August 9, 1974: Gerald Ford succeeds Nixon as president
Following the Watergate scandal that led to Richard Nixon’s official resignation from the presidential seat, the vice president, Gerald Ford, was sworn into office to take his place. The line of succession was established to streamline the placement of a new leader in the event something happened higher up the chain of command. Although things proceeded as intended, the circumstances under which Ford took office were quite unusual.
The succession of a vice president to the presidential seat has occurred nine times in the history of the United States. Eight of those nine instances were the result of a sitting president’s death. Half of those successions followed an assassination. Only one of them, however, was the result of a president resigning from office and leaving, bearing double peace signs, on a helicopter bound for California. That resignation was of Richard Nixon, whose vice president, Gerald Ford, took office and served out the remaining 895 days of Nixon’s would-have-been presidency.
While Ford’s story of succession may not seem like an unusual case, there is more to the story than meets the eye. Richard Nixon’s original running mate was Spiro Agnew. Ford became the vice president only after Agnew had been forced to resign in light of condemning evidence during the Watergate scandal. Disgraced, he stepped down from his position as vice president and Gerald Ford was appointed in his place. Following Nixon’s resignation, Ford became one of the few vice presidents to assume presidential responsibilities, as well as the first serving president to have been appointed rather than elected.
Gerald Ford was sworn in as the 38th president of the United States minutes after Nixon and his family departed in a helicopter. In his first address, given over television shortly after his swearing-in, Ford said, “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.” In September of 1974, Ford pardoned Nixon of his crimes committed while in office, hoping to end the political division caused by the Watergate scandal.