cannon of the Washington Post mockingly asked Cheney, “Hey, Cheney, how many Soviet divisions are there in Poland?” According to Mieczkowski, Ford had meant to say that he “does not accept” Soviet domination over Eastern Europe, but he flubbed the line and overstated his case. Four agonizing days later, Ford apologized and retracted the remark. But the damage was done.
However, in the August 2016 Atlantic’s The Myth of Gerald Ford’s Fatal ‘Soviet Domination’ Gaffe, David Graham show that polls do not seem to have been strongly influenced by Ford’s comments or the fallout. Graham argues that pundit often inaccurately use moments like Ford’s to create and weave seemingly compelling narratives.
On September 21st, 1976, the New York Times reported about an interview Carter gave to Playboy magazine that later appeared in its November issues. As explained by Mieczkowski:
The venue was unusual enough—a magazine featuring nude women—but Carter’s revelations raised even more eyebrows. Though deeply religious, Carter displayed an odd tendency to mix crude language with pious pronouncements. After openly discussing his faith, he used terms like “screw” and “shack up” to discuss sex and then admitted: “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.”
The article was the source of sensation and controversy. Even Regan — who was mostly silent during the campaign — weighed in. Reagan was appalled. But at least he proved he only reads Playboy for the articles.
However, in The Electoral Effects of Jimmy Carter’s Lust (September, 2010), John Sides’ analyzed polling shifts following Carter’s lustful comments and found no apparent effect. In 2010, Carter told Maureen Dowd:
I dropped 15 percentage points, and I almost lost the election. It was the most copies of Playboy ever sold.
The then octogenarian Carter seems to have overstated the case.
Ford visited Rochester several time after his presidency. The first was in 1978 at a dinner fundraiser and a breakfast at the Rochester Museum and Science Center. In his comments, Ford said he was not ruling out a presidential run in 1980.
In 1983, Ford spoke at an event sponsored by the Rochester Jewish Community Federation held at the Rochester Plaza Hotel.
In 1989, Ford spoke at SUNY Geneseo. In his talk, Ford mentioned his comment at the 1976 debate. Given recent events in Eastern Europe, Ford said he may have been “a bit prophetic.”
Earlier in 1989, former First Lady Betty Ford spoke at the inaugural Lakeside Hospital Gala Dinner at the Stouffer’s Rochester Plaza.
President Ford would return to speak the 1995 Gala held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel.