Teaching With Documents:
Letter from House Minority Leader Gerald R. Ford to President Richard M. Nixon
In the late summer of 1973, Vice President Spiro T. Agnew was under investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Baltimore, Maryland, on charges of extortion, tax fraud, bribery, and conspiracy. In October, he was formally charged with having accepted bribes totaling more than $100,000 while holding office as Baltimore County Executive, governor of Maryland, and vice president of the United States. Agnew denied the bribery charge and pleaded no contest to a single charge that he had failed to report $29,500 of income received in 1967. On October 10, he was fined $10,000 and placed on three years’ probation. Earlier that day, he had resigned the vice presidency, becoming the first in U.S. history to do so because of criminal charges.
Following Agnew’s resignation, President Richard M. Nixon was faced with another “first”—putting to use the Twenty-fifth Amendment, ratified in 1967, that now required him to nominate a new vice president. Before placing a name into nomination, Nixon sought guidance from other government leaders, immediately holding separate meetings with Senators Hugh Scott and Robert P. Griffin, Representatives Gerald R. Ford and Leslie Arends, Speaker of the House Carl Albert, and Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield.
In his meeting with Gerald Ford, Nixon asked the House Minority Leader to request members of the House of Representatives submit recommendations for the president’s consideration. Ford did so on October 11 at the House Republican Conference. He indicated to the members that the president had specified three criteria for the nominee: first, that the person be capable of serving as president; second, that the person share the president’s views on foreign policy; and finally, that the person be able to work with members of both parties in Congress and be capable of confirmation by both houses.
In response to his request, the president received hundreds of letters from members of Congress listing potential nominees. One such letter is the featured document. Suggestions included Nelson Rockefeller, governor of New York; John Connally, former governor of Texas; William P. Rogers, secretary of state; George Bush, chairman of the Republican National Committee, Barry Goldwater, senator from Arizona; and Mel Laird, secretary of defense. A few women were also proposed. Margaret Heckler, a representative from the Massachusetts 10th district, urged the president to nominate a woman for the job. She explained, “No woman in high public office has ever been tainted with a hint of scandal, and nomination of a woman as vice president would go far toward helping restore public confidence in our government.” She suggested either Counsellor Anne Armstrong or Helen Delich Bentley, chairwoman of the Federal Maritime Commission, for the position. Gerald Ford, however, was the overwhelming favorite among his colleagues in Congress. One hundred and thirty-four members of the House and Senate mentioned Ford as one of their top three choices.
President Nixon also sought and received suggestions from outside Congress. The recommendations of his cabinet and staff were similar to those of the members of Congress. They proposed Rockefeller, Rogers, and Ford, as well. Fifty-six members of the Republican National Committee, out of 142 who responded, suggested that the governor of California, Ronald Reagan, be the next vice president. Actor John Wayne agreed with this recommendation, sending the president a telegram describing Reagan as “the most untarnished and honorable American leader in politics.”
The president received telegrams from still other individuals, and political groups, and even one from the fifth and sixth graders at the Adams School in Lexington, Massachusetts. Their bipartisan suggestions included George McGovern, George Wallace, Edward Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan.
Late on October 11, President Nixon took all of the suggestions with him to his retreat at Camp David, Maryland; the next morning, he returned to the White House and announced to his staff that he had made a decision. At 9:06 p.m. on October 12, in the East Room of the White House—before cabinet officers, congressional leaders, members of the diplomatic corps, the Nixon family, and a live television audience—President Nixon announced that Gerald R. Ford was his vice presidential nominee.
Ford had served in the House of Representatives from Michigan for twenty-five years, being reelected twelve times, each time with more than 60 percent of the vote. In 1951, he was appointed to the appropriations committee, and in 1963 President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him to serve on the Warren Commission investigating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Ford once described himself as “a moderate in domestic affairs, an internationalist in foreign affairs, and a conservative in fiscal policy.”
In his announcement, the president did not mention former Vice President Agnew. He said, “It is vital that we turn away from the obsessions of the past . . . this is a time for a new beginning for America.” And, foreshadowing events of the next summer, he stated, “If the responsibilities of the great office that I hold should fall upon him [Ford], as has been the case with eight vice presidents in our history, we could all say, the leadership of America is in good hands.”
On Saturday, October 13, Gerald Ford’s name was officially submitted to Congress for confirmation. In considering Ford’s nomination, Congress was establishing precedent as it proceeded for, while the twenty-fifth Amendment requires confirmation by a majority vote in both houses, it does not specify a procedure for doing so. The first decision to be made was which committee in each chamber would handle the nomination; ultimately it became the Judiciary Committee in the House and the Rules Committee in the Senate.
The confirmation process took eight weeks. Because of the scandal surrounding Agnew’s resignation and the growing speculation, caused by the Watergate break-in, that Ford might succeed to the Presidency, members of both houses asked for a thorough background check of Ford. In addition to a full FBI check, the Senate Rules Committee asked the Library of Congress to compile a complete record of Ford’s positions on issues during his twenty-five years in the House. The committee also asked that Nixon order the Internal Revenue Service to turn over Ford’s income tax returns filed since 1965 and to conduct detailed audits of his returns for the past five years.
The Senate hearings lasted from November 1 to 14, concluding with members unanimously agreeing that that they “found no bar or impediment which would disqualify” Ford for the office of vice president. The full Senate approved his nomination on November 27 by a roll-call vote of 92-3, following two days of debate in which many members made statements praising Ford’s honesty, integrity, and candor.
The House Judiciary Committee conducted hearings from November 15 to 26, concluding with a vote of 29-8 in favor of the nomination. All who voted against his nomination were Democrats; one of whom cited Ford’s record on civil rights as “dismal.” The committee’s report concluded, “Looking at the total record, the committee finds Mr. Ford fit and qualified to hold the high office for which he has been nominated.” Following five hours of debate, the full House voted on December 6 to approve the nomination by a vote of 387-35.
One hour after the House vote, Ford was sworn in before a joint session of Congress, President Nixon, his cabinet, the entire Supreme Court, members of the diplomatic corps, friends, and family. It was the first time in U.S. history that a vice president was sworn in separately from a President.
See the Letter from House Minority Leader Gerald R. Ford to President Richard M. Nixon dated October 11, 1973.
Letter from House Minority Leader Gerald R. Ford to President Nixon, October 11, 1973; Folder 7 of 7; White House Central Files; PPF; Box 169; Nixon Presidential Materials Project, College Park, MD.
Note About the Document:
The document featured in this article is part of the Nixon Presidential Materials Project at the National Archives in College Park, MD. The Nixon Project Staff is the custodian of the historical materials created and received by the White House during the administration of Richard Nixon, 1969-74. Following the Watergate scandal, Congress took possession of the records with the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act of 1974 (PRMPA). The Act mandates that the National Archives preserve and process these materials and prepare them for public access in the Washington, DC, area. Additional information about these materials is available online at http://www.nixonlibrary.gov.
Potter, Lee Ann and Wynell Schamel. “Letter from House Minority Leader Gerald R. Ford to President Richard M. Nixon.” Social Education 65, 2 (March 2001): 116-120.
This lesson correlates to the National History Standards.
- Era 10-Contemporary United States (1968 - present)
- Standard 1A-Demonstrate understanding of domestic politics from Nixon to Carter.
This lesson also correlates to the National Standards for Civics and Government.
- Standard I.C.1-Evaluate, take, and defend positions on what conditions
contribute to the establishment and maintenance of constitutional government.
- Standard III.D.1-Evaluate, take, and defend positions on the role and importance of the law in the American political system.
Share this exercise with your history and government colleagues.
- Distribute copies of the document to students or project it on an overhead. Ask one student to read it aloud while the others follow along. Lead a
class discussion by posing the following questions: What type of document
is it? What is the date of the document? Who was the intended
recipient? Who created it? For what purpose?
- Explain to students the circumstances surrounding Spiro T. Agnew’s
resignation and Nixon’s nomination of a new vice president. Ask
students to list criteria they think would be important in selecting a vice
president. Inform them of Nixon’s criteria. Discuss with students
the similarities and differences between their criteria and Nixon’s.
- Divide students into six groups and assign each of the first five groups
to research one of the names mentioned in the featured document (John Connally,
Mel Laird, Nelson Rockefeller, Ronald Reagan, and Gerald R. Ford). Direct
students to find out what offices these individuals held in 1973, whether
they were capable of serving as president, what their views on foreign policy
were, and whether they had a history of working well with members of both
political parties. Ask the sixth group to identify other prominent
individuals in the Republican party in 1973 whom the president may have also
considered for the job. Ask one representative from each group to report
their findings to the class.
- Ask students to assume the role of President Nixon, consider all of the
potential nominees discussed in activity 3, and write a one-page speech announcing
their selection. Invite student volunteers to read their speeches aloud.
- Direct students to read the Twenty-fifth Amendment. Ask them why they think procedures for confirming a nominee were not included in the amendment. Divide students into pairs and ask them to brainstorm
procedures that they think would work. If they determine that hearings
would be necessary, ask them to list the information they would hope to gain
from hearings. Ask student volunteers to share their ideas with the
class. Explain to them the confirmation process that led to Gerald
Ford becoming the vice president.
- Inform students that prior to the vacancy in the vice presidency left by Agnew upon his resignation, the position had been temporarily vacant sixteen other times. Ask students to research the circumstances surrounding the previous vacancies in the vice presidency.