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Today, we're going to spend some time with a guy named Leslie Lynch, King Jr. doesn't ring a bell. How about Gerald Ford? Yeah, he changed his name. And when you learn why you can't even blame him. The funny thing about Gerald Ford is he held not one, but two of the most powerful positions in America and the country never officially elected him to either of them. He was just a nice guy at the right place at the right time.
And maybe that was enough. Maybe nice guys can come out on top, or at least they can stick around for longer than Richard Nixon.
Welcome to very presidential APAs cast original, I'm your host, Ashleigh Flowers, you can find all episodes of very presidential and all other podcast originals for free on Spotify.
Today, I'm covering Gerald Ford, the lucky guy who got to wave goodbye to Nixon's helicopter as it left the South Lawn, taking over with over two years before the next election. Ford could take some time to relax in the White House. He'd update the pool, he'd Ataka Bayona. He'd even take a swim for reporters. But could Ford really coast on just being Mr. Nice Guy, or would he be expected to roll up his sleeves and start cleaning up after Nixon?
We'll find out coming up next. Stay with us. Gerald Ford is your textbook two percent milk kind of guy, blond, a little brawny, and using those Midwest down home values, he's from Michigan, where the state motto is literally, if you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you. During his years as a congressman, Ford basically makes his reputation by being the fuzzy, moderate Mitton of D.C. He's smack dab in the middle of the political spectrum, Republican, but a man anyone can have a laugh or a beer with.
But just because people like his easygoing vibe doesn't mean they've signed off on him as country leading material. I mean, even Nixon himself didn't choose Ford to be his vice president. He only got the job because Nixon's original veep, Spiro Agnew, disgraced himself in a tax evasion scandal.
And when Agnew resigned, Nixon wanted to pick the former governor of Texas as his replacement. But the Democrats were like, uh, not so fast. No one trusts the governor, let alone when he's paired up with Tricky Dick. So the Democrat in the House basically tell Nixon, look, the only person will vote to approve as your veep is Gerald Ford. Take him or leave him. They know Ford is a middle of the road kind of guy.
He did OK during his time as House minority leader, and they trust him.
He's a good egg or at least he's not rotten. And this is right as Watergate is about to go down. So Nixon's between a rock and a hard place. Remember, his former veep just resigned in disgrace and Nixon's about to have his own completely different scandal. He's in no spot to be picking a fight with Congress. So Nixon says, fine, you win. Welcome to the vice presidency, Mr. Ford. Lo and behold, Watergate explodes.
Eight months later, Nixon resigns and Ford is in charge. America doesn't know all that much about him, but Ford's more seasoned than people give him credit for. He's not rattled by anything. He's been dealing with bleak situation since the day he was born. Remember that name? Leslie Lynch King Jr.. There's a reason he didn't keep. As historian John Robert Greene put it, Leslie Lynch, King senior, was, quote, a wife beating alcoholic greens, not mincing words there, but even that's skipping the worst of the details.
Just a few days after Ford was born, Leslie Senior reportedly picked up a butcher knife, turned to his wife, Dorothy, and threatened to kill both her and the baby two weeks later. Dorothy, thankfully, flees her abusive husband. She eventually settles in Grand Rapids, where she meets a nice man who sells paint named Gerald Ford. They get married and baby Leslie is just called Gerald Jr.. From that point on, all is normal and little Jerry grows up thinking this paint salesman is his dad.
Now, get this. They don't even tell Jerry that Gerald Senior is his step dad until he's 13. But Jerry takes the news pretty even keel for him. It doesn't really change much. And he reacts pretty calmly when he actually meets his biological father.
A few years later, one day, teenage Jerry is at work waiting tables at a local restaurant who shows up.
But his biological dad totally unannounced. Weird, but maybe he just wants to see what the kid is up to. But if he's hoping for a father son, meet cute. Leslie Senior is sorely disappointed. Jerry knows his dad's been shirking, paying child support for his entire life. And now that he's met him, Jerry has no regrets about no longer sharing a name with him. He's basically like, cool. Nice to meet you. But you can go now.
He leaves their weird little chat pretty much convinced that Leslie Senior never cared about being a father. So Ford's pretty pragmatic from a young age, no doubt he shined because he was the moderator, the buffer guy, and by August of 1974, being the everyman was enough to get him all the way up to commander in chief. That kind of bump is like going from the props department to the star of the play over night, which makes Ford's first week in office all the more anticlimactic the night he's sworn in as president.
Ford doesn't even get to stay in the White House. You see, the Nixons hadn't quite managed to get all of their stuff packed up in time, you know, because they had to flee before he was impeached. So while the White House staff boxes up all their belongings, the Fords are driven back home to Virginia on his first night as president, Ford just hangs around the house and waits for his wife, Betty, to cook him dinner, like always.
And Betty's like, listen, if you're the president, there's no way I should still be cooking dinner. And it's a fair point. But Ford, the genteel guy he is, isn't going to rush anyone. He just basically laughs and shrugs like it is what it is. He happily keeps wearing his powder blue pajamas and wolfing down English muffins until they can move forward is a master of avoiding confrontation, especially with Betty. He knows that having a chic with it wife by his side is going to make his presidency a little easier.
But he's got style. She's got wit and she's unabashedly human. Really. Ford is lucky to have her. She's put up with a lot.
I mean, the week of their wedding, she let him slip out of the rehearsal dinner early just to go deliver a stump speech. Oh, and Jerry was also late to the wedding ceremony itself. Like, sorry, dear, please stall for a few minutes. I'm caught up at a rally shaking hands and kissing babies. That attitude is partly because Jerry was worried that marrying Betty might affect his campaign. You see, she was previously divorced and a former dancer.
And back then, that's not a great reputation for a woman to have forward, literally postpone their wedding. So it happened right before the congressional election in 1948. That way, no one could make a big deal of it during the campaign season. Betty knows her fiance is a politician on the rise and she loves him, so she goes along with it. Jerry's just doing what's best for his career, although even he probably never expected he'd end up leading a country in crisis.
When Nixon throws up his little V for victory signs and boards Army one for the last time, he's literally pissing out of a house on fire. Inflation is ballooning, unemployment is soaring, and the war in Vietnam is still dragging on.
But all that is Ford's problem now. Maybe that's why he asked the American public to, quote, confirm me as your president with prayers during his inauguration speech. The guy needs a little wind in his sails, which kind of makes it even harder to believe what Ford does next.
Just a month into office, he pardons old Tricky Dick. To be specific, he doles out a full, free and absolute pardon for any crimes committed while in office. Now, given the severity of Nixon's crimes, this seems insane. It's like giving a hall pass to the quarterback who was just kicked off the team for taking steroids. But Jerry had his reasons for the pardon. Watergate was like catnip for the media, and Ford is afraid he won't be able to calm the country down if everyone is still hanging on to it.
So Jerry thinks the best way to get rid of Nixon is to pardon him. So the trials for his various crimes don't keep eating up everyone's attention. But Americans are not pleased to hear this to them. There is no real reason to let the former president slide unless Ford is corrupt, too.
Even in D.C., both Democrats and Republicans are in rare agreement that letting Nixon off the hook is not a good look. But for all the chaos it unleashes, the debate over the pardon eventually settles down temporarily, and being lambasted by his colleagues would actually look pretty tame compared to what was coming up for Ford.
A target was on his back, and I'm not talking metaphorically. Coming up, the notorious Manson family cult stalks President Ford listeners.
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What more could anyone want then? This petite, red headed woman comes barreling towards him with a 45 caliber Colt pistol. You can imagine how stunned he is. The woman is Squeaky Fromme, one of the last of the Manson family diehards. Now, by 1975, Charles Manson is already in prison for killing actress Sharon Tate. But Squeaky is still active in an offshoot group that targeted big wig business people. She's also still morbidly obsessed with Manson. It's odd that Gerald Ford, Mr.
Michigan, of all people, is on her hit list. He's a bit square for a cult target. I mean, sure, he's the president, but the Manton's are best known for chasing down Hollywood celebrities. But for me thinks that killing the president will win her brownie points with Manson, where at the very least, the stunt will get people to pay attention and give her beloved Charlie a new trial. So she finds herself running after the president, fumbling with a gun ready to kill.
Luckily, the Secret Service agents flanking Ford see her. They tackle her before she can shoot and then drag Ford to the ground. Talk about a firecracker out of nowhere. But thankfully, the president is safe. And honestly, he seems more than safe. He's calm. Ford literally just stands up, brushes himself off and keeps on walking. He's a man of his word. He said he'd be meeting with the governor of California. So he gets inside, they talk shop.
And for the whole meeting, Ford doesn't even mention that this woman just tried to kill him outside. Only at the end of their chat does Ford discreetly slip in that he was almost gunned down. Clearly, he's trying not to make a big deal of it. Ford later remarked nonchalantly, Well, I thought I'd better get on with my day schedule. And that he did until he had to do it again. I know this sounds crazy, but it's true.
Just 17 days later, Ford is in California again, San Francisco this time, and another woman tries to kill him.
Seriously, this time it's not a Manson cult member. It's a 45 year old, five time divorcee named Sara Jane Moore. Looking back on what motivated her, Smithsonian magazine described more as, quote, a mom with severe mood swings, anger and the type of temper that could turn on a dime, end quote. Now, that's pretty good press for a cold blooded assassin. What they should have said was that before she started plotting more was a long time extremist who dabbled in ultra liberal fringe groups.
The FBI had once even recruited her to be an informant. So, yeah, she's a little more than a hotheaded mother. And for reasons still unknown by fall of 1975, more once Baudette. She's not shy about telling people either. A couple of days before the assassination attempt, she even tells the San Francisco police that she's thinking of giving Ford's security system a little stress test. And the cops are like, what? No, they actually go to investigate and find out that Moore has a gun and naturally they take it away from her.
But of course, this is Murka. So Moore just buys another gun. She speeds through downtown San Francisco, ends up at the St. Francis Hotel and steps out to pull the gun on President Ford.
As she does, a stranger next to her sees what she's doing heroically, jumps in and yanks her arm down. When she fires the shot, it misses again. The Secret Service does what they're paid to do, tackle and hustle. They surround President Ford and whisk him away in a car safe again. So Ford has survived attempts on his life in the same state in just a little over two weeks with a big smile on his face. President Ford goes back to Washington just like he did the first time, seemingly unbothered.
The thing is, he should be at least a little bothered, if not about the assassination attempts, about his track record not long after the 1974 midterm elections, people stopped giving Ford the post Watergate benefit of the doubt. Trying to clean up after Nixon isn't going well and not much is getting done in Congress. The Ford administration can't get unemployment and inflation under control, so people start giving the new president the thumbs down. Sure, Ford's a little overwhelmed since he's also trying to keep things calm with the Soviet Union basically not making the Cold War any worse, which he's able to do.
But that's about all he can say for himself. Ford doesn't have a lot of huge wins to show off. The end of the Vietnam War finally came that spring, but only because communist North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon.
After all that bloodshed, the U.S. side lost. It wasn't a proud moment, which was underscored by one more incident just a month later. In May of 1975, Cambodian communist from the Khmer Rouge group boarded an American cargo ship and took the crew hostage. President Ford doesn't want to look soft on communism, especially with the colossal failure of Vietnam.
So he authorizes a big sting operation to bring the crew home. He gives the OK to bomb the whole port despite the fact that the ship's crew is already being released by that point. It's definitely more than was necessary. Still, it kind of works if the goal is to get the crew home and make it seem like this president is cracking down on communism board does that.
But and this is a huge budget. About 40 Americans died in the operation. At first, the administration touts it as a success. But as time passes, the public starts to see through it. It seems like it was all just to prove a point after leaving Vietnam in such grim circumstances, confidence in Ford starts creeping even lower than before. Luckily, even though his ratings are slipping down, President Ford has a good support system to come home to his family.
And for all the chaos going on, the Ford White House is still having just a little bit of fun on the weekends. America can't help but smile when the president is dragged out onto the dance floor by his wife, Betty. She even breaks out a move called the Bump. It's pretty cool for the 70s. No one can deny it's more lightheartedness than they've seen in the White House in years.
And maybe, just maybe, that's all it will take to get Ford re-elected.
Coming up, an ex Beatle pops by for a visit.
And President Ford becomes the belle of the late night ball.
And now back to the story. After watching Watergate unfold like a Hollywood nightmare, America was watching the White House with a close eye, which means the Fords were tossed into the spotlight more than most. First families hopping into the light mood. The Fords actually try and throw America some fun breadcrumbs, like when the president invited the whole press gallery to come watch him take a dip in the new White House pool that he had put in, Kobana included. And we'll give him credit.
Though no taxpayer dollars were used to cover the project, which would have cost just under three hundred grand in today's dollars. And since Jerry's kids are in their teen years while he's in office, the president is a bit more on the pop culture pulse. Case in point, for a little early Christmas treat in December of nineteen seventy four, he lets his son, Jack, a huge Beatles fan, have some guests over to the White House who shows up.
But George Harrison and his collaborator, Ravi Shankar, the group has a nice ham lunch and a listening session for Harrison's new album.
Jerry even invites them to the Oval Office for a photo op. Harrison leaves feeling good vibes about the whole experience, despite the fact that he's hyper liberal and Ford is a Republican.
And despite the president knowing almost none of his music, at least looking hip, definitely helps lessen some of Ford's bad press. But it's not enough to get him re-elected. In general, the media isn't kind to him, especially when it comes to making fun of his clumsiness. Ford is a notorious klutz, always stumbling and tripping on things when one incident is caught on video in December of 1975. Ford is forever immortalized as that guy who fell down the steps while getting off Air Force One.
The moment becomes sketch comedy gold. Ford gets the privilege of being the first president roasted on Saturday Night Live. Chevy Chase even mimics the president's epic fall down the stairs. But while America laughs, the Ford administration is worrying this is exactly what they feared. The president, who was never elected in the first place, looks like a bumbling idiot right in the lead up to re-election.
So they shift tactics instead of keeping Ford buttoned up and only making appearances on suitable TV programs. They go in a completely opposite direction. They're taking the president to late night television. Saturday Night Live writer Al Franken. Yes, that Al Franken, who became a senator. There was a very left field idea to Ford's press secretary, Ron Nessen. He asked Nesson to host SNL, not pop in for a minute, but host Nesson talks to President Ford.
And though it's a crazy idea never been done before, they agree maybe having someone from the administration on will make them seem relatable. So in April of 1975, Ron Nessen is in the studio chumming it up with Chevy Chase. And if that's not enough, President Ford himself even opens the show in a pre-recorded video from the Oval Office. His toothy grin comes across the screen as he tells America. Live from New York, it's Saturday night.
It's a ground breaking cultural moment, keep in mind, even now, pretty much every sitting president avoids late night television. It's too dangerous when they're in office and those Ford's risky move pay off. Nope, unfortunately not. As Time magazine explained, most of Washington thought it was a gross error of judgment that lacked the dignity of the Oval Office. So it's looking more and more like Ford will lose his seat in the 1976 election. His position as the moderate everyman, which was once his biggest strength after Watergates chaos, is now his biggest weakness.
And who is coming up on his coattails to point that out? But Georgia favorite Jimmy Carter Carter is the complete opposite of the Washington insiders that Americans hate after Watergate. He promises he'll clean up the mess in Washington. And voters seem to like Jimmy's southern drawl way more than Ford's bumbling late night impressions. Even Ford's own Republican Party isn't feeling very confident in him. He didn't really fix any of the issues Nixon left behind. People are wearing buttons that actually say vote for Betty's husband, since she's the one people can actually rally behind.
In the end, Carter comes out on top and clinches the election. Come January of 1977, the Fords are out of the White House. Jimmy Carter is a gentleman, though, so he at least tips his hat to Ford during his inauguration speech saying, quote, I want to thank my predecessor for all that he has done to heal our land, end quote. Ford takes the loss pretty well. He's not a sore loser. In fact, he and Carter even become friends.
Post presidency, Ford becomes a sort of Teflon elder statesman, always popping international events with a smile on his face. He and Betty eventually move out to Palm Springs, where they pop into the public eye every so often.
In 1989, Ford even volunteers to be roasted for his wife's nonprofit. Clint Eastwood drives up in a police squad car dressed up as Dirty Harry and takes Jerry to the event. More than a thousand people pack into the ballroom just to hear Ford getting teased for his golf game and for, as one former defense secretary put it, marrying so far above yourself for died at age 93. And none other than Jimmy Carter would give his eulogy. Recycling his old line from the inauguration, Carter told guests at Ford's Memorial that I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land.
And that's true. He did try to heal America. Ford gave it his best, but he couldn't make the kind of changes America wanted. He basically showed up with bandaids and Neosporin for a Nixon sized wound. At least he was able to laugh about it. Thanks for listening. I'll be back next week with another episode if you want to hear more episodes of very presidential, you can find all of them for free on Spotify.
Very presidential was created by Max Cutler and Ashley Flowers in his Sparkasse studios original starring Ashley Flowers. It is executive produced by Max Cutler, Sound Design by Carrie Murphy with production assistance by Ron Shapiro and Carly Madden. This episode of Very Presidential was written by Mackenzie Moore with writing assistants by Kate Gallagher. To hear more stories hosted by me, check out Crime Junkie and all audio check originals.
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