It is not unusual for a President to win the election whilst not winning the votes of the majority of Americans. Five times in US History a candidate has won the electoral college vote without winning the popular vote, the latest being in November 2016 when Donald Trump won the Presidency despite securing 2.8 million votes less than Hillary Clinton.
However, it is unusual for someone to become President without winning an election at all. However, this is exactly what happened on August 9th 1974 when Gerald Ford became the 38th President of the United States without having ever contested a Presidential Election.
In November 1972 incumbent President Richard Nixon, alongside his Running Mate Spiro Agnew, won a second-term with a landslide victory. The Democratic nominee, George McGovern, carried only one state (and Washington DC) and picked up only 17 Electoral College votes. This victory gave Nixon a clear mandate for his policies. However, less than two years later, the American political system had been turned upside down and resulted in Ford unexpectedly becoming President of the United States.
The ascent of Ford to the Presidency started in 1973. The Vice-President of the United States, Spiro Agnew, was caught up in an investigation that would lead to his downfall. The Attorney-General of Maryland was investigating corruption by public officials. It quickly became apparent that Agnew may have been involved in wrongdoing during his time as County Executive of Maryland. Agnew was forced to resign as Vice-President.
When a vacancy emerges for the Vice-Presidency of the United States it is the responsibility of the Senate and House of Representatives to fill it. This been the case since the passing of the 25th Amendment in 1967. As it turned out, only one candidate was really considered – Gerald Ford. Ford was he House Minority Leader and was a widely respected figure. His nomination was confirmed by 92-3 in the Senate and 387-35 in the House of Representatives. Therefore, Ford became Nixon’s Vice-President.
Ford became Vice-President at a time when Nixon was experiencing problems of his own. On June 17th 1972 there had been a burglary at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. What was dubbed the Watergate Scandal quickly came to dominate the news and the pressure on the President grew as suspicions were aroused that he had a role in the affair.
Although investigators had been told Nixon covered up the burglary, there was no proof. However, in July 1973 a witness dropped a bombshell by saying that the White House had a secret taping system. The Watergate Committee who were investigating the events subpoenaed all the tapes. Nixon refused to hand them over, claiming executive privilege. The case went before the Supreme Court who ruled 9-0 in Nixon v. United States that he had to hand over the tapes. The tapes confirmed that although Nixon did not know about the burglary, he had attempted to cover it up. It became clear that Nixon would be impeached and would almost certainly be found guilty. On 9th August 1974, Nixon became the only US President to resign.
As a result of the constitutional line of succession, Ford became President.
As soon as becoming President Ford made an extremely controversial decision. Just a month after becoming President Ford made the decision to pardon his predecessor, Richard Nixon. This led to conspiracy theorists suggesting that this had been part of a Faustian-deal – Nixon would resign and Ford would pardon him in exchange. In a statement declaring his pardoning of Nixon, Ford said:
“I have sought such guidance and searched my own conscience with special diligence to determine the right thing for me to do with respect to my predecessor in this place, Richard Nixon, and his loyal wife and family.
Theirs is an American tragedy in which we all have played a part. It could go on and on and on, or someone must write the end to it. I have concluded that only I can do that, and if I can, I must…Now, therefore, I, Gerald R. Ford, President of the United States, pursuant to the pardon power conferred upon me by Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution, have granted and by these presents do grant a full, free, and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon for all offenses against the United States which he, Richard Nixon, has committed or may have committed or taken part in during the period from July (January) 20, 1969, through August 9, 1974.”
It is his pardon of Nixon that is widely believed to be a major reason he lost the closely fought 1976 Presidential Election to Jimmy Carter. History has been kinder to Ford. In 1999 Ford was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Bill Clinton in recognition of the healing he had bought to the nation after Watergate, a healing not recognised at the time.