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Gerald Ford: The Accidental President


James Cannon was a senior adviser in the Ford White House. He's also the author of the book, “Time and Chance: Gerald Ford's Appointment with History.”

James Cannon, welcome to the program.

Mr. JAMES CANNON (Author): Thank you, Madeleine.

BRAND: I like a quote from Gerald Ford that I read in an obituary today. He said once, the harder you work, the luckier you are. I worked like hell.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CANNON: That's right. He did. And that's a lesson he learned from his stepfather, who was a marvelous man, and a great teacher, and coach for this young boy that he came to know when he was 2 years old.

BRAND: Now, he served for 24 years as a congressman before he became vice president, and before he became president. And I'm wondering can you list what his major accomplishments were during that time period?

Mr. CANNON: Well, his major accomplishment was that he served on House Appropriations Committee first. He got that early in his career in his second year in office, which was a lucky break for him. And the Appropriations Committee is the place, which really decides a course of government. A president may propose, but the Appropriations Committee decides how much money is going to be spent for what.

So Ford was there in a place where he learned about government, and how it works, and what works and doesn't work. When he took office, he probably knew more about the functioning of the federal government than almost any other president in history, except possibly Lyndon Johnson.

BRAND: Did he want to be president or did he assume the job -

Mr. CANNON: He did not aspire to be president. He never expected to be president. He didn't really want to be president. What he wanted to be was the Speaker of the House.

But events dictated that he should be placed in position to succeed Nixon. And he was chosen because the Congress in its finest hour wanted a man who was honest to replace a man who had lied to the country.

BRAND: His image one has is of a very amiable man, an inoffensive man, somewhat bland. Is that -

Mr. CANNON: He's a workhorse. He's not a show horse. He's a workhorse. He was in the House. And that's how he came to be recognized on the Appropriations Committee, and his success on that committee brought him the responsibility of being the Republican leader in the House.

And, of course, as leader, he had major responsibilities and it was as leader that he made his mark and showed his colleagues in the House and Senate that he was qualified to be president.

BRAND: Of course, he became president under extraordinary conditions - the country reeling from Vietnam, the president had just resigned after a scandal, Watergate, the economy was tanking. What steps did he take in those first days to try to calm the nation?

Mr. CANNON: His first step really was to declare as he did that the long national nightmare is over. And by those words, he, in effect, calmed the country and showed that the world was going to be different. The White House is going to be different under his presidency. He brought to the presidency integrity, honesty, and that's what the country needed at that time.

BRAND: And he left office, not long after, what did he do in the last 30 years?

Mr. CANNON: Since he left office?


Mr. CANNON: Basically, three things. At first, he spent about a third of his time talking to college students, about a third of his time in political work helping House members get elected. And the other third of his time was spent in various enterprises. He had almost no money when he left the White House and he had served in Congress for 25 years and never was able to save any money during that time. So he needed money, and so the third part of what he did was try to make a living.

BRAND: And play some golf on the side?

Mr. CANNON: Well, that's right. That's right.

BRAND: What will be your fondest memory of Gerald Ford? What will be your lasting memory of him?

Mr. CANNON: Well that he was not an elected president but he was imminently qualified to the presidency. He had two essentials of a good president. He had a practical mind and a noble heart.

BRAND: James Cannon was a senior adviser in the Ford White House. His book is called “Time and Chance: Gerald Ford's Appointment with History.” James Cannon, thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. CANNON: Thank you, Madeleine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.