July 14th marks the 101st birthday of late President Gerald Ford. Once again, we celebrate this presidential birthday by briefly examining Ford’s relationship with Senator Robert C. Byrd.

Ford and Byrd had served together in the House of Representatives from 1953 to 1959, so their initial relationship was one of mutual respect and friendship. It remained so until shortly after Ford took his place in the Oval Office.

Amidst the chaos of Watergate and following the resignation of Spiro Agnew, Ford was appointed to the Vice Presidency by Congress in October of 1973. He then took the Presidential oath in August 1974 following Richard Nixon’s unprecedented resignation.

Senator Byrd fully supported the appointment of Gerald Ford to the Vice Presidency, despite Ford’s standing as a conservative Republican Representative. Byrd released his official backing of Ford’s nomination in November of 1973, saying:

“The voters in 1972 elected a conservative Republican administration, and congressional approval of Mr. Ford will keep faith with the people.”[1]

From the beginning, Ford’s presidency was heavily tied to Byrd and Congress.

Byrd’s amicable feelings towards Ford and his new administration faded when, on September 8, 1974, Ford announced his official pardoning of Richard Nixon. Byrd was outraged, saying the pardon “revived the lack of faith in government,”[2]  which was widespread in America following the Watergate scandal.

Several more issues cropped up during Ford’s Presidency, making him even more unpopular with Byrd. Ford was implicated in bargaining with the Nixon administration during the Watergate hearings and unofficially accused of committing perjury during his confirmation hearings by the press.

Following the backlash from Nixon’s pardon, Ford began frequently utilizing his veto power on nearly every measure sent to his desk. Senator Byrd was a strict believer in the Constitution and the balance of power between government branches, so when President Ford’s vetoes quickly started adding up, Byrd felt that the legislative branch was under attack.

Author David Corbin suggests that Byrd’s indignation towards the Ford administration was so stirred that it inspired him to consider a run for the Presidency in 1976. [3]

It wasn’t until years after he left office that Ford’s relationship with Senator Byrd returned to its original state of cordiality. In 1980, upon seeing the former 38th President in the gallery of the Senate, Byrd kindly invited Ford to share a few words on the floor, which Ford graciously accepted.

[1] Radio Beeper, November 27, 1973. 

[2] David Corbin, The Last Great Senator: Robert C. Byrd’s Encounters with Eleven U.S. Presidents (D.C., 2012), 150.

[3] Corbin, 152.

All photos courtesy of the Byrd Center

By Malorie Matos

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