- Ambition, Pragmatism, and Party: A Political Biography of Gerald R. Ford by Scott Kaufman
For historians and political scientists looking for the authoritative source on Gerald R. Ford's political career, Scott Kaufman's thoroughly researched book provides that resource in a single volume, with a narrative style that is at once scholarly and accessible. Moreover, in exploring Ford's political experience, Kaufman offers a sweeping history of national politics between 1948 and 1976 from the unusual vantage point of a rising Republican member of the House of Representatives during Democratic Party dominance of that branch, who then rose unexpectedly to the vice presidency and then the chief executive, as Richard Nixon's presidency imploded.
Kaufman's book begins with a biographical portrait of Ford as a young man. In Kaufman's direct and purposeful narrative, Ford's relationship with his stepfather, his Depression-era college football career at the University of Michigan, his brief stint as a park ranger in Yellowstone National Park, his completion of a law degree at Yale University, and his naval career during World War II all set the stage for his political career. Kaufman concludes this chapter with Ford's run for the House of Representatives in Michigan's Fifth District, which launched a remarkable twenty-five-year congressional career.
Chapters 2 through 5 detail Ford's rise to House minority leader. Kaufman provides a fascinating overview of Congress in the post-World War II era. Ford's partisan loyalty and pragmatic idealism in this period offer a sharp contrast to the ideological passions that emerged in Congress during Ford's presidency. They also contrast with the corruption and turmoil of the Nixon years. Ford was an admirer of Nixon and considered him a friend. Ford was deeply disappointed and shocked by revelations of wide-ranging corruption in the Nixon administration, developments that set the stage for Ford's appointment as vice president and sudden rise to the presidency.
In the second half of the book, Kaufman expertly narrates Ford's brief presidency, beginning with his attempts to comfort the nation in the wake of the Watergate crisis and the subsequent political fallout resulting from his fateful decision to pardon Nixon. Although Ford had some notable successes as president—in restoring the nation's confidence in its leadership, in ending the Vietnam War, and in resuscitating an economy plagued by inflation and unemployment—Kaufman traces the challenges Ford encountered in domestic and foreign policy. Ford's reputation as being unintelligent and clumsy was reinforced by his failure to provide a coherent vision for the nation. Kaufman portrays Ford's presidency as a series of pragmatic efforts to find policy solutions to pressing problems at home and abroad but without an overall guiding agenda. In the end, Ford's failure to articulate a governing philosophy was a central reason for his defeat in the 1976 election. Kaufman's superb chapter on this election recounts the emerging energetic conservatism of Ronald Reagan that nearly defeated Ford for the party's nomination and the persistent public concerns over Ford's blunders and clumsiness, ultimately leading to his defeat by Jimmy Carter. [End Page 507]
The remainder of the book recounts Ford's postpresidential career and his increasingly positive reputation. Kaufman concludes that Gerald R. Ford was most at home as a leader of the House of Representatives, where he had been simultaneously a centrist and a partisan. As Richard Norton Smith's eulogy for Ford reminds us, "For sixty years [Ford] was a patriot before he was a partisan. . . . In contending for the greatest of all freedoms—the freedom to be oneself—he did not hesitate to dissent from party orthodoxy" (p. 339). Kaufman's work is the essential starting place for scholars seeking to understand Ford's political career. Perhaps it is also a starting place for historians seeking to understand the loss of bipartisanship and pragmatism in contemporary politics.