OTD in History… August 9, 1974, Vice President Gerald Ford Sworn in as president after Richard Nixon resigns
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history August 9, 1974, Vice President Gerald R. Ford is sworn in as president after Richard Nixon resigns over impending impeachment because of his involvement in the Watergate break-in scandal cover-up. With impeachment from Congress certain, Nixon did the unprecedented, on the evening of August 8, he announced to the American public that he would be resigning effective at noon the next day. On August 9, Vice President Ford would assume the presidency under unprecedented terms prescribed in the 25th Amendment on presidential succession, the first to do so without the American public ever having elected him, and serving the shortest time, 2 years and 164 days.
Ford was the only president to have never been elected even to the vice presidency. Nixon appointed Ford after Spiro T. Agnew resigned less than a year before. Ford assumed the vice presidency on December 6, 1973, after Agnew resigned because he was charged with “tax evasion and money laundering” for accepting bribes as the governor of Maryland. Congressional leaders advised Nixon he should choose the then-House Minority Leader the much-liked Gerald Ford as vice president to which Nixon obliged. Nixon nominated Ford on October 12, on November 27, the Senate confirmed him with a vote of 92 to 3, with three Democrats opposing, while the House confirmed Ford on December 6, 1973, with a vote of 387 to 35.
On August 1, 1974, Nixon’s Chief of Staff Alexander Haig, gave Ford a warning about the “smoking gun” Oval Office tape that could end Nixon’s presidency. Ford later recounted, “Al Haig asked to come over and see me to tell me that there would be a new tape released on a Monday, and he said the evidence in there was devastating and there would probably be either an impeachment or a resignation. And he said, ‘I’m just warning you that you’ve got to be prepared, that things might change dramatically and you could become President.’ And I said, ‘Betty, I don’t think we’re ever going to live in the vice president’s house.’”
The morning of August 9, was emotional for Nixon. In his last hours as president, he delivered a farewell address at 9 am to his cabinet and staff in the East Room, where Ford was also present. Nixon tendered his resignation at 11:35 am to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Gerald and Betty Ford escorted the Nixons to the helicopter before Ford officially assumed office. Technically, Ford became president a minute later but he only took the oath of office five minutes after noon, once Nixon and his family left the White House to return to San Clemente, California. Chief Justice Warren Burger administered Ford the oath of office in the East Room of the White House at 12:05 pm.
Immediately afterward, Ford delivered a short 850-word inaugural address, written Counselor to President Robert T. Hartmann, and discussed the “extraordinary circumstances” that led him to the presidency. Ford expressed:
“I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your President by your ballots, and so I ask you to confirm me as your President with your prayers. And I hope that such prayers will also be the first of many… If you have not chosen me by secret ballot, neither have I gained office by any secret promises. I have not campaigned either for the Presidency or the Vice Presidency. I have not subscribed to any partisan platform. I am indebted to no man, and only to one woman — my dear wife, Betty — as I begin this very difficult job… My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over… Our Constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule. But there is a higher Power, by whatever name we honor him, who ordains not only righteousness but love, not only justice but mercy.”
Ford was the ninth Vice President to take office unexpectedly, the first and only because of a resignation, whereas the rest were due to unexpected death, by illness or assassination. Ford’s presidency was also the shortest of any president “who did not die in office,” having only served 895 days. On September 8, 1974, Ford took the unpopular initiative of granting a “full free and absolute pardon” to Nixon for any offenses he “has committed or may have committed.”
Historian David McCullough claims Ford was “a very good president” because of the pardon. McCullough remarked, “I think Gerald Ford is one of the most interesting stories in the whole history of the presidency. He made one of the bravest decisions ever as president. From one of the worst moments in presidential history — Nixon’s resignation — came one that many now consider the finest.” The move the most likely cost him any chance of election in the 1976 presidential election but it closed the chapter on Watergate for the nation allowing it to go forward and heal. As historian Jon Meacham described it “an act of political courage that truly healed the country.”
SOURCES AND READ MORE
Brinkley, Douglas. Gerald R. Ford. New York: Times Books, 2007.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.