Ford’s Four Seconds

Ron Nessen
Ron Nessen Journalist in Residence

January 30, 2010

In his first State of the Union speech, on Jan. 15, 1975, President Gerald R. Ford told Congress and the American people in his plain-spoken manner: “I must say to you that the State of the Union is not good.” And then he listed the particulars: The economy was suffering from stagflation — simultaneous high inflation and economic recession. Unemployment was rising toward 8 percent. There was an energy shortage and high oil prices because of an embargo on petroleum shipments by Arab nations. The federal budget deficit was approaching $50 billion and the national debt $500 billion — big money in those days. As we prepared the speech — the first draft wasn’t even completed until around 3:30 a.m. on the day of the address — Ford asked Roy Ash, director of the Office of Management and Budget, if he had any good economic news to include. Ash replied, “That’ll take about four seconds.”

Nonetheless, Ford offered a number of specific proposals in his speech, some of which may sound familiar to those who listened to President Obama’s address on Wednesday: capping the federal budget at $300 billion; cutting taxes by giving individuals a rebate of up to $1,000 and by giving industries a $4 billion reward for creating new jobs; imposing new taxes on petroleum products to discourage use and offering new incentives to encourage more domestic production as well as development of nuclear and solar energy.

Ford ended his State of the Union speech by declaring, “In partnership with the American people, we will achieve these objectives.” However, Ford’s ability to achieve the goals — as well as his relationship with Congress, the press corps and the American people — had been seriously undermined by the pardon of his disgraced predecessor, Richard Nixon, four months earlier. When Nixon resigned, Ford seemed to be a breath of fresh air after the miasma of Watergate — he was a regular guy who could laugh at his own foibles, down-to-earth, self-confident, liked by both Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

All that hope and good will were blown away by the pardon, and by subsequent rumors (never substantiated) of some kind of deal between Ford and Nixon. It was in that atmosphere of anger and disillusionment that Ford delivered his first State of the Union speech. Only decades later was Ford’s presidency — and the pardon — reappraised and his reputation restored.