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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

The Life and Presidency of Gerald R. Ford

The Official 2023 White House Christmas Ornament Historical Essay

Everett Raymond Kinstler’s portrait of Gerald R. Ford, commissioned by the White House Historical Association, was unveiled May 24, 1978.

White House Collection/White House Historical Association

Gerald Rudolph Ford Jr., the nation’s only unelected president and vice president, was born Leslie Lynch King Jr. in Omaha, Nebraska, on July 14, 1913, the year his parents, Leslie and Dorothy King, divorced. Following his mother’s marriage in 1916 to Gerald R. Ford Sr. in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the future president was renamed for his stepfather and became known to his friends as “Jerry.” Young Ford attended public schools in Grand Rapids, joined Boy Scout Troop 15 of the Trinity Methodist Church, and achieved the rank of Eagle Scout—the only president to do so.1 Ford was a standout high school athlete and football player and went on to play for the University of Michigan, where he earned individual accolades, won two national championships, and received offers to play professionally. After graduation, he attended Yale Law School and briefly practiced law before volunteering to serve in the United States Navy during World War II. He saw action in the Pacific Theater and rose to the rank of lieutenant commander before being honorably discharged in 1946.2

Gerald Ford on the football field of Michigan Stadium at the University of Michigan, 1933.

Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

The following year, Ford was introduced to Elizabeth (“Betty”) Bloomer Warren by friends, and the couple married on October 15, 1948. The Fords had four children—Michael, John, Steven, and Susan. About two weeks after their wedding, Ford was elected to the House of Representatives, the first of his thirteen terms in Congress. During that time, he became one of the Republican Party’s key legislative leaders, rising to national attention in 1973 when President Richard Nixon nominated him as vice president. Vice President Spiro T. Agnew had resigned while under investigation for tax evasion and bribery, and the Twenty-Fifth Amendment directs the president to nominate a vice president if the office is vacant. Ford was confirmed overwhelmingly by both chambers of Congress.

Gerald R. Ford is sworn in as the thirty-eighth president of the United States by Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger in the White House East Room, August 9, 1974.

Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Less than a year later, facing impeachment and possible removal from office, President Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974, and Ford rose to the presidency. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger administered the Oath of Office in the East Room, where President Ford spoke briefly afterward: “I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your President by your ballots, and so I ask you to confirm me as your President with your prayers. . . . My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works, our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. . . . God helping me, I will not let you down."3

President Ford immediately set out to reduce inflation and American energy dependency, as well as mitigate a growing economic recession. However, his decision to pardon Nixon slowed the new administration’s momentum, as the president’s approval ratings plummeted. Called to testify before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Ford explained his decision by stating that the pardon was in the country’s best interest. He believed it would allow citizens and representatives the opportunity to move on from Watergate and to focus on more pressing domestic challenges and international issues. He took a similar position supporting conditional amnesty for those who evaded serving in the Vietnam War. Ultimately, Ford’s controversial pardon likely contributed to his defeat in the presidential election of 1976. Since then, however, some political observers have commended Ford for his decision of conscience.4

During his time in office, President Ford strengthened American ties with Japan, France, the United Kingdom, and Western Europe; negotiated the Helsinki Accords on human rights; and continued improving relations with the Soviet Union and China. He announced that the United States would no longer support the government of South Africa on account of its apartheid policies, and he used shuttle diplomacy—working between two parties as an intermediary—to ease conflict in the Middle East. Ford was the first American president to visit Japan, and he and First Lady Betty Ford reciprocated by hosting Emperor Hirohito and Empress Nagako for a State Visit in 1975. That same year, President Ford ordered American personnel and South Vietnamese allies evacuated as North Vietnamese forces advanced on Saigon. It was a stunning end to the Vietnam War, which had engulfed American politics, society, and culture for more than a decade.

President Ford enjoys his new outdoor swimming pool as the press looks on, July 5, 1975.

Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

During their time in the White House, the Fords made and celebrated history in several significant ways. First, the president ordered the construction of an outdoor swimming pool just south of the West Wing—the first in the home’s history. Ford was one of the most athletic and physically fit presidents, and he frequently swam for exercise. Second, the Fords participated in a wide variety of commemorations, dedications, and public events during the Bicentennial celebration in 1976. Three days after the Fourth of July, they hosted Queen Elizabeth II for a State Dinner in the Rose Garden. Finally, their daughter Susan hosted her senior prom at the White House—another first in White House history.

President Ford dances with Queen Elizabeth II during a State Dinner in her honor, July 7, 1976. This event coincided with the yearlong celebration of America’s Bicentennial.

Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

In 1976, Ford ran for president, hoping to be elected in his own right, but he narrowly lost to Democrat Jimmy Carter. Gracious in defeat, the Fords invited the Carters to the White House less than three weeks after the election. President Ford closely coordinated with the president-elect to ensure a smooth transition of power between administrations. In his Inaugural Address, President Carter’s first words were: “For myself and for our nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land.”5 President Carter spoke frequently with Ford, asking for his counsel on a variety of matters. When a historic peace agreement was reached between Israel and Egypt at Camp David, President Carter called Ford from the helicopter while returning to the White House to personally share the news with him.6

Susan Ford dances at her high school prom in the East Room, May 31, 1975.

Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

After leaving the White House, the Fords retired to Rancho Mirage, California. The former president published his memoir, A Time to Heal (1979), and oversaw the opening of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library in Ann Arbor and the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids. In 1999, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton. On December 26, 2006, he passed away at his home in Rancho Mirage and was laid to rest at the Ford Museum in Grand Rapids.

The Fords pose with their golden retriever, Liberty, and her puppies, September 16, 1975.

Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

First Lady Betty Ford

Although First Lady Betty Ford’s time in the White House was short, her candor, activism, and spirit made a remarkable impact on the American people. Her efforts were often intentional. On September 4, 1974, during her first press conference as first lady, she expressed support for the Equal Rights Amendment, which, if passed, would have guaranteed legal equality for American citizens, regardless of sex.7 She continued to support passage of the amendment throughout her time in the White House, calling senators, traveling across the country to lobby for ratification, and participating in women’s conferences and meetings. She even held informational sessions about the ERA in the White House Movie Theater for staff.8 With his wife’s encouragement, in 1975 President Ford created the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year by executive order.

Photographer David Hume Kennerly captured Betty Ford dancing on the Cabinet Room table on her last day in the White House, January 19, 1977.

Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Other opportunities for activism arose unexpectedly. Shortly after moving into the White House, Mrs. Ford discovered a lump in her breast and underwent a radical mastectomy at Bethesda Naval Hospital. Her subsequent decision to address her illness during a White House press conference helped reduce the stigma against discussing breast cancer and treatment.9 Until the first lady spoke of her illness publicly, many Americans did not openly discuss women’s health issues, which were seen as private and personal. Betty Ford helped to change that. Well-wishes and get-well-soon cards flooded the White House, but, more important, women across the country visited doctor’s offices, inspired by the first lady to get their own breast examinations. Breast cancer diagnoses increased following Mrs. Ford’s surgery, an indication that earlier detection was potentially saving thousands of women’s lives.10

Betty Ford lobbies for the Equal Rights Amendment from her desk in the White House, June 28, 1975.

Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Mrs. Ford also brought her own personal touch to the White House. She oversaw a renovation of the President’s Dining Room on the Second Floor and featured American craftwork in her decor choices for special occasions. The Fords also lived in the White House during the Bicentennial, overseeing the addition of patriotic artwork and furniture to the White House Collection.11

Betty Ford speaks to reporters outside the Guttman Institute for Early Detection of Breast Cancer, November 7, 1975.

Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

After President Ford lost the 1976 presidential election, the Fords moved to Rancho Mirage, California. There Betty Ford faced another health crisis: an addiction to alcohol and pain medications. Once again, she met the challenge with transparency, attending rehabilitation at Naval Regional Medical Center in Long Beach, California, and publishing two memoirs about her experiences: The Times of My Life (1978) and Betty: A Glad Awakening (1987). In 1982, she co-founded the Betty Ford Center, a treatment center for drug and alcohol rehabilitation in Rancho Mirage, California, with Leonard Firestone and Dr. James West. There she helped many others who were struggling with addiction on their road to recovery.

In the final years of her life, Betty Ford continued to promote women’s rights and health care and addiction treatment, and she spoke out about the HIV/AIDS crisis. For her lifelong activism, Betty Ford received many honors and accolades, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and a Congressional Gold Medal. Betty Ford passed away on July 8, 2011. She is buried alongside her husband at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

First Lady Betty Ford and her daughter, Susan, create Christmas decorations in the White House Solarium, November 10, 1975.

Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Ford Family Holiday Traditions

Presidents and first families celebrate many holiday traditions at the White House, including lighting the National Christmas Tree, decorating a Blue Room tree, and hosting holiday receptions. Although President Gerald R. Ford and First Lady Betty Ford spent their Christmases in Vail, Colorado, they continued many White House holiday traditions and started some of their own.

The Ford family enjoyed spending the holidays in Vail, Colorado. This photograph shows President Ford skiing in December 1974.

Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

In 1974, the Fords received a Christmas tree for the Blue Room, a 19½ foot white fir from Michigan, President Ford’s home state. At a Christmas ball, President Ford remarked:

The beautiful Christmas tree you see out there [in the Blue Room] came from Michigan. That tree and I have a lot in common. Neither one of us expected to be in the White House a few months ago. Both of us were a little green, both of us were put on a pedestal. And I’d like to add this as a postscript—we’ve both been trimmed a little lately.12

President and Mrs. Ford pose before the 1974 Blue Room Christmas tree, which came from their home state of Michigan. The tree’s theme highlights arts and crafts and features handmade decorations.

Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

The first lady selected a “handmade crafts” theme to inspire the public to incorporate thriftier items into their holiday decor amid rising inflation, an economic downturn, and the lingering effects of the 1973 energy crisis.13 Mrs. Ford decorated the tree with handmade patchwork quilted ornaments created by women from Appalachia, ornamental balls made by senior citizens, and handmade toys by craftsmen. To conserve electricity, the Fords also used lower-wattage Christmas lights in the White House and on the National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse.14

In 1975 First Lady Betty Ford continued to feature handmade ornaments with the theme “An Old-Fashioned Christmas in America,” trimming the Blue Room tree with popcorn, gingerbread cookies prepared by White House chefs, pinecones, paper dolls, dried fruits and vegetables, and fabric. Staff and volunteers from Colonial Williamsburg also contributed ornaments and lent antique toys and other pieces from its collection.15 The tree was decorated with garlands of dried red peppers rather than cranberries to make the ornaments last longer. However, that year a new White House tradition began when volunteer Christine Heineman created the first cranberry tree for the Red Room, placing fresh cranberries against a moss-covered Styrofoam cone. This tradition has continued ever since.16

The 1975 Blue Room Christmas tree features the theme “An Old-Fashioned Christmas in America.” The ornaments were handmade by staff and volunteers from Colonial Williamsburg, 4-H Clubs, and Girl Scout troops.

White House Historical Association

For the Fords’ final year in the White House, they selected the theme “The Love That Is the Spirit of Christmas” to highlight charitable giving during the holiday season. The first lady selected flower ornaments representing the states and territories and placed two white dove ornaments on the tree, symbolic of peace and love. In addition, she chose to display some of the gifts received throughout the year to commemorate America’s Bicentennial celebration.17

The 2023 Official White House Christmas Ornament

This year’s ornament is a festive wreath inspired by the handcrafted Christmas decorations the Fords selected during their time in the White House. The ornament features dolls, cherubs, doves, stars, flowers, gingerbread men, candles, and pentagon balls, along with red ribbons with the words “Christmas 2023” and “The White House.”

On the back of the ornament are five emblems related to the life and presidency of Gerald R. Ford. “Troop 15” signifies Ford’s success in earning the rank of Eagle Scout, the highest achievable rank in the Boy Scouts of America; his athleticism is represented by a football embellished with “48,” the number he wore when playing for the University of Michigan; a likeness of Liberty recalls the family’s famous golden retriever; a Bicentennial pin signifies President and Mrs. Ford’s contributions to celebrating the 200th anniversary of America’s founding; and an emblem for the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) highlights the first-in-class aircraft carrier commissioned to honor the thirty-eighth president as the flagship of the Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group. There is also a gold plaque featuring the view toward the North Portico of the White House.

The Official 2023 White House Christmas Ornament

David Wiegold for the White House Historical Association

The Official 2023 White House Christmas Ornament

David Wiegold for the White House Historical Association