Forty years ago, America was getting to know a new president: Gerald Ford. He took office after scandal forced the resignation of Richard Nixon, famously declaring: “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.”
Taking on the presidency meant a transfer of power unlike any the country had ever seen. Ford often said he had never aspired to the White House. But there he was, in the summer of 1974.
“When he walked into the Oval Office, it had been stripped bare of every memento and every paper. It was like a piece of rental housing,” says Barry Werth. He’s the author of 31 Days, which looks at President Ford’s first month in office.
Beyond moving in, there was a long list of problems for the new guy to deal with.
“The Cold War was at its height,” Werth says. “Vietnam was winding down in a dangerous way. We were having crisis in the Middle East. The first oil shocks. Extreme inflation.”
Werth says Ford was tasked with declaring his independence from Nixon to show that everything was going to change, while also showing a continuity of government.
Ford realized quickly that if he were seen solely as a caretaker president — with no plans to seek the office on his own in 1976 — he’d immediately be considered a lame duck. That would make his job even tougher.
In those first days he began looking for a vice president. Some of those potential choices would play prominent roles in American politics for decades to come.
At the time, Pennsylvania Sen. Hugh Scott talked to NPR about some candidates he’d discussed with the new president. “I mentioned a couple of names, including Rockefeller and Bush. Some very well qualified names came up: Sen. Dominick of Colorado, Sen. Javits and Sen. Dole, and others,” he says.
That’s Bush as in George H.W. Bush, and Dole as in Sen. Bob Dole. Also angling for the job was Donald Rumsfeld, who much later served as secretary of defense. Eventually, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller got the VP job.
That first week, Ford also addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress. He pledged “communication, conciliation, compromise and cooperation.”
For all the political drama, Ford’s personal story and laid-back demeanor was just as interesting to many observers. For 10 days, Ford and his family continued to live in their split-level suburban home in Alexandria, Va. He commuted 10 miles to the White House. One memorable image from that week (above, in slideshow) shows the family — the president, Betty Ford and two of their children — in their knotty, pine-paneled kitchen reading the morning papers and drinking coffee.
David Hume Kennerly was an award-winning photojournalist who became Ford’s official White House photographer.
“That picture was taken just before he was ready to go out the door to go to the White House. That was normal,” Kennerly says. “They were talking about normal family things: Who’s gonna get the dry cleaning, who’s gonna do this, who’s gonna do that.”
Kennerly says they looked like an average American family because they were. The public wished Ford well and immediately took to him.
Then, in September, Ford pardoned Richard Nixon. He insisted it was necessary for the country to move beyond Watergate. But it would change public perception overnight, and end much of the goodwill he enjoyed in those very first days.