Gerry Ford and Chester Arthur: Pairing Presidents VI

Ford and Arthur:

Welcome to the Accidental President portion of this series. Chester Arthur (1881-85) was a more important president than Gerald R. Ford, but the two need to be considered in tandem because they might both have been illegal presidents. I lump them also because they are relatively forgotten. I'd wager a lot of people don't even know we had a president named Chester Arthur, and I suspect a lot of people asked to name the presidents from Kennedy to the president would overlook Ford.

How they are similar:

Think I'm kidding about the illegal part? The Constitution stipulates a president must be born on American soil. In theory, Chester Arthur was born in Fairfield, Vermont, which has duly erected a marker to that effect. There is, however, compelling evidence that Arthur was actually born in Noyan, Quebec, and that his family, which moved around a lot, came back across the border several weeks after his birth. As for Gerry Ford, try finding a passage in the U.S. Constitution that allows a president to appoint a vice president in mid term. Nixon nominated Ford in October of 1973, after the sitting Veep, Spiro Agnew, resigned after being indicted for corruption charges stemming from his time as governor of Maryland. Of course, Nixon was also under investigation at the time. When Nixon resigned in August of 1974, Ford assumed the presidency having been elected to nothing but his House seat in Michigan. (Only the relief of being rid of Nixon spared Ford a Constitutional battle.)

Both men calmed the public after a period of national crisis­–Arthur after the assassination of James Garfield, and Ford after the long national nightmare of Watergate.  

Neither man had great success in foreign relations. Although Arthur did play a role in ending a war consuming Chile, Bolivia, and Peru, he also ended a trade treaty with Hawaii that later led to violations of Hawaiian sovereignty. Ford was president when Vietnam fell to the communist North in 1975, and endured the humiliation of communist Cambodia seizing a U.S. ship, the Mayaguez.

Both men made decent appointments to the Supreme Court, two solid men in Arthur's case and John Paul Stevens in Ford's.

Both favored civil rights, but failed to do much to advance them, with Arthur making several very bad decisions. He signed into the law the Chinese Exclusion Act that prevented Chinese immigrants from entering the USA until World War II. Arthur also favored giving Native Americans individual allotments of land, a policy that led—in 1887, after his presidency–to the Dawes Act, which led to the loss of millions of acres on Indian land.
The Pine Ridge shootout occurred under Ford's watch and he didn't do much to deescalate tensions with African Americans either. The Boston busing crisis occurred during Ford's presidency, as did several major race riots.

Both Arthur and Ford are remembered (if at all) for one important thing: Arthur for reforming the civil service, and Ford for his pardon of Richard Nixon.

Evidence suggests that neither man really cherished being POTUS. Ford campaigned in such a lackluster fashion that he nearly lost the 1976 GOP nomination to Ronald Reagan, and proceeded to lose to Democrat Jimmy Carter, a relative unknown on the national scene. Ford was so uninspiring that unofficial slogans were remembered more than his official ones. Among the former were "Stay Bored with Ford" and "Re-elect Betty's Husband," a reference to Ford's wife, whose battles with alcoholism garnered more PR than Mr. Ford could muster. Chester Arthur had no stomach for the White House, literally and figuratively–a combination of ill health and disinterest led Arthur to eschew a run on his own behalf in 1886. 

How they are different:

Arthur was, by far, the more impressive of the two men. He is often cited as a man who rose to the level of the office he held. A small bit of background: After the collapse of Reconstruction, the Republican Party mired itself in a nasty factional dispute over patronage. So-called Stalwarts led by New York's Roscoe Conkling were content to fill government jobs through the old "spoils system" in which winning parties got to dole out patronage to friends, family members, and political allies; Half-Breeds led by James Blaine of Maine favored reforming the system. Prior to becoming president, Arthur was such a notorious and corrupt hack in Conkling's New York machine that President Hayes fired him from his post at New York City's Custom House. Arthur was an unlikely reformer, but he appears to have undergone a political conversion experience when President Garfield was murdered by frustrated office-seeker Charles Guiteau. Arthur angered his Stalwart friends by placing his signature upon the Pendleton Act, a bill that set up the modern civil service merit system entrance exams. There is nothing in Ford's record that matches this.

Arthur also balanced each of his budgets, whereas Ford ran big deficits and saw the outbreak of runaway inflation. Ford, who was in office for the second OPEC oil boycott, was considered a poor manager of the economy, and his W.I.N. program (Whip Inflation Now) was ridiculed at the time and was subsequently viewed as wholly ineffective.

Aside from the Nixon pardon, Ford's 18 months in office offered little of note, other than dodging two assassination attempts, including one by a former Manson family associate. His major contribution was to the field of comedy—his penchant for clumsiness sparked the career of Chevy Chase, a relatively unknown Saturday Night Live cast member who parlayed imitating Ford's pratfalls into TV fame–not exactly the sort of presidential legacy that sparks a wave of monument building!


Oddly, Ford currently ranks 26 and Arthur 28. There is no reason to rank Ford this high, and Arthur deserves a slightly better rating. Look for readjustment on both ends—maybe 30 for Ford and as high as 23-25 for Arthur, who deserves a higher rank for his facial hair alone.

No comments: