Tag Archives: Gerald Ford

The Michigan GOP Presidential Primary, 1976

As the Republican presidential primary race has unfolded this year, commentators have noted that all the campaign contributions and televised ads mean little if a candidate doesn’t have an organization. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for example, failed to meet the somewhat stringent requirements to get on the Republican presidential primary ballot in Virginia, the state where he now lives.

President Gerald R. Ford nearly suffered the same fate in 1976. The Ford campaign, it turns out, came very close to missing the filing deadline for the Republican presidential primary in Michigan, Ford’s home state.

The little-known story turns up in the personal papers of Elly Peterson, the moderate Republican leader who is the subject of my recent book, Elly Peterson: ‘Mother’ of the Moderates. Peter Fletcher, then the Republican national committeeman from Michigan, also recounted it when he provided a videotaped oral history for the Michigan Political History Society. On March 15, 1976, four days before the primary’s filing deadline, Fletcher discovered that the Ford campaign had failed to file the necessary papers to get the incumbent president’s name on the Michigan primary ballot.

Peterson was an old friend of Fletcher’s; at that point, she was serving as the volunteer co-chair of ERAmerica, but had not yet been recruited to join the Ford campaign. Fletcher wrote and told her that when he had tried to alert the President Ford Committee, “the big legal brains said I was wrong. Sent them back to their law books and they called back confessing I was right.” Fletcher was asked to go to Detroit Metropolitan Airport and wait so that he could hand-deliver the appropriate papers after they arrived on a plane. He told Peterson they never arrived. He concluded cynically: “Renews my confidence in the strong hands of leadership in which we have entrusted the future of our nation.” Fletcher eventually received the affidavits, and said he delivered them with only two hours to spare.

Ford’s name went on the ballot, and he beat Ronald Reagan in the May 18 primary by a margin of 2 to 1, stemming a tide of primary defeats that might have ended his presidential election hopes right there. That night, he captured 55 delegates to 29 for Reagan.  Reagan eventually lost at the convention by a margin of 1,187 delegates for Ford to 1,070 for Reagan. If Reagan had captured all 84 Michigan delegates in that topsy-turvy campaign year, it might have made the decisive difference in the race.

Stuart Spencer, deputy chairman of the Ford campaign, later said, “I have always maintained—and a lot of his right-wing friends think I am nuts—that Reagan was lucky he got beaten in the 1976 primaries. He would not have won that race: Jimmy Carter was going to carry the South, and without the South, Reagan could not have won in 1976. But come 1980, after Carter had basically had a bad presidency, Reagan was the beneficiary. He has always been a lucky politician.”

As this year’s Republican primary battle drags on, actually being on the ballot becomes more and more critical.


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A Statue for Gerald Ford

On May 3, the state of Michigan did what only three other states have done–installed a new statue in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall collection to replace an original one. In this case, the statue of Zechariah Chandler, onetime mayor of Detroit, four-time U.S. senator, one-time secretary of the Interior, anti-slavery activist–was replaced by Gerald R. Ford, U.S. president and, I’ll proudly note, according to Wikipedia, the only  president to have tackled a future Heisman Trophy winner when he played college football (for the University of Michigan). 

A few years ago Congress passed a law that permitted states to replace their original statues, often obscure 19th century political figures, with new statues. Thus, Alabama has added Helen Keller, Kansas has added Dwight Eisenhower, and California has added Ronald Reagan. And now Michigan has added Gerald R. Ford to join Lewis Cass. Here’s the complete list of the original statues. (From the vantage point of a come-lately Virginian,  I suspect my current state will have little interest in replacing George Washington or Robert E. Lee.)

Since I moved to Washington 36 years ago, I have traveled to the U.S. Capitol on three occasions to pay respects to persons whose remains were lying in state there: Hubert Humphrey, Rosa Parks and Gerald Ford. Now the last name will probably surprise some of my friends, and certainly my Michigan and University of Michigan pride was involved. But I basically respected President Ford for trying to be a good, honest president and serving the nation in difficult times. I will confess that part of my motivation was that I could not understand the adulation that was showered on Ronald Reagan at the time of his death, and felt that Gerald Ford deserved a similar show of respect, even though I knew it would not be forthcoming–at least with similarly-sized crowds of tourists. (Note to file:  Crowds in Washington are likely to be larger if you die in June rather than in late December, as Ford did.)

Elly Peterson was among the Michigan residents who traveled to Washington in December 1973 to see Gerald Ford sworn in as vice president after Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced to resign. It was a rare occasion on which she felt moved to immediately record her emotions. She wrote:

“It was more than a ceremony to me. I was watching an old friend and co-worker being [sworn] into the No. 2 spot in the nation. I was looking at a man who had undergone more investigation, more examination, than any previous Vice President (or President for that matter)—and I was watching a man who had come through all these investigations as a symbol of integrity.

“As old friends greeted each other—there was a feeling of confidence and inspiration—Here was a man from Michigan—the first from our state ever to be in the Executive Office—but more important than the historic first, was the belief by all those there, that it was a beginning—for a return to confidence in government.”

 At a party that night, she predicted to a Washington Post reporter that if Ford became president before the end of Nixon’s term, he would “make a great President.” She added, “And there could be a chance that he will get to be President.”

In eight months, that prophecy was fulfilled.

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