Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

FORD, GERALD (b. 1913)

Gerald Ford, the thirty-seventh president of the United States, was born Leslie Lynch King in Omaha, Nebraska, on July 14, 1913. However, he only lived there for seven weeks. To escape a husband who beat and threatened to kill her, King's mother fled from Omaha to her waiting parents across the state line in Council Bluffs, Iowa. From there, she took her son back to her childhood home in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She eventually married a local paint and varnish dealer, who gave the boy his name–Gerald Rudolph Ford Jr.

Thus, despite the fact that Ford shares with Dwight D. Eisenhower and Lyndon B. Johnson the distinction of being one of only three American presidents born in Great Plains states, Ford's Nebraska roots were not deep. His youth was spent in Grand Rapids and his collegiate years at the University of Michigan, where he excelled in football, and at Yale University, where he took his law degree. After a stint in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Ford was elected to the House of Representatives from Michigan's Fifth District in 1948. He served twenty-five years in the House, nine of them as minority leader, before being tapped by Richard Nixon in 1973 as his choice to succeed Spiro Agnew, who had resigned the vice presidency under a cloud of controversy. Ford acceded to the presidency on August 9, 1974, when Nixon himself resigned amid a spate of Watergate-related charges.

Ford's administration centered around political crises caused largely by his pardon of Nixon, a worsening economy, and a break with the conservative wing of his own Republican Party. It was the latter concern that fed into an issue of great importance to American farmers, particularly wheat farmers in the Great Plains. On September 9, 1975, Ford suspended the sale of American grain to the Soviet Union. Ford argued that his decision was an attempt to force a Soviet commitment to buy more wheat; however, many observers concluded that the decision was an attempt to initiate a "get tough" policy toward the Soviets in an effort to shore up his worsening relations with the Republican Right before the 1976 presidential election. In either event, Plains farmers were outraged. Recognizing the possibility for serious political fallout, by the end of that month Ford had negotiated a deal with the Soviet Union that allowed for the increased purchase of American grain and the lifting of the embargo. Satisfied with Ford's efforts–as well as with his decision to jettison his eastern liberal vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, in favor of Kansas senator Bob Dole–each state of the Great Plains, save Texas, gave a majority of their votes to Ford that fall. It was not enough, however, to save Ford's presidency, as he narrowly lost his bid for reelection to former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter.

Following his defeat, Ford returned to the University of Michigan for a brief tenure as a professor. He then joined several corporate boards and charitable organizations. He briefly entertained a return to politics in 1980 as Ronald Reagan's running mate, but the deal fell through. Out of politics, Ford presently divides his time between homes in California and Colorado.

John Robert Greene Cazenovia College

Ford, Gerald R. A Time to Heal. New York: Harper and Row, 1979.

Greene, John Robert. The Presidency of Gerald R. Ford. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995.

Previous: Ferguson, James and Miriam | Contents | Next: Forty-ninth Parallel

XML: egp.pg.026.xml