President Gerald Ford was an anomaly. Most prominently, he was the only president not elected nationally. There have been vice-presidents who found themselves elevated to the presidency, of course, but Ford was an appointed vice-president who became president and did not experience the nationwide election process for his position. He didn't aspire to the office and was about to retire when he was appointed. His integrity was admired. He was considered an honorable individual and was chosen because of political expediency: Few would object to Ford. His good character was essential for replacing vice-president Spiro Agnew, who resigned in scandal, and even more so when he ascended to the presidency after Richard Nixon's resignation. It was a necessity to return public trust in the White House, which as an institution had been besmirched by Ford's predecessor, and by most assessments, he succeeded, though there were some issues, the most obvious being his pardoning of the former president.
Born in 1913, Leslie Lynch King, Jr. assumed his stepfather's name at age four, becoming Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr. His biological father and his mother had separated only two weeks after his birth and they divorced by the end of that year, mother and son living with her parents until she married Gerald Rudolff Ford, Sr. a couple of years later. Though the future president was called Gerald Ford, he didn't have his name legally changed until 1935. He didn't even know about his biological father until he was 17, when his parents finally told him the story of his birth and name. He met his biological father later that year: while he was waiting tables at a local restaurant, a strange man approached and introduced himself as his father. Neither had a particular interest in the other and they interacted only sporadically until Leslie King's death in 1941.
Raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Ford was active in the Boy Scouts and became an Eagle Scout. A natural athlete and bright student, in high school he was a member of the honor society as well as the All City and All State football teams, and he continued playing football at the University of Michigan, contributing to two undefeated seasons for the Wolverines, who voted him Most Valuable Player in 1934. He would work summers to help pay for school, including one summer as a park ranger at Yellowstone National Park.
After graduating with a degree in economics, Ford turned down offers to play professional football from both the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions, instead taking a job with Yale University as a boxing and football coach, and while there he would also attain his law degree, graduating in 1941. He passed his bar exams and later that year opened a law office with his friend, Philip W. Buchen, who would later serve on his White House staff.
December 7 of that year saw the attack on Pearl Harbor, and by April 1942 Ford had enlisted in the Navy, receiving a commission as an ensign and teaching courses and coaching sports for the Navy Preflight School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he was promoted to Lieutenant Junior Grade. The next year he applied for sea duty and subsequently became an anti aircraft battery officer and assistant navigator on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Monterey.
Ford Picks up the Pipe
That's when he started smoking a pipe. In response to a White House memo dated March 5, 1975, Ford answered questions about his pipe smoking for Bob Gatty of the Washingtonian magazine, scratching the responses in his own handwriting. An image of that memo, maintained by the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum, may be seen here. One of the questions asked was how long Ford had been smoking a pipe, and Ford's response was, "Since 1944, when I started on board U.S.S. Monterey (CVL 26) while we were in the Pacific during WWII."
Ford also revealed that his collection of pipes numbered 35, and that he smoked, "Field and Stream Walnut, occasionally others."
That memo contains most of what we know of Ford's pipe smoking. It was a time when public figures talked about their preferences in pipes about as much as they did their preferences in socks. If they had known then how interested we pipe smokers of the future would be, perhaps more care would have been taken in recording these important matters.
However, we're indebted to Bob Gatty for thinking to ask. It was perhaps natural, given that Ford kept a pipe rack on his desk in the Oval Office and many of his press photos showed him smoking during meetings and while working. His pipe was prominent. In one of his official presidential portraits, he is painted with a pipe in his hand.
But it was onboard the Monterey that he started with pipes, as many sailors do. The ship saw plenty of action in the war, but the most dangerous situation he found himself in was a severe storm, Typhoon Cobra, that damaged the ship and very nearly washed him overboard. Planes overturned, fuel tanks ruptured, and a fire broke out. Casualties numbered 800. The ship was removed from active duty, and Ford's duty ended in early 1946. He returned to Grand Rapids, joined a prestigious law firm, and became active in civic events.
A Political Career
He was elected in Michigan's 5th congressional district to Congress in 1948 and was reelected for 12 more terms, serving from '48-'73, declining to run for the Governorship of Michigan or for the Senate during that time, serving for eight years as minority leader. During his first campaign he married Elizabeth Anne Bloomer Warren, whom the country knew as Betty Ford.
In 1963, President Johnson appointed Ford to the Warren Commission to investigate the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Ford was tasked with the biography of the shooter, Lee Harvey Oswald. The commission's findings that Oswald acted alone and that there was no evidence of conspiracy was widely criticized but Ford maintained throughout his life that it was the correct conclusion given the evidence.
Vice-President Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973 after pleading no contest to charges of tax evasion, having accepted bribes while Governor of Maryland. In the first use of the 25th Amendment, Ford was nominated to take his place. In a vote of 92 to three, he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate and became Vice-President of the United States on December 6. He stood alone as a Republican whose character could withstand the intense scrutiny. According to historian James Canon, "Gerald R. Ford became president not because he was popular with the American public, not because he campaigned for the job, but because of his character."
He'd planned his retirement from Congress for 1976 but felt the vice-presidency would be a good way to finish his career. However, as Ford's new duties proceeded, the Watergate scandal began unravelling for President Nixon.
The break-in of the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate Hotel during the 1972 election looked bad for the Nixon administration, and the coverup of the crime was an ongoing scandal that made things worse.
On August 9, 1974, Richard Nixon resigned the office of the presidency, and Ford was sworn in as the 38th president, saying, "... our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works." The public's perception of Nixon was one of secrecy, sneakiness, and dishonesty. He kept a list of enemies. He was vindictive and paranoid. Ford needed to cleanse the office of the presidency and renew the public's trust.
His 71 percent approval rating in his first month as president fell to 50 percent when he gave Richard Nixon a presidential pardon. Ford's press secretary resigned in protest. Ford had decided that his administration could not move forward on the economic recession, rising energy costs, and the end of the Vietnam War if mired under ongoing investigations and the prosecution of the former president, and that it was the best thing for the country to move on.
It's probably the main factor in his failure to maintain the presidency. He lost the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter by a slim margin. Ford remained active after leaving office, giving hundreds of lectures at colleges around the country and speaking about political issues. He died in 2006, aged 93. He had given up pipe smoking by then and was uninterested in discussing his pipes. Pipes and tobaccos magazine made several different requests for information and interviews, but was always turned down. His press secretary insisted that he no longer smoked and that he didn't feel he had anything to say on the subject, though there was no direct statement from Ford.
In 1997, according to the book Write It When I'm Gone, by Thomas DeFrank, Ford told the author, "I haven't had a drink in twenty-two years, she [Betty] hasn't had one in twenty-three years. And neither of us smoke anymore. I've got a few of 'em [his once-ubiquitous pipes] around here, but I never use 'em. She stopped drinking in 1978. I kept drinking for a year; then I got tired of drinking alone, so we drink [chuckle] tonic and lime at night." DeFrank also revealed in that book that Ford smoked Edgeworth, though the specific variety is not disclosed.
A few snippets of information emerged from the Ford Library in the form of memos and various documents. In one, initially marked "not for members of the press," the contents of Ford's Oval Office are listed, including a pair of Delft tobacco jars with the description, "The handsome tobacco jars were made in Holland at the end of the 18th century. The jars are decorated in blue and white Delft tradition and depict the American Indian smoking a pipe. These jars were used in the New World to store tobacco."
Another document is a description of Ford's quarters at Akasaka Palace in Japan when he visited Minister Tanaka. Part of that description includes, "The President's pipes were in various crystal ashtrays, and a package of Cavendish 79 tobacco was on a table between two small chairs."
Gerald Ford's presidency was short, but his career was long and he was admired and respected by his colleagues and by the majority of the American people. He is often remembered as the president who healed a nation, and he did much to bring respectability back to the office. His continual pipe smoking while serving contributed to that respectability. The image of the pipe-smoking president helped the public feel confidence again.
- "Gerald Ford," Character Above All (1995), by James Cannon.
- Write it When I'm Gone (2007), by Thomas M. DeFrank
- "Gerald Ford: Healer of a Nation," Pipes and tobaccos, Spring 2007, by Angus E. Crane.
- Ford Library Museum