Monday, April 8 — Before a crowd of several hundred people, Steve Ford, the youngest son of President Gerald Ford, spoke at the Lansing Town Hall Celebrity Lecture Series today in South Lansing.
Ford was born in Grand Rapids and was 18 years old when his father took over as president in August 1974. Ford never went into politics as his father did; instead, he had a 25-year acting career and starred in television shows and movies such as “The Young and Restless,” “Armageddon,” “When Harry Met Sally…” and “Black Hawk Down.” He also had a stint as a professional roper in rodeos. He now travels as a speaker to talk about his memories in the White House and in Hollywood.
Today in Lansing, Ford focused on telling stories of his time in the White House and of his father. He said he wanted the audience to understand that “real families live in the White House.”
“We go through a lot of the same things as other families,” he said. “I do admit though, we had better government housing.”
Even the First Family wasn’t immune to embarrassing moments, Ford said. One day, he said, the Queen of England and Prince Phillip were coming over to the White House for a swanky dinner. His mother, First Lady Betty Ford, and the Queen took an elevator to the floor where a private reception was underway. When the door opened, Ford’s brother, Jack, who was a teenager at the time, was standing in front of the elevator, bare chested with nothing on but a pair of jeans.
“My mother was mortified,” he said. “To which the Queen responded, ‘Don’t worry Betty, I have one of those at home too.’”
The crowd, which was mostly comprised of women, seemed to get a kick out of the story.
Ford took the audience behind the scenes of when his father was picked as Richard Nixon’s replacement vice president. Nixon’s former vice president, Spiro Agnew, resigned after facing criminal charges on tax evasion and bribery.
Ford said he and his family believed their father’s name was “on the bottom of the list” for the replacement VP spot. The night his father received the phone call from President Nixon that he had received the nomination, Ford asked the president to call back and hung up on him. Ford said his father wanted to have his wife on the other line when the president called back so they could share the moment together.
His mother was not thrilled to have her husband in the White House because she had been looking forward to moving back to Grand Rapids, he said. Ford said his father told his mother, “Don’t worry Betty, vice presidents don’t really do anything.”
Fast forward to August of 1974, when Nixon resigned and famously waved two peace signs to the crowd as he boarded a plane for California. Ford said at that moment, he was standing 25 feet away from the plane and his father was now the president. The Ford family was “catapulted” into the White House overnight, he said.
“Most of the time it’s a party” when a new president comes into power, Ford said. When his father took over the presidency, it was a “constitutional crisis,” he said.
Ford said his father inherited a heap of national and international problems. There was a war going on in Vietnam, a Cold War with the Soviets, a “huge recession” and inflation over 14 percent.
Ford said the day Nixon resigned was not the first day the Ford family moved into the White House. He said it took the Nixon family a whole week to remove all of their belongings. The Fords spent the first night at their three-bedroom home just outside of Washington. Ford said when his mother, who was now officially the First Lady, was at the stove cooking that night, she turned to his father and said, “Jerry, something is wrong here. You just became president of the United States and I’m still cooking.”
Again, there was a roar of laughter from the audience.
Ford’s presidency ended in 1976 with a loss to Jimmy Carter. It was a loss that Steve Ford blames on his father’s pardon of Nixon after the Watergate scandal. Ford said 25 percent of his father’s day was spent dealing with the Watergate debacle and getting it out of the way was important for both the office and the country.
“It cost him the election,” Ford said. “I have no doubt about it.”
Ford’s father died on Dec. 26, 2006.
Ford said after his years in the White House, a brief stint as cowboy and a career in Hollywood, he decided to turn his talents and experiences over to the realm of public service. For the past 10 years, he has been talking to school children and prisoners about drugs and alcohol. Roughly 10 years after his mother admitted to being an alcoholic, Ford admitted to being an alcoholic himself. He said today that he has been sober for 19 years.