President Ford’s Primary Task was Healing a Nation

A letter by Gerald R. Ford, signed and dated April 16, 1979, sold for $5,078 at an April 2007 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Gerald Rudolph Ford (Leslie Lynch King Jr. at birth) was an uncomplicated man tapped by destiny for one of the most complex jobs in history. The first non-elected president and first vice president confirmed by the Senate, he was tasked with healing the nation’s wounds caused by the Vietnam War and the severe divisions resulting from the Watergate scandal. Atypical from the usual driven personalities in the Oval Office, Ford restored calm and confidence to a nation while ushering in a period of renewal for American society.

A year before his inauguration, it would never have occurred to Ford (1913-2006) that he would be thrust into the presidency. The highest office he ever aspired to was Speaker of the House of Representatives; and that seemed out of reach because the Democratic Party had a stranglehold in the House. As a result, Ford had decided to retire after the November 1974 elections.

President Ford

Suddenly, in October 1973, President Richard Nixon appointed him vice president in the wake of Spiro Agnew’s resignation. “Remember, I’m a Ford, not a Lincoln,” he said modestly when he assumed responsibility on Dec. 6, 1973. He was at peace with himself and provided a sense of restored purpose, blissfully unaware of the collapsing presidency and seemingly endless revelations of misconduct at high levels in the administration.

One bright spot was that even as it approached dissolution, the Nixon administration managed to navigate the Arab-Israeli War of 1973 and diminish the Soviet position in the Middle East by successfully sponsoring a complicated triangular diplomacy with Moscow and Beijing. The disintegration of executive power did not lead to a collapse of our international position. Nixon’s prestige after five years of foreign policy now came close to a policy of bluffing, but the sleight of hand grew more difficult and it was unsustainable.

As impeachment proceedings gathered momentum, Nixon’s personal conduct began to mirror his political decline. He kept abreast of policy issues and made key decisions, but Watergate absorbed more of Nixon’s intellectual and emotional capital. Routine business became more trivialized by the increasingly apparent inevitability of his downfall. His tragedy was largely self-inflicted and the only question was, “How long can this go on?”

Then on July 31, it was revealed that one of the tapes the Supreme Court ordered to be turned over to the Special Prosecutor was the long-sought “smoking gun”— conclusive proof of Nixon’s participation in the cover-up. On the tape, Nixon was clearly heard instructing Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman to use the CIA to thwart an FBI investigation into the Watergate burglary.

With the tape’s release, Ford took the unprecedented step on Aug. 6 of disassociating from the president at a Cabinet meeting. He would no longer defend the president and said he would not have done so earlier had he known. Publically, he maintained silence as a “party in interest” (probably another first).

But it was the morning of Aug. 9, 1974, that witnessed one of the most dramatic moments in American history. At 9:30 in the East Room, Richard Nixon bade farewell to his staff. At 12:03 that same day, in the same room, Gerald R. Ford was sworn in as the 38th president of the United States.

Earlier, General Alexander Haig had handed Nixon’s formal resignation to Henry Kissinger in his role as Secretary of State. All presidential appointments are countersigned by the Secretary of State and, by the same token, resignations of a president and vice president are made to the Secretary of State as well. With the resignation of Spiro Agnew on Oct. 10, 1973, and Richard Nixon as president on Aug. 9, 1974, Kissinger achieved what we must hope will remain the permanent record for receiving high-level resignations … forever!

Our long national nightmare had finally come to an end.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Songwriter Stephen Foster Reflected Yearnings of a Young Nation

By Jim O’Neal

The life of Stephen Foster had an auspiciously American beginning. Like the great stage patriot George M. Cohan, Foster was born on the Fourth of July (Cohan’s birth certificate actually shows a date of July 3). But in the case of Foster, it was no ordinary Fourth. It was July 4, 1826, to be exact, which marked the passing of two great Americans: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, both having served as vice president and president of the United States. Foster came into this world as they were leaving it.

It was also a memorable date in American history, marking the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, a time when America was still emerging from its colonial past and establishing its own distinctive culture.

Stephen Foster (1826-1864), like most children in his social class, spent many afternoons playing and singing at the piano. But Foster was more interested in music he heard outside the home: the growing popularity of the “minstrels.” These were white-men-in-black-face performances of the 1830s and 1840s, which dominated the theaters. At once racist and patriotic, these shows permitted Americans (specifically whites) to join in expressing their superiority to the black man, an unfortunate “unifying event” in a nation of immigrants.

However, for the young Foster, who often returned home from the theater and put on minstrel shows of his own for friends, there was much more. There was something fascinating about the black music and lyrics he heard, even as they were twisted for derogatory effects. He developed a sympathy that he carried forward years later when, as a bookkeeper in Cincinnati, he decided to become a professional songwriter. And what an astounding, prolific artist he became!

From his office window on the docks of the Ohio River, Foster marveled at the music of immigrants from Germany, Italy and Scotland … and especially from the blacks who had come to Cincinnati to work on the docks. Now Foster could hear real African-American music, not just the caricatures of the minstrel men, and it captivated him. Locked in complete silence in his study, Foster carefully incorporated the diverse melodies he’d absorbed from the many varieties he heard. First working through them note by note on the flute, then playing them full-out on the piano until they became the raw material for his own music.

In the end, Foster’s lasting appeal was his ability to draw on this reserve from which he created a uniquely American sound. Borrowing from elements of Irish songs, Italian opera, minstrel music and black spirituals, he created simple melodies that spoke to human needs of family and heartbreaks.

The results were staggering.

His first minstrel song in 1846, “Oh, Susanna,” was a smash hit. Arriving at a time when national pride was beginning and new technologies were uniting people across the nation, it caught on like no song before it. The previous most popular piece of sheet music had sold 5,000 copies. “Susanna” would sell over 100,000 and instantly become part of our cultural heritage. California miners hummed it while they dug for gold. Black rowers sang it in the East and South. It was easily the most sung song in America.

After this success, Foster became serious about making a living in music and publishers billed him as the “Songwriter of America.” In 1850, he wrote 16 songs. In 1851, 16 more. Then would come a flood of hits that are too numerous to list. He toned down the dialect, dropped the term “minstrel” and blended the black experiences into metaphors for all manner of American yearnings, especially the one for “home.”

The Father of American music churned out over 200 classics. Then it all came to a sudden halt when he died from a mysterious fall. Stephen Collins Foster was a mere 37 years old when his genius stopped. Yet on the first Saturday of May each year since 1875 (uninterrupted), people gather at Churchill Downs in Louisville to witness “the most exciting two minutes in sports” … the Kentucky Derby. Among the many traditions of mint juleps, burgoo and women’s accessorized hats, the University of Louisville marching band will play his “My Old Kentucky Home.”

Not bad for a shy lad born on the 50th anniversary of our defiant Declaration, which we still rely on today.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].