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An Ordinary Man summary

Richard Norton Smith

The Surprising Life and Historic Presidency of Gerald R. Ford

4.4 (12 ratings)
18 mins

Brief summary

An Ordinary Man by Richard Norton Smith is a compelling memoir that offers an intimate and inspiring account of the life of an extraordinary leader, motivating readers to reflect on their own beliefs and values.

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    An Ordinary Man
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    The unexpected president

    Richard Nixon was a shrewd politician: he kept his ear to the ground and usually knew which way the wind was blowing. But he misjudged Gerald Ford. 

    Our story begins in 1973. Nixon’s administration was in meltdown. His vice president, Spiro Agnew, was mired in allegations of corruption, and on October 10, 1973, he resigned. Nixon himself was in trouble, too. Having dispatched his vice president, the House of Representatives moved to impeach Nixon. 

    The basic facts of the Watergate scandal were known. Members of Nixon’s reelection campaign committee had hired former CIA agents to burglarize the Democratic party’s headquarters and steal compromising documents. When the story broke, there was a cover-up. The question then was how far up the chain of command the corruption went. When the Supreme Court forced Nixon to release subpoenaed White House tape recordings the following summer, the answer became clear: all the way to the top. 

    Nixon had one last hope: he appointed Ford as vice president. Ford had been on the Hill since he was first elected in 1948. Although he’d steadily risen through the Republican party’s ranks, he wasn’t the kind of cutthroat political operator Nixon feared – he was “good old Gerry,” part of the Washington furniture. Making Ford his vice president was an insurance policy. No one, he thought, was going to impeach him if it meant making an unassuming nobody like Ford commander-in-chief of the free world.

    But the House smelled blood – and it preferred a “nobody” like Ford to a crook like Nixon. 

    On August 1, 1974, Ford learned that, barring a miracle, Nixon was going to resign. He had a dinner date with friends that evening that he couldn’t cancel. Ford, who’d been sworn to secrecy and was slowly becoming aware of the momentous thing that was about to happen to him, was unusually withdrawn. “You’re awfully quiet tonight, Mr. Vice President,” his friend remarked. Ford apologized and said he thought he had a cold coming on. 

    On August 8, Nixon announced his resignation. At 12:01 p.m. on August 9, he officially resigned from the presidency; Gerald Ford was sworn in four minutes later. 

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    What is An Ordinary Man about?

    An Ordinary Man (2023) is the complete biography of Gerald R. Ford, the thirty-eighth president of the United States. Under his leadership, America navigated its gravest constitutional crisis since the Civil War and confronted its most profound economic slump since the Great Depression. While Ford can be seen as an “accidental president,” historian Richard Norton Smith argues that his accomplishments were numerous and significant.

    Who should read An Ordinary Man?

    • History buffs 
    • Politicos interested post-Watergate America
    • Fans of in-depth biographical works 

    About the Author

    Richard Norton Smith is an American historian and author. He is the former director of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and a regular guest on C-Span and PBS NewsHour. He has written numerous critically acclaimed studies of American political figures and presidents, including the Pulitzer-shortlisted Thomas E. Dewey and His Times and Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation. Smith was a close friend of Gerald R. Ford. 

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