President Gerald R. Ford’s Birthday

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | July 14, 2013

July 14, 2013
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Published: July 14, 2013

Of his 895 days as President, the man who was never elected to the office –  or, uniquely, that of the Vice President either – wanted to be remembered, he said, as a dedicated, hardworking, honest person who served constructively. This modest ambition befit Jerry Ford, who spent 25 years as a Congressman and dreamed, maybe, that someday he might rise from Minority Leader and be Speaker. But Richard Nixon’s disastrous second term – which had Vice-President Agnew resigning under a cloud of corruption, leading to Ford’s appointment as Vice-President; and then saw Nixon, facing impeachment, resigning as well  – catapulted Ford, suddenly, into the Presidency on August 9, 1974.  Seen in office as an Everyman, he was nonetheless narrowly defeated by an even more unsung opponent, Jimmy Carter, who many felt came as close to being a name picked out of the phone book, as the American people have ever come. That epic loss, in fact, is the subject of this enormously rare autograph letter – one of very few Ford is known to have written as president…

The tragedy of life, it’s been said, is not that a man loses, but that he almost wins. Jerry Ford’s 1976 loss to Jimmy Carter was by so small a margin that it took most of that night and the following morning to determine the winner; it wasn’t until 3:30 am (EST), that NBC was able to call the election for Carter. The winning margin was 2% of the popular vote, and the electoral vote, the closest since 1916. First it was even, then a cliffhanger, then, for the loser, an agony.  Here Jerry Ford, just a few days later, writes about the defeat: it is, incredibly, a letter of thanks.

Gerald Ford in the Oval Office with his golden retriever, Liberty
President Gerald R. Ford and his golden retriever, Liberty, in the Oval Office. 1974. Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, U.S. National Archives.

“First,  Betty & I thank you for the thoughtful, beautiful, and very generous letter. Your words meant so much to us at a tough and traumatic time. Second, you will never know, because words are inadequate, how much I appreciated your wonderful support. Betty & I are most grateful. You are stamp collectors, Dick & you, so I am sending each of you two of the enclosed with special signatures. Thanks again – you are really a superior person and a friend whose many kindnesses I will never forget.  You and your family have our love and best wishes…”

Bicentennial stamps signed by Gerald Ford in 1976. Shapell Manuscript Collection.

The friend to whom Ford wrote was Congresswoman Edith Green of Oregon. A long-time member of the House, she was against the Vietnam War, for Women’s Rights, and aptly called “Mrs. Education” for her advocacy of federal aid to higher education. Not surprisingly, she was a Democrat – but in 1976, she supported her old friend, Jerry Ford.

It tells us all we need to know about Ford’s character, really, that he penned this letter strictly on the basis of friendship  – for as president, he almost never wrote a handwritten letter.  Even when writing to thank the young man, Oliver Sipple, who thwarted an assassination attempt – by lunging, mid-shot, at a would-be assassin, on September 22, 1975 in San Francisco –  Ford chose to send a typewritten letter.  When it came to handwriting letters as President, Ford admitted “frankly, I wrote very few.” He couldn’t even remember to whom he might have sent one, telling a collector, “I know of no handwritten letter by me while in the White House available for your collection. I wrote very few handwritten letters while President.” This inclination, added to the brevity of Ford’s term – his was the fifth shortest – make his handwritten letters as president incredibly scarce and, after those of Lyndon Johnson, the rarest of all 20th century presidents. In fact, as late as 1992, in the noted study, “Collecting Presidents in Office: The Ten Rarest”, Ford was thought to be, after Andrew Johnson, the second rarest president in handwritten letters in office, period. Now, out of the 44 to date, he is considered to be in the top 5 as to rarity.  That these numbers fluctuate, as new evidence comes to light, is of crucial interest not only to collectors, but  to historians – for what are called “autograph letters, in office” are, traditionally, the most important indicators of presidential thought, behavior and ultimately, record. The reason for this has to do with how, literally, history is made…

Everything, almost, we know about history, we know for two reasons. First, someone wrote it down; second, someone preserved the paper on which it was written. That, until the advent of photography in the middle of the 19th century, and the beginnings of “wireless” communication, with radio and film, at the turn of the 20th,  comprised the whole of the historical record. The most authoritative accounts of what happened, and why, have tended then, over the millennia,  to be those actually written by the historical personages themselves. This is why handwritten letters (the term of art for which is an “Autograph Letter Signed”, meaning it is all in hand of, and signed by, the author) are so prized: they represent, in their intimacy, as direct a link to what that individual was thinking or doing, as is possible to know.

With the advent of typewritten letters (in the White House, that era began in earnest with Benjamin Harrison) and soon enough, telephonic and then virtual communication, presidential Autograph Letters Signed – with the salutation, text, closing and full signature all handwritten, on Executive Mansion or White House letterhead, and/or dated in office; as compared to scribbled notes and signed White House cards – became anachronistic. Which is why,  when a modern President chooses to actually put pen to paper and write an “old-fashioned” letter, it is considered revelatory. Ford, it is believed, only wrote five or six Autograph Letters Signed as President – and half of them, in the immediate days following his agonizing defeat to Carter. It hurt that bad.

GERALD R. FORD. 1913 – 2006. The 38th President of the United States.

Autograph Letter Signed (“Jerry Ford”), as President, 2 pages, quarto, The White House, Washington, November 6, 1976. To “Dear Edith” (Hon. Edith Green).  Of  the greatest rarity as president in autograph.

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