How should Joe Biden handle Donald Trump's post-presidency? Gerald Ford provides a guide

Ford had to follow a disgraced president and a disillusioned nation — and so does Biden. Can he learn from Ford?

By Matthew Rozsa
January 19, 2021 12:59PM (UTC)
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Richard Nixon, Donald Trump, Joe Biden and Gerald Ford (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump has achieved many shameful firsts. He is the first sitting president to refuse to accept his reelection loss, making him a historic loser. He is the first president to urge his followers to commit an insurrection so he can stay in power. And he is the first president to be impeached twice. That's just a shortlist. There is no precedent for Trump's disgraceful behavior, however, that doesn't mean that his successor, President-elect Joe Biden, will enter completely uncharted territory when he takes office.

One of Biden's first tasks will be to heal a nation that has lost faith in its institutions after the presidency has been disgraced and the other branches of government failed to provide a real check. In that regard, Biden can take a page from the book of President Gerald Ford, the man who followed Richard Nixon in the White House after the Watergate scandal.

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The Watergate scandal occurred because five burglars were arrested in the Democratic National Committee's Watergate offices during the 1972 presidential election. After it was revealed that Nixon had attempted to cover up various activities following the burglary and in other ways interfered in the investigation, he was pressured into resigning before his inevitable impeachment. Normally this would have meant that the person elected as Nixon's vice president, Spiro Agnew, would have taken over, but Agnew had resigned less than a year earlier after being accused of bribery, tax fraud and extortion. Agnew ultimately pleaded no contest to one felony charge of tax evasion and was replaced by Ford under the 25th Amendment. That meant Ford was next in line when Nixon left office in 1974 (at that time, interestingly enough, Biden was already serving his first term as a senator from Delaware).

Ford faced an unenviable task. He was the first and to this day the only president who took office without having been elected to either the presidency or vice presidency. American partisanship was extremely vicious in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, the Vietnam War in which thousands of Americans died due to government incompetence, a floundering economy, and a gas shortage. Similarly, Biden has to take over after hundreds of thousands needlessly died due to Trump's incompetent response to the coronavirus pandemic, the economy is in horrific shape, climate change threatens to destroy the planet and Trump has convinced millions to falsely believe that the 2020 election was stolen from him.

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Yet each president also had the advantage of comparatively high approval ratings. The initial Gallup Poll taken after Ford assumed office had him at 71%, whereas a recent Pew Poll found that 64% of Americans approve of Biden's conduct since Election Day and 58% approve of how he has explained his upcoming policies and plans. Biden has the added benefit of Trump's approval rating plummeting due to the Capitol Riot, with that same Pew survey finding Trump with a measly 29% approval rating and 76% of Americans holding a negative view of his post-election behavior. A Quinnipiac Poll last week found Trump's approval rating is at 33% while his unfavorable numbers are at 60% and an average of recent polls at FiveThirtyEight.com said that Trump's approval rating is at only 38%. Overall Biden enters office with a 49.9% favorable rating and a 43% unfavorable rating, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average as of Friday, giving him a net favorable rating of 6.9%. That may seem unpromising but, considering that Biden is bound to be compared to Trump, it is more hopeful when you realize that RealClearPolitics shows Trump with an average favorable rating of 39.8% and an unfavorable rating of 57%, resulting in a net unfavorable rating of 17.2%.

The challenge now is what each president should do with that public support. What can Biden learn from Ford? What did Ford do right — and what did he do wrong?

"He began things off on a good note," V. Scott Kaufman, a historian at Francis Marion University who wrote a biography of Ford, told Salon. "He said our national nightmare is over. He reached out to groups like the Black Congressional Caucus to try to say, 'Look, I'm not like Richard Nixon. I want to reach out to all Americans.' He also approached things so he came across as just your average American, while Richard Nixon was very aloof, was not very gregarious." As Kaufman emphasized to Salon, Ford did his best to focus on bringing Americans from all walks of life together and focusing on the shared problems that they faced as Americans.

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Kaufman's views were echoed by Gleaves Whitney, executive director of the Gerald R. Ford Foundation.

"In the wake of the Watergate scandal, President Ford knew the most important thing he could do to heal the nation was reinforce that he was trustworthy," Whitney told Salon by email. "He just had to keep being himself. That meant he would lead by example. He would be transparent with the media. He would talk straight with the American people. And he would work his hardest to reestablish trust, at home and abroad, in the office of the presidency of the U.S."

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At the same time, Ford also made a very serious mistake.

"What he did wrong — and again, we can debate this — but pardoning Nixon," Kaufman explained. "He did a very poor job of preparing the nation for that possibility. What he did came as a surprise not only to the average American, but even to members of his own party. And it only added to the belief that there's a conspiracy out there. It came back to haunt him in the 1976 presidential election."

There has been a lot of debate over whether Ford should have pardoned Nixon. For the rest of his life Ford defended his decision on the grounds that it allowed Americans to move past the Watergate scandal, which would have been impossible if Nixon had undergone a prolonged trial. Ford also cited the 1915 Supreme Court case Burdick v. United States, which held that accepting a pardon implies an admission of guilt. An obvious counter to those defenses is that, by setting a precedent in which a president could break the law and not be held legally accountable, Ford emboldened future presidential lawbreakers like Trump. Perhaps if Nixon had spent time in jail for his misconduct while trying to win in 1972, Trump wouldn't have been brazen enough to try to win in 2020 by attempting to coerce Ukraine into smearing Biden and, later on, working to overturn the election results.

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Either way, it is definitely clear that Ford paid a steep political price for how he handled the pardon, with his approval rating plummeting to 50% in the immediate aftermath and being stuck in the high 30s and 40s for most of the remainder of his presidency. If Ford had not pardoned Nixon, he could have capitalized on the massive goodwill he initially inherited, worked with members of both parties to achieve important things and even been elected to a term of his own. Instead the single thing he is most remembered for doing as president is pardoning Nixon.

This brings us to Biden. Although there will no doubt be pressure on him to pardon Trump — or at the very least discourage impeachment and prosecutions for the former president — he should not succumb to those pressures. All of the talk of "unity" will be nonsense because (a) Biden will alienate millions of Americans by sending the message that, once again, a criminal president is above the law and (b) it is absurd to think that die-hard Trump supporters will give Biden credit for going easy on Trump (or anything else, for that matter). While Biden should avoid seeming vindictive toward his predecessor, he will suffer immensely if he allows Trump to avoid the same legal consequences that ordinary Americans would face if they were accused of comparable crimes. The best way to unify the country is for people to have faith in Biden's integrity and judgment, not simply for his disgraced predecessor to be out of the headlines.

In a similar vein, it will behoove Biden to emulate the example Ford set before he pardoned Nixon. While the hostility toward Biden is much greater in 2021 than the hostility toward Ford in 1974, that animus is almost entirely rooted in Trump's bogus claims that the election was stolen; it is no more personal against Biden than it would have been against any other Democrat who beat Trump in the 2020 contest. Although die-hard Trump supporters will never let that go, the passage of time will likely cause the anti-Biden anger to fade for those who aren't part of the Trump cult and will want to move on with their lives. Therefore, like Ford, Biden will have the opportunity to focus on the constructive things he wants to do as president — revive the economy, end the pandemic, fight climate change — and use his Senate and House majorities to achieve them.

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This, too, will not be easy. But when Ford focused on being proactive in solving America's problems, and using his genial image to seem like a well-intentioned statesman, Americans warmed up to him. If Biden behaves honorably and similarly adopts a "let's move forward" approach, he could similarly benefit... again, except among those who have a cult-like devotion to Trump, and are therefore beyond hope.

This doesn't mean that Biden won't face unique challenges. Perhaps the biggest one is that Republican timidity is much greater now than in the 1970s, when Nixon's own party played an instrumental role in convincing him to step down. For example, when Salon reached out to Ford's 1976 vice presidential running mate, Bob Dole, for his thoughts on what Americans can learn from Ford's presidency, a representative from Dole's team told Salon that "he has been entirely laying low on the topic." Salon pointed out that this was surprising, given that Dole should at least be willing to go on record saying Ford would not have approved of the Capitol Riot, and asked whether Dole personally disapproved of the riot and believed Ford would have as well. Dole's camp did not reply.

This may speak to the fact that America is far more polarized in 2021 than it was in 1974.

"There are some similarities but many differences," Whitney told Salon when asked to contrast Ford's America in 1974 with Biden's America in 2021. "Despite the turmoil of the Sixties, the social foundation of the U.S. was more intact in 1974 than it is today. There was more unum and less pluribus then. More Americans shared common beliefs and values when it came to religion, economics, politics, and society than they do today. Given our divisions today, it will be extremely difficult for President-elect Biden to bring about more unity. He will have to work at least as hard as President Ford did to start the healing process. But he has to do it. It is Job One."

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Incidentally, Ford's successor President Jimmy Carter had a similar observation when he was interviewed by this reporter in 2018 about the 1970s, observing that "we still have the same crises of that time, plus a serious loss of faith in democracy, the truth, treating all people as equals, each generation believing life would be better, America has a good system of justice, etc."

As for what Ford would have thought of the Capitol Riot? Kaufman shared a revealing anecdote.

"After Jimmy Carter's inauguration, President Ford departed the White House via helicopter," Kaufman wrote to Salon. "As he flew over the Capitol building, he said, with tears in his eyes, 'That's my real home.' For a person who had served in Congress for a quarter century, Ford knew that that 'home' was where the representatives of the people conducted business for American people. It is a hallowed place, a symbol of democracy. Had he been alive today and witnessed a group of thugs break into the Capitol, ransack it, and desecrate his statue by putting a Trump flag in his hand and a MAGA hat on his head, he would have been irate."


Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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2020 Election Capitol Riot Commentary Donald Trump Gerald Ford Joe Biden Opinion Richard Nixon