For Gerald Ford, as with LBJ, there were really two presidencies: his first 30 days prior to his pardon of Richard Nixon, and everything that came after. Historian Leuchtenburg writes that, "Numbers of thoughtful commentators have concluded, upon reflection, Ford acted wisely to avoid the spectacle of a former president in the dock with the possibility that Nixon, visibly depressed, might take his life…" But others disagree, including historian Laura Kalman, who writes, "the timing of the pardon was poor, it's justification ill conceived".
Leuchtenburg says Ford did not redeem himself with his unprecedented testimony to a House Judiciary Subcommittee investigating the pardon. Leuchtenburg notes, "In his testimony, Ford falsified the record, especially by claiming that 'At no time after I had been president…was the subject of a pardon raised by…Nixon...or people representing him', when, in fact, there had been intricate negotiations during which Nixon's Chief of Staff spelled out for Ford his options on a pardon. The impact on the nation's faith in its political institutions was devastating."
Those feelings were exacerbated by the findings of a committee chaired by Senator Frank Church. Leuchtenburg writes that the Church Committee, "revealed that the CIA had been violating its charter by spying on American citizens and had recruited the Mafia for eight attempts to assassinate Castro during the 1960s. [The Committee] also published the names of other foreign leaders whom, since the 1950s, the CIA, quite possibly at the direction of the White House, had targeted for murder. Ford responded not with indignation at the miscreants but by doing all he could to suppress damaging evidence. When he learned that Church had been drawing on information about nasty plots provided by CIA director William Colby, he fired Colby."
Yet, despite all of this, Ford still nearly won reelection. Granted, Ford became the first president since Herbert Hoover to be ousted from office by voters, but his opponent - Jimmy Carter - only narrowly prevailed in the Electoral College, 297 to 240, having won by only 2% in the popular vote. Indeed, while some have argued that Carter's election was a mandate by the voters to reform government, Leuchtenburg writes that, "Instead of sending Carter to Washington with a mandate, though, the 1976 election registered widespread popular disaffection with the political process and with the executive branch. Turnout [for the election] was the lowest since World War II, because [in a survey of voters leaving the polls] four-fifths of American voters did not think that either candidate was 'presidential'."
Of Carter, Leuchtenburg writes, "No one ever arrived in the White House with better intentions than Jimmy Carter, and few have had so little notion of how to carry them out." First and foremost, he wrongly believed that he'd been elected to deconstruct the power of the presidency. This included instructing Chief Justice Burger to swear him in as "Jimmy" not "James" Carter, as well as his decision to eschew a limousine and instead walk down the inaugural parade route [much to the horror of the Secret Service]. As Leuchtenburg notes, "He followed up this piece of political theater a few days later by appearing on television in a simple beige cardigan. He lugged his clothes on his back on and off Air Force One and sent his daughter to public school in the District of Columbia....He got rid of the presidential yacht, slashed the White House staff by one-third, took government luxury cars away from cabinet members, and insisted that all federal officials fly coach. Instead of elevating his public reputation, however, these deeds of self-effacement lowered it. Critics accused him of depriving the White House of the aura of majesty…"
Carter also harmed his presidency with his preacher-like tone and speeches calling for Americans to change their ways. The most famous example is his "Malaise" speech [although he never actually used the word in his speech]. Leuchtenburg says the speech, "is usually remembered as a disaster, but, in fact, it won wide acclaim, and the president's ratings shot up." At this moment of success, however, Carter imploded. As Leuchtenburg notes, "Only two days after the singular triumph [with the speech] Carter... shockingly, demanded the resignations of every member of his cabinet. Foreign chancelleries, familiar with parliamentary custom, feared that the U.S. government was collapsing, and his constituents at home concluded that this man had taken leave of his senses. Carter wound up dropping five cabinet officials and bringing in replacements. Even more consequential than the mass of cabinet shake up was his appointment of a Wall Street favorite to head the Federal Reserve Board. Carter counted on Paul Volcker to combat inflation by imposing a tight money regiment, but Volcker plunged the country into a severe recession that increased unemployment without significantly lowering prices."
The seminal event in Carter's presidency was the taking of American hostages in Iran. Long forgotten is that - initially - the incident proved a huge boon to Carter's political fortunes. Indeed, Leuchtenburg writes, "Carter's approval rating skyrocketed from 30% to 61% - the swiftest climb in the history of polling, even faster than FDR's after Pearl Harbor....But as weeks of captivity of the hostages in Iran turned into months, then to more than a year - eventually to 444 days - public attitudes soured."
Public confidence further plummeted in April 1980, when Carter attempted a military rescue of the hostages. Leuchtenburg writes of the commando raid, "It ended in disaster, taking the lives of eight Americans when a helicopter collided with the transport plane in the Iranian desert. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who regarded the operation as foolhardy, resigned in protest, and the botched rescue attempt reinforced the impression that Carter, like Ford, was a bumbler, clueless about how to govern. Eventually, Carter's painstaking [negotiation] procedure [with the Iranians] succeeded, but, spitefully, the Arabians did not release the captives until a few minutes after the president's term ended."
Yet, despite all of this Carter - like Ford - almost won reelection. He had started far behind Ronald Reagan but, by the last week of the campaign, he had a strong momentum. Indeed, Newsweek prepared three different post-election covers: one showed Ronald Reagan, one showed Carter, and one featured the seal of the House of Representatives in the event that neither main gained an electoral majority.
Then the last week of the campaign happened. As Carter biographer Julian Zelizer has written, "...'the last week of the campaign went horribly for the administration." Carter's pollsters were, "getting reports of a massive slippage in popularity as people realized that the hostages were not coming home." Leuchtenburg adds, "Carter experienced the misfortune of having the first anniversary of the Tehran captivity coincide almost precisely with election day, a strong reminder, as his pollster said, that these people were still over there and Jimmy Carter hasn't been able to do anything about it.'"
Then there was the last debate in that final week. As Leuchtenburg notes, "A final televised debate one week before the election also powerfully affected the outcome. A seasoned actor, Reagan was wholly at ease, tossing off bright quips.… Carter, on the other hand, made himself seem foolish by indicating that he turned to his young daughter, Amy, for advice on nuclear weapons policy. The critical moment of the debate came when Reagan, peering into the camera lens, urged viewers to ask when they entered the voting booth: 'Are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is America respected around the world as it was?' When he posed these questions, he knew that millions of Americans, in a year of so many bleak tidings at home and overseas, would not find it possible to give the answer Carter needed."
With that broad shift of allegiance toward Reagan in that final week, the former California governor gave Carter an electoral "thrashing," as Leuchtenburg termed it. Many have compared the 1980 election to that of 1932 [although Hoover never led in any respectable poll in 1932]. The comparison of Carter and Hoover, "highly intelligent, exceptionally well informed, dedicated, the two men were bewildered when they found out that the sterling qualities (engineering backgrounds) did not suffice."