Roger B. Porter: Leadership lessons from Gerald R. Ford

Roundup: Talking About History

[Roger B. Porter, Ph.D. ’78, IBM professor of business and government in the Kennedy School of Government and master of Dunster House, teaches (among other courses) “The American Presidency.” He served as special assistant to President Ford from 1974 to 1977.]

As 2007 began, and several aspirants prepared to announce their candidacies for our nation’s highest office, Americans paused to celebrate the life of Gerald R. Ford, our only chief executive never elected either president or vice president (his predecessors in both offices having resigned). His presidency was, in that sense, accidental. It was, nonetheless, purposeful and filled with leadership lessons worthy of emulation by his successors.

Ford was by all accounts a good and decent man, born without privilege, hard-working and determined, serious as a student, and gifted on the football field. He earned a law degree, served with honor in the U.S. Navy during World War II, and, in his first bid for public office, defeated an isolationist incumbent for his party’s nomination. For a quarter-century, the voters of Grand Rapids returned him as the representative from Michigan’s fifth congressional district, always with more than 60 percent of the vote. He served longer in Congress than any other U.S. president. His great ambition was to serve as Speaker of the House.

By the time I left my interview with then Vice President Ford in July 1974—I was a newly selected White House Fellow, making the rounds for my placement—I had a glimpse of his qualities. He had immediately set me at ease by inquiring about my interest in public service. He was genuinely interested in education and asked how I would compare my experiences as a student at Brigham Young, Oxford, and Harvard. He listened intently and, before our meeting ended, offered to answer any questions I might have. My first question concerned the qualities he valued most in his staff, and how he organized those around him. His answer was revealing. Like most leaders he looked for intelligence, loyalty, and trustworthiness (he was, after all, an Eagle Scout). But he added that he liked a staff filled with some youth and much energy as well as those with experience and judgment. He sought to surround himself with those who had fresh eyes and new ideas to be mentored by those with greater maturity. Though he viewed his staff very much as a team, he worried about groupthink and a circle-the-wagons mentality. I left his office encouraged, even inspired. I little knew, when I accepted his subsequent offer, that I would begin work on August 9, the day he was sworn in as our thirty-eighth president, nor that the subsequent experiences would inform my academic work decades later.

Less than three months after Ford became president, the 1974 mid-term elections dealt his party a devastating blow: the Democrats gained 49 seats in the House, while Republican candidates won barely 40 percent of the national vote. Yet two years later, after defeating Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination, Ford came from 31 percentage points behind to almost defeat Jimmy Carter, losing by less than 2 percent of the popular vote.

Now, nearly 30 years after he left office, we can assess more clearly Ford’s presidency and the legacy he left. We measure presidents in part by how they mold and shape the circumstances they inherit. With the exception of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, no president has inherited a situation as difficult as that Ford faced when he took the oath of office. The United States was mired in an unpopular war that had divided the country and produced much anger, resentment, and mistrust. For the first time, a president had resigned, in the wake of the worst political scandal in our history. National confidence and Americans’ trust in their political leaders had eroded....

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