September 14, 1948—Gerald R. Ford
began his nearly three-decade road to the White House when he upset heavily favored incumbent Bartel Jonkman
in the Republican primary for Michigan's Fifth Congressional District.
This year, conforming to an unswerving quadrennial pattern, Presidential candidates' beginnings in public life are examined. As reporters do so, they might benefit from comparative biography so they have a bit of perspective.
Ford's first race holds particular interest—not only because it represented his first step to the Oval Office, but because it indicated a political sea-change: the erosion of isolationism
in one of its geographic bulwarks, the Midwest. (Recall that Senator Robert M. LaFollette
and Rep. Charles August Lindbergh
—yes, father of the aviator—opposed the gathering sentiment in favor of American intervention in WWI, and that the area remained so committed before Pearl Harbor.)
The primary also exemplified an old style of retail politics—pressing the flesh—rather than the more poll-driven, image-conscious electioneering increasingly pushed by consultants by the time of Ford’s last, unsuccessful campaign: the 1976 Presidential race. (The consultant for Ford’s opponent that year, Jimmy Carter, was Gerald Rafshoon
, who, once his client was elected, would be dubbed by Doonesbury as “Secretary of Symbolism.”)
When I first heard about this event, I was puzzled. I didn't recall it from Ford's autobiography, A Time to Heal
, which I reviewed in my college newspaper. Then I found a copy of the memoir and saw that it had covered this race, and had even included some interesting details about it. The problem was that Ford (or his presumed ghostwriter, Trevor Armbrister) related the story with little insight—and had left out one or two details that might have spiced it up a bit.
Let’s take as a starting point for discussing politicians their desire for recognition. If you’re Gerald Ford and your father displays an interest in the Republican Party, and if you yourself have a credible background—Yale Law School grad, lieutenant commander in World War II, enough civic involvement when you come home to be named one of the Junior Chamber of Commerce’s “10 most outstanding young men”—then ambition is a given.
But matters become more complicated when fundamental ideological differences with an opponent are involved. And when hearty dislike figures into the equation, as well as an against-all-odds campaign—well, then you have a story—something, I daresay, that would serve as pretty decent fodder for novelists and screenwriters, and something that even Ford’s lackluster speaking style and reputation for ordinariness (making his own toast in the Oval Office!) can’t really undo.A Fixer Out of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”
Let’s go back even before Rep. Jonkman—who, truth be told, aside from crossing political swords with Ford, is lucky to rate even a footnote in the history of the House of Representatives. The man who brought Ford into electoral politics, through a kind of negative energy, was Frank McKay, the millionaire GOP boss in the state.
Other than one oddball detail Ford provides in his autobiography about this political boss—his pince-nez—the image that springs to mind, with his overweight frame, his snarl, his inability to let even the smallest thing in state politics to move without his consent, recalls nobody so much as Jim Taylor, the boss played by the ever-reliable character actor Edward Arnold, in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
An anti-McKay reform group called the Home Front coalesced behind a septuagenarian dentist. They had planned during World War II on how to seize control of the Kent County GOP from the McKay machine, but they put it off.
All the way from the South Pacific, where he had plenty of other things to occupy his time (like not getting swept overboard in a typhoon), Ford still managed to apprise himself of the Home Front—even telling his adoptive father, according to Douglas Brinkley’s biography of the President, that, if they ever asked him to do something, “don’t turn them down. I’m going to get into this thing when I get back from service and I’ll take your place.”
Ford had loathed McKay ever since the young man came to inquire about volunteering for Wendell Willkie's Presidential campaign in 1940. McKay gave him only five minutes after letting him cool his heels for four hours in an anteroom. Even after McKay was finished as a political power after the war, undone by bribery scandals, his handpicked cronies continued in important posts in the state, including Jonkman.A Role Model for an Aspiring Politico
I think you can tell much about a politico by who appeals to him or her as a youth. The young Abraham Lincoln, for instance, looked to Whig Presidential candidate Henry Clay
as a model. Alfred E. Smith and Winston Churchill—two politicians an ocean, class and sensibility apart, but very close in age—modeled their speeches after Irish-born Tammany congressman Bourke Cockran
. A 1940 commencement address by Henry L. Stimson
, two days away from being appointed Secretary of War by F.D.R., describing the looming Nazi threat as a clear issue between right and wrong, inspired a teenage George H.W. Bush to enroll in the Navy on his 18th birthday two years later.
Jerry Ford’s model was Senator Arthur Vandenberg
(R-Mich.), a former isolationist who, after seeing what American disengagement from the League of Nations led to (i.e., World War II), was not about to bedevil a President of the opposite party on foreign affairs, as a predecessor as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Henry Cabot Lodge, had done with Woodrow Wilson. Vandenberg, now convinced that “politics stops at the water’s edge,” lent Harry Truman crucial assistance in passing the Marshall Plan. It annoyed Vandenberg no end that Jonkman, representing his hometown of Grand Rapids, was obstructionist.
As Ford prepared his run, he sought the senator’s counsel. What the wizened pol told the eager 35-year-old went something like this: I can’t publicly support you—after all, Jonkman’s likely to win, and I need to live with him after the election. But you have my blessing. Good luck
The subsequent strategy Ford employed in the race resembled the one that Barack Obama pursued against Hilary Clinton in the planning for Democratic primaries this year: Fly under the radar. In an Atlantic Monthly
article, Marc Ambinder showed how the Clinton campaign was blindsided
when Obama finally announced his candidacy for the Presidency—so much so that they had to revise on the fly their strategy for victory. (And, as events proved, unsuccessfully.)
Sixty years before, Ford's campaign manager, Jack Stiles, had the same idea as Camp Obama, advising the political newcomer that the best way to win was to surprise Jonkman. This meant total secrecy—Ford couldn't even tell his girlfriend Betty. (Even when he proposed to her in February, he said they couldn't get married until the fall and he couldn't tell why. This was the beginning of her introduction to politics!)
(Another factor might have influenced the couple's post-primary wedding plans. A Washington Post obit
on the President noted that Gerald and Betty might have kept a lid on their nuptials because of concern "that her background as a dancer and a divorced woman would have an adverse effect in the Republican primary among Dutch Calvinist voters in the district." Well, if you ask me
, the “dancer” part couldn’t have been that bad—she was a Martha Graham dancer, not a Gypsy Rose Lee wannabe, for heaven’s sake!—so it must have been that “divorced” part that did the trick.)
An Incumbent Afflicted With Overconfidence and Potomac Fever
In his last election, Jonkman had no primary opposition at all and had predictably steamrollered the Democrats. Jonkman was Dutch, in a district where they constituted the largest single ethnic group. Under the circumstances, Ford’s prospects looked so hopeless that virtually the only people who thought he should make the run were his parents and his law partner, Phil Buchen
An unintended boost to the underdog came from a Democrat—none other than President Harry Truman, who electrified previously demoralized delegates at the Democratic Convention by announcing that he was invoking Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution, calling the “do-nothing Congress” back into session to finish the people's business on July 26, 1948—"Turnip Day" back in his home state of Missouri.
The “Turnip Day” session meant that Jonkman was tied down to his desk in Washington at a critical moment, when young, vigorous Jerry Ford was shaking every hand at every fair, picnic, you name it, to make himself known. Not that it particularly bothered Jonkman, in any case: he had already come down, after only four terms in office, with a particularly bad case of Potomac Fever
. Jonkman thought press releases and surrogates would be all he needed to coast home. But he had underestimated the underdog and overlooked his own vulnerability.
What did Ford have going for him? Not charisma, but certainly friendliness, energy and looks.
Yes, truth to James Carville's quip, "Politics is show business for ugly people." But make no mistake: If politicians have got it, they flaunt it. And, at this point in his life, Ford's looks were a decided advantage.
I found a photo on the Web of Ford in a post-victory celebration that gives you a sense of his physicality. (The one reproduced with this post gives a somewhat reduced sense of this.) It showed a big, strapping blond guy with a cheerful smile—a football player at the University of Michigan, a model for Look
in the 1940s. He contrasted enormously with Jonkman, who was almost twice his age.
Jonkman did not realize that events abroad were making his view of the world outdated, even small-minded. The crushing of one potential republic after another behind the Iron Curtain produced a consensus for counterposing the Soviet Union, through economic aid and, if necessary, arms. As a former serviceman and veterans’ advocate, Ford was personally offended by Jonkman’s shortchanging of veterans’ benefits—and many in the district shared this feeling.
Before long, Jonkman was making additional disastrous mistakes, including:
* rejecting Ford's challenge to debate;
* alienating Leonard Woodcock, the United Auto Workers representative in western Michigan;
* attacking the Grand Rapids Press
for an editorial supporting Ford
In the end, Ford not only won, but won going away, with 23,632 votes to Jonkman’s 13,341.
The young Congressman-to-be made sure he kept one of his campaign promises, the most unlikely one I’ve
ever heard, anyway: milk cows for two weeks for one area farm family. The farmer was certainly surprised to find Ford on his doorstep first thing in the morning!
As a new Congressman, Ford formed part of a trio of young South Pacific servicemen who in the postwar period would back and then consolidate a growing national consensus toward opposing Soviet power, ultimately leading them to the White House: John F. Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon, and Ford. The Cold War they led would ultimately end on the watch of another South Pacific serviceman, George H. W. Bush.