By Jim O’Neal
Public opinion polls as early as 1975 indicated that President Gerald Ford would be unlikely to win the Republican nomination for president in 1976. The main competition came from the conservative former governor of California, Ronald Reagan. However, Ford was determined to campaign hard and plunged into an aggressive schedule.
The mass demonstrations at the White House had finally started to wind down, although there was another incident in March 1975. Sixty-two protesters entered the grounds on the regular daily tour and then refused to leave, saying the U.S. should end involvement in the Indochina war and liberate the 200,000 political prisoners in South Vietnam. President Ford’s amnesty offer to those who had avoided the draft expired on March 1, and the protesters also demanded amnesty for “anyone who had resisted the war.” Most were booked and released from jail.
As the president started his campaign trip West, there were some nasty surprises lurking in Northern California. On Sept. 5, 27-year-old Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a cult follower of convicted mass murderer Charles Manson, pulled a partially loaded Colt-45 and fired it at Ford when he was two feet away. There was no bullet in the firing chamber and an alert Secret Service agent grabbed the gun before it could be fired again.
Three weeks later, as Ford left his San Francisco hotel (the St. Francis), 45-year-old Sara Jane Moore, a civil-rights activist, fired a 38-caliber revolver at him, but missed. A bystander prevented her from taking a second shot. Both women were convicted and given life sentences. Subsequently, both were released under a federal law that allows parole after 30 years, although “Squeaky” served two extra years for a prison escape/recapture.
At the GOP convention in Kansas City, Ford narrowly won the nomination on Aug. 19 with 1,187 votes to Reagan’s 1,070. He chose Bob Dole for his running mate. The Democrats picked Jimmy Carter and once again the opinion polls showed that the president was far less popular than the Georgia peanut farmer.
Ford challenged Carter to a series of televised debates – the first time an incumbent president debated an opponent. Ford also campaigned hard and nearly caught Carter, but in the November election he became the first sitting president to be defeated since Herbert Hoover in 1932.
In his final State of the Union address to Congress on Jan. 12, 1977, Ford said, “I am proud of the part I have played in rebuilding confidence in the presidency, confidence in our free system and confidence in our future. Once again, Americans believe in themselves, believe in their leaders, and in the promise that tomorrow holds for their children.”
Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].