The Presidency of Richard Nixon is known for its many precedents, mostly negative. The Nixon administration was at the heart of some major Constitutionally relevant events. The most infamous were the Watergate Affair and the President’s later impeachment proceedings. One that is often forgotten is the resignation of Nixon’s Vice-President, Spiro T. Agnew.
Less than one year before Richard Nixon’s own resignation from the US Presidency, his Vice President, Spiro Agnew became the very first American Vice-President to resign from office in disgrace.
Shortly following his re-election with Nixon to office, in 1972, Agnew came under scrutiny of the US Justice Department. Investigators discovered reams of evidence of his political corruption. They alleged that Agnew regularly accepted bribes and that this practice carried over into his tenure as Vice-President.
On October 10, 1973, Agnew pleaded no contest to charges of federal income tax evasion. The plea bargain was an exchange in the dropping of charges of political corruption. Agnew was sentenced to three years probation and fined only $10,000. He was also disbarred by the Maryland court of appeals. On the same day, Spiro Agnew resigned as Vice-President. Because of the resignation, President Nixon was instructed to fill the vacancy as set forth in the 25th Amendment to the Constitution that had been ratified in 1967.
Regarding the Vice Presidency, the Amendment stated, in part, “Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take the office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both houses of Congress.”
Nixon’s first choice was John Connally. However, the Democratic majorities of both houses strongly opposed Connally, Nixon decided that he must settle for a much less controversial nominee. The President’s choice was Gerald R. Ford.
Who was Gerald Ford?
Leslie Lynch King, Junior was born on July 14, 1913 in Omaha, Nebraska to Dorothy Ayer (Gardner) King and Leslie Lynch King, Senior. Because Dorothy had suffered physical abuse by King, Senior, she and her baby moved to her parents’ home in Grand Rapids, Michigan shortly after Junior’s birth. In December of 1913, the couple divorced and Dorothy gained full custody of the infant. In early 1916 Dorothy married Gerald Rudolff Ford. The couple called Leslie Junior by the name of Gerald Rudolff Ford, Junior. (It wasn’t until 1935, that Leslie legally changed his name to Gerald Rudolph Ford.)
The young Ford became a Boy Scout and eventually earned the rank of Eagle Scout. In high school, Ford played football. In the early 1930s, Ford was a member of the University of Michigan football team. The Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions professional teams both offered him spots on their rosters, but Ford decided, instead, to attend the Yale Law School. He supported himself as coach for the Yale freshmen football team.
Ford’s official political career began in 1948 when he defeated Michigan’s Barney Jonkman. Before that general election, Ford married Betty Warren. That was the year they became a political couple.
It was on the floor of the House that Ford first encountered Richard Nixon. Ford was impressed with Nixon’s notoriety during the House Un-American Activities Committee investigations. Ford continued to serve in the House of Representatives for several years.
By 1971, Ford had remained the “ultimate Nixon loyalist” in Congress. He often bridged conflicts between the White House and Congress. Ford had been in office for several years so most Congressmen were well acquainted with him and his reputation for honesty. The stage was set for a major shift in Ford’s political career.
President Richard Nixon invited Gerald Ford to his private meeting room at the Executive Office Building to reveal startling news. The President told Ford that there was evidence that Vice-President Agnew had indeed received illegal payments in his office in the West Wing of the White House. The President confided that the scandal was going to be tried in court. Upon Ford’s return to the House Chamber, the news had spread about the Vice-President’s resignation.
President Nixon first requested that his Treasury Secretary, John Connally, fill the vacancy, however, after a congressional leadership meeting, Nixon found out that Connally would face strong opposition. Yet, at Camp David, Nixon prepared a list of possible candidates. The favored men were, Nelson Rockefeller, Ronald Reagan, John Connally, and Gerald Ford.
Meantime, House majority leader Mike Mansfield and Speaker Carl Albert placed Gerald Ford’s name at the top of their list. The political winds prevailed upon President Nixon. He had no other choice than to nominate Ford.
On October 12, 1973, Nixon shared with Ford, in a private conversation, that he planned to nominate Ford for the Vice-President’s office, however the President said he planned to campaign for John Connally as the 1976 Presidential candidate. Ford OK’d the arrangement. That night, the nomination of Gerald Ford was announced from the White House.
By law, Ford’s nomination needed confirmation by the Senate and the House. Due to the widening Watergate Scandal, Democrats worried that the nominee might become President before the end of Nixon’s term. Many were unhappy with Ford’s ultra-conservative voting record and his fealty to President Nixon.
On October 20th, the President fired Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox because of Cox’s attempt to subpoena the White House tape recordings. The firing enraged both Democrats and Republicans in Congress. Congressional leaders wanted to know what position Ford would exercise as President on executive privilege along with dealings between Congress and the White House. By all appearances, Congress want to delay action on the nomination until President Nixon obeyed the subpoena of the White House tapes.
Some compromise was achieved when Nixon’s chief of staff, Alexander Haig, pressured for a new special prosecutor and a new Attorney General. Haig also urged some minor compliance regarding the White House tapes.
The Senate overwhelmingly voted 92 to 3 in favor of Gerald Ford’s nomination on November 27, 1973. Then, on December 6th, the House of Representatives confirmed the nomination by a tally of 387 to 35 (Representative Ford voted “present”). On that same day, Gerald Ford was sworn in, as Vice-President taking his oath of office in the House chamber. He had become the first Vice-President of the United States to attain that office without being elected to it.
To many in the public, including the media, and political observers, Gerald Ford had simply become “President-in-waiting” not just the veep. The handwriting was on the wall that Richard Nixon’s presidency was taking its last gasps. During his time as Vice-President, Ford had to maintain distance between himself and the Watergate Scandal.
In the spring of 1974, Nixon finally released the first batch of White House tapes. Public opinion about Nixon plummeted. Later tapes demonstrated that Nixon had personally captained the cover-up of the Watergate break-in. By August, Nixon understood that to avoid scandal and official removal from office, that he needed to resign. On August 8th, the President called the Vice-President into the Oval Office and advised that he was resigning. Nixon said that he would be gone by noon of the following day.
On August 9, 1974, Nixon departed by helicopter. Gerald R. Ford, the first non-elected Vice-President, was sworn in as President of the United States. In the process of taking office, Ford also became the first non-elected President of the US.
The Blue Jay of Happiness notes that if Gerald Ford had not changed his name and kept his birth name of Leslie King, upon becoming President, he would have been known by the awkward oxymoron, “President King”.