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Gerald R. Ford (The American Presidents Series: The 38th President, 1974-1977) Hardcover – February 6, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Douglas Brinkley is the director of the Theodore Roosevelt Center and professor of history at Tulane University. He is the author of biographies of Henry Ford, Jimmy Carter, Dean Acheson, James Forrestal, John Kerry, and Rosa Parks, and his most recent books include The Reagan Diaries, The Great Deluge, and The Boys of Pointe du Hoc. He is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, and American Heritage and a frequent contributor to The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic Monthly. He lives in New Orleans with his wife and children.

From The Washington Post

Reviewed by David S. Broder

When historian Douglas Brinkley was asked by the late Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., general editor of the American Presidents series published by Times Books, to undertake a short biography of Gerald R. Ford, the man from Michigan who served less than three years in the White House was a neglected subject.

By the time Brinkley had finished the manuscript, Ford's story had been told, copiously and repeatedly, in newspaper obituaries recording his death at age 93 last December, and his contributions to American life had been praised in memorial ceremonies in California, Washington and Grand Rapids, Mich. -- and in dozens of columns and editorials. As his body was carried across the country, from his final home near Palm Springs, to the Capitol where he had served, and then back to Michigan for burial, the praise rolled in for the man who had applied the healing comfort of his common sense and goodwill to a nation badly bruised by the ordeals of the Vietnam War and Watergate.

After all that, the current generation of readers -- unlike those who in future decades may turn to Brinkley's book for basic information about the life of the 38th president -- will wonder what fresh insights the author offers. He had only one personal interview with Ford for this project, back in 2003, and he mines it for a number of autobiographical comments, none of them groundbreaking. But Brinkley does address -- and help settle -- some of the unresolved questions about Ford's career.

He has delved deep, for example, into the relationship between Ford and Richard Nixon, the man who appointed Ford to the vacancy created by the resignation of Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew, and thereby put Ford in line for the presidency. After Ford's death, journalists who had interviewed him late in life quarreled among themselves about whether the Ford-Nixon relationship was simply one of mutual political advantage or a genuine friendship.

Brinkley makes a strong case that they were far more than partners in partisanship. He quotes Ford as telling him that Nixon was "my close friend," a man whose views on both foreign and domestic issues "were almost mirror images" of his own, as he quickly discovered when they met as members of the House. Beyond that, both men had grown up in families struggling during the Depression, so, as Ford said, "we understood what it meant to rise on merit, not privilege."

In a private collection of Ford's correspondence, still in the hands of a New York dealer, Brinkley unearthed a number of letters written by Nixon after his resignation, counseling and offering moral support to his successor, whose brief tenure was beset by troubles. In August of 1976, with Ford's approval scores around 30 percent, Nixon wrote from exile urging Ford to "keep that confident, fighting spirit -- and the only poll that matters will come out alright on November 2."

It did not, of course. Brinkley sympathetically repeats Ford's own complaint that it was the long battle that the unelected president had to wage just to keep the Republican nomination in 1976 from Ronald Reagan that fatally weakened Ford for the battle with Jimmy Carter. Ford called Reagan's decision to challenge him "a low-down stunt" and said the Californian's standoffish attitude after losing the nomination fight probably cost him the election. "He snubbed me," Ford said. "Put his nose up in the air."

That bitterness was at odds with most of Ford's life. He had a talent for reconciliation, forging friendships with past antagonists, including Jimmy Carter and many of the journalists who had ridiculed or criticized him as president. Brinkley does full justice to those qualities of Midwestern goodwill exhibited by Ford all his life, and he excuses Ford's anger with Reagan and the right-wingers because he plainly shares Ford's preference for a more tolerant, pragmatic version of conservatism.

The result is a highly sympathetic but largely accurate appraisal of Ford's accomplishments. I would fault Brinkley's account of Ford's rise to the White House in one respect. When discussing the series of backbench revolts that moved Ford into the post of Republican leader of the House, Brinkley makes it sound as if Ford himself were the ringleader in all these efforts. In fact, much of the strategy and organizing was done by others, who were smart enough to recognize that the rapport Ford had gained among his colleagues made him the ideal candidate to put forward against the Old Guard leaders. But a biography of Jerry Ford that contains no mention of the work of Melvin R. Laird, Charles Goodell and Glenard Lipscomb in advancing his career is hardly complete.

That said, I can fully endorse Brinkley's contention that Ford did the right thing in pardoning Nixon -- I thought, and wrote, so at the time -- and that he accomplished more as president than "healing" the wounded presidency. "It was Gerald R. Ford who dissipated the pall of Richard Nixon, however controversially, and who shepherded the nation safely through to the end of its most divisive war while living up to the United States's ensuing responsibilities to South Vietnam's refugees. It was Ford whose help in forging the Helsinki Accords opened the way for the collapse of Soviet communism. It was Ford who acknowledged the seriousness of the global energy crisis and who conveyed the urgent need for cooperation to do something about it to the rest of the industrialized world, and whose careful fiscal policies cut inflation in half and boosted the U.S. economy out of its direst fix since the Great Depression. And it was Ford who, purely by dint of coming across as a really nice, normal guy, restored Americans' faith in the validity of their government."

All of which, Brinkley argues, should boost him into the rank of "near-great president."

Copyright 2007, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.


Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Times Books; annotated edition edition (February 6, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805069097
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805069099
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (40 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #422,273 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Dr. Douglas Brinkley is currently a Professor of History at Rice University and a Fellow at the James Baker III Institute of Public Policy. He completed his bachelor's degree at Ohio State University and received his doctorate in U.S. Diplomatic History from Georgetown University in 1989. He then spent a year at the U.S. Naval Academy and Princeton University teaching history. While a professor at Hofstra University, Dr. Brinkley spearheaded the American Odyssey course, in which he took students on numerous cross-country treks where they visited historic sites and met seminal figures in politics and literature. Dr. Brinkley's 1994 book, The Majic Bus: An American Odyssey chronicled his first experience teaching this innovative on-the-road class which became the progenitor to C-SPAN's Yellow School Bus.

Five of Dr. Brinkley's books have been selected as New York Times "Notable Books of the Year": Dean Acheson: The Cold War Years(1992), Driven Patriot: The Life and Times of James Forrestal, with Townsend Hoopes (1992), The Unfinished Presidency: Jimmy Carter's Journey Beyond the White House (1998), Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company and a Century of Progress (2003), and The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast (2006).

Five of his most recent publications have become New York Times best-sellers: The Reagan Diaries, (2007), The Great Deluge (2006), The Boys of Pointe du Hoc: Ronald Reagan, D-Day and the U.S. Army 2nd Ranger Battalion (2005), Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War (2004) and Voices of Valor: D-Day: June 6, 1944 with Ronald J. Drez (2004). The Great Deluge (2006), was the recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy prize and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book award.

Before coming to Rice, Dr. Brinkley served as Professor of History and Director of the Roosevelt Center at Tulane University in New Orleans. From 1994 until 2005 he was Stephen E. Ambrose Professor of History and Director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans. During his tenure there he wrote two books with the late Professor Ambrose: Rise to Globalism: American Foreign Policy Since 1938 (1997) and The Mississippi and the Making of a Nation: From the Louisiana Purchase to Today (2002). On the literary front, Dr. Brinkley has edited Jack Kerouac's diaries, Hunter S. Thompson's letters and Theodore Dreiser's travelogue. His work on civil rights includes Rosa Parks (2000) and the forthcoming Portable Civil Rights Reader.

He won the Benjamin Franklin Award for The American Heritage History of the United States (1998) and the Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt Naval History Prize for Driven Patriot (1993). He was awarded the Business Week Book of the Year Award for Wheels for the World and was also named 2004 Humanist of the Year by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. He has received honorary doctorates from Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.

Dr. Brinkley is contributing editor for Vanity Fair, Los Angeles Times Book Review and American Heritage. A frequent contributor to the New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic Monthly, he is also a member of the Theodore Roosevelt Association, the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Century Club. In a recent profile, the Chicago Tribune deemed him "America's new past master."

Forthcoming publications include The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the crusade for America and a biography of Walter Cronkite.

He lives in Austin and Houston, Texas with his wife and three children.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Brinkley's account of the underappreciated Presidency and life of Gerald R. Ford was a fast and informative account of our 38th President. Though a biographer of Jimmy Carter, Brinkley gives Ford his due credit, but also manages to draw attention to Ford's mistakes, such as jettisoning Rockefeller from the Vice Presidency. Brinkley's 2003 interviews with Ford also provide rich background to a book that one can easily read in a single day. Since his death, the public adoration for Ford has been deafening. This biography hit the shelves only 6 weeks after his death, which is included in the

book. As a public school Social Studies teacher, I would highly recommend this book!
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The American Presidents series, snapshot biographies of most of our presidents, is a great addition to our knowledge of this small number of men who have been our nation's Chief Executive. With the recent publication of Douglas Brinkley's book on Gerald Ford the series has just gotten even better. The timeliness of the book's release, so soon after President Ford's death, (not to mention the passing of Arthur Schlesinger, general editor of the series) is particularly welcome. Ford's growing popularity, as witnessed not only by Brinkley's offering but also by the former president's funeral, adds to the luster of a president who, during his tenure at the White House, was considered either a buffoon or just simply not up to the job.

Brinkley stresses Gerald Ford's midwestern roots, his service to the country during World War II and his ascension through the Republican ranks in the House of Representatives to become that party's Minority Leader. Politically ambitious, Brinkley recalls that Ford's wish was to become Speaker of the House. How things changed for him almost overnight! When Nixon needed a new Vice President after the disgraced Spiro Agnew resigned, there was really only one man who was acceptable...Jerry Ford.

His 896 days as president had some notable achievements, our extrication from Vietnam and the Helsinki Accords to name just two, but the pardon of Nixon....always the pardon...came around to haunt Ford for years. Fortunately, for those of us who were outraged at Ford for doing so at the time, now see the wisdom of his decision and Brinkley balances this nicely with other aspects of the Ford administration.
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Well known historian Douglas Brinkley has written this brief biography, as a part of the American Presidents series of works. In the series editor's Introduction, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. notes that (Page xv): "The president is the central player in the American political order." Gerald Ford was an accidental president, taking over after Richard Nixon's downfall resulting from Watergate and his subsequent resignation.

Gerald Ford's name at birth was Leslie Lynch King, Jr. His father had a violent temper and the marriage did not last long. His mother later married Gerald Rudolf Ford; after a time, her son was renamed Gerald Rudolph (an Americanized version of the stepfather's middle name) Ford. As a youngster, he excelled at athletics and even had the possibility of a pro football career. However, he chose law school and, shortly after that, electoral politics. He saw action in World War II.

When he was elected to the House of Representatives 1948, he began to formulate the ambition to become Speaker of the House. His chosen career was in the legislature. The book does a nice job profiling his rise in the House, with carefully crafted advancement through the ranks; it also depicts the start of a long-time friendship between Ford and Richard Nixon.

When Ford finally became Minority Leader in the House, he used his conciliatory approach well. As Brinkley says (Page 31), ". . .he played the good coach, giving his squad wide latitude to speak their minds. In exchange, he wanted no bickering. Ford's open forum proved smart strategy." Some tho9ught him rather slow of thought, but his amiability and ability to work with others represented a great strength.
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I began my collection of these pocket bios with the obscure 19th century Presidents, then decided to shift to one I remember well. I was a typical college radical when Ford became President and since then have looked upon him more kindly only because of his mostly disastrous successors. As a fan of Brinkley's books I believed - correctly - that he would be objective while remaining respectful. Ford was a member of the "Greatest Generation" straight out of Central Casting, with his humble small-town roots, a political "conservative" in the true sense of the word whose political ambition, great thought it was, always had a tinge of "do the right thing." His detractors are right about some things - he could be an unimaginative plodder, and on occasion went down an unwise path (impeachment of Justice Douglas), and was fiercely loyal to a fault (e.g., willful ignorance of Nixon's dishonesty). But he also understood that a President must represent all the people and governed himself accordingly, becoming far more the "Man of the Hour" than he is given credit for. His administration was not flawless, and some of his political expediencies (dumping VP Rockefeller) were discreditable, but as Bob Strauss advised Jimmy Carter, they wouldn't win the election by casting their candidate as a better man than the incumbent. Brinkley speculates history will someday rank Ford as "near great" and, while I think the jury is still out, his brief is thorough and convincing.
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