Gerald R. Ford had served in Congress since 1949. As leader of the Republican minority in the U.S. House of Representatives, he had a keen sense of the political; the son of hard working, loving parents, he knew right from wrong. Two days after the Watergate break-in he confided to a friend, “Nixon ought to get to the bottom of this and get rid of anybody who’s involved in it.” That same afternoon, he asked Nixon’s campaign manager, John Mitchell, whether anyone at the White House was implicated. “Absolutely not,” Mitchell assured him.
Fourteen months later, after being warned by White House Counsellor Melvin Laird that things were about to get worse, Ford learned that Vice President Spiro Agnew was under investigation for accepting kickbacks from Maryland contractors. By October Agnew had resigned, and Nixon faced the task of appointing a new Vice President in the midst of his court battle over the White House tapes. He needed someone prepared to be President, in agreement with his policies, and who could be confirmed by a Congress made increasingly skeptical by Watergate revelations. Nixon chose Ford, a friend and ally, who enjoyed enormous respect among his peers.
On December 6, 1973, in the House chamber, Ford took the oath of office and became Vice President. Immediately he set about promoting the President’s agenda, attempting to heal the rifts between Congress and the White House, but also defending the President, who he believed had made mistakes but had committed no impeachable offenses.
Ford’s defense of Nixon continued until August 6, 1974. A few days earlier he had been warned by Nixon’s chief of staff, Alexander Haig, that information about to be released would undermine the President’s position – that he had known about the break-in much earlier than previously disclosed and had made efforts to cover it up. The Vice President was stunned, and as the tape transcripts were made public, impeachment in the House became a certainty, and key senators began to doubt the President could survive a Senate trial.
On August 6, Nixon called a meeting of his cabinet. To the surprise of all, he opened by talking about inflation and the global economy, but abruptly shifted to Watergate. His decision not to release the tapes had been based on national security concerns, he said. He relented, however, so that the House could vote on impeachment, having all the facts before them. Distracted by diplomacy with China, he had not focused on the presidential campaign, and “overeager” assistants had made bad decisions. But, Nixon said, he would not resign, and he asked for the cabinet’s private, if not public, support.
The room fell silent until Ford spoke up. He expressed sympathy for Nixon and his family, but said had he known beforehand what had recently been revealed, he would not have voiced such strong support. Accordingly, Ford informed the President, “I’ll have no further comment on the issue because I’m a party in interest.” He would, however, continue to support the Administration’s policies.
By August 8, Nixon’s remaining support had crumbled. He summoned Ford to the Oval Office. Sitting solemnly behind his desk with Ford seated to his right, Nixon told his Vice President of his intention to resign. “It’s in the best interest of the country. I won’t go into the details pro or con. I have made my decision.” He paused, then added, “Jerry, I know you’ll do a good job.”