American history, biographies, book reviews, Gerald Ford, presidential biographies, Scott Kaufman, US Presidents
Published in 2017, Scott Kaufman’s “Ambition, Pragmatism, and Party: A Political Biography of Gerald R. Ford” is the most recent comprehensive biography of the thirty-eighth president. Kaufman is the author or editor of nearly a dozen books including a biography of Rosalynn Carter and a study of Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Kaufman is chair of the Department of History at Francis Marion University.
Despite its self-professed status as a “political biography” this 349-page book is comprehensive (covering his entire life but with varying degrees of depth) and also incorporates important elements of his personal life into the narrative…though not to the extent of more traditional biographies.
The book’s overarching (but not pervasive) theme is that, during an examination of Ford’s life, three key traits emerge: his ambition, his loyalty to the Republican party and his political pragmatism. Anyone familiar with LBJ or Richard Nixon, however, will find Ford’s “ambition” comparatively placid and, by today’s standards, his loyalty and pragmatism seem somewhat unremarkable.
Kaufman’s biography covers Ford’s early years with crisp, sterile efficiency. The first chapter sweeps Ford – at about a page per year – through his childhood, his naval service during World War II, his marriage and his election to Congress. The pace slows during Ford’s Congressional career and, unsurprisingly, his personal life takes a back seat to his public career in these chapters.
Ford’s presidency consumes about one-third of the book. Here, Kaufman studiously observes Ford’s response to various domestic and international issues including the U.S. economy, the energy crisis, Vietnam, the Arab-Israeli War and nuclear arms control. The author’s analysis and tone consistently suggest a keen understanding of events and a judiciously balanced detachment from his subject.
As a political biography focused on Ford’s Congressional career, presidency and legacy, Kaufman’s book is more than satisfactory. Ford’s actions are never examined without careful consideration of the relevant context: domestic and world affairs as well as the political stain left by Watergate and Nixon’s resignation. But the two finals chapters are probably the best, covering Ford’s post-presidency (including his own perspective on the Carter, Reagan and Bush presidencies) and his personal and political legacy.
But as a biography focused on Ford’s entire life Kaufman’s book falls short. His subject’s early life is hastily covered and too few are the observable connections between his upbringing and the politician he would become. The final days of the Nixon presidency are not particularly closely covered, and the narrative, like its subject, is not colorful or artfully engaging.
Overall, “Ambition, Pragmatism, and Party: A Political Biography of Gerald R. Ford” provides an efficient, balanced and insightful review of Ford’s political career and legacy. As a political biography this book will prove more than satisfactory for most readers. But the personal side of Gerald Ford, including the genesis of this honorable and temperate man’s infatuation with politics, remains a mystery.
Overall rating: 3½ stars
Saw the author interviewed on C-Span recently- sounded like an interesting read on an under reported on as far as books go- POTUS.
I was surprised to find there were virtually no reviews of this book…anywhere. After I finish reading and reviewing a biography I’m always interested to see how my perspective compares to “popular opinion.” But in this case I haven’t found much – positive or negative – on what might be the best Ford biography I’ve yet so far.
I hadn’t heard of the book until I stumbled across the C-Span 3 deal- the author was at the Ford Presidential Library giving a talk. Will have to check the book out.
Christopher Saunders said:
Thanks for another great review. I’ll see if I can track down a copy of this one.
Richard M Dasheiff said:
In choosing which Ford biography to read, I decided I would need to read two books so as to adequately cover his entire life. Thus I first read “Gerald R. Ford: An Honorable Life” by James Cannon (2013) and was very satisfied with the requisite level of detail and coverage. However, as I began reading “Ambition, Pragmatism, and Party: A Political Biography of Gerald R. Ford” by Scott Kaufman (2017), the first 60 pages seemed copied from Cannon’s book. In fact Kaufman references Cannon on almost every page – but dilutes, skips, omits and misrepresents the facts and events as if he wanted to do no independent research and was in a hurry to move on. Steve Floyd’s review says “Kaufman’s biography covers Ford’s early years with crisp, sterile efficiency.” That would be an understatement. “But as a biography focused on Ford’s entire life Kaufman’s book falls short.” And that would be accurate. I would also add the adjective “superficial”.
Style and substance improved little throughout the book, and the author’s credibility was poisoned by his earlier lapses. The reason I even read the book was to read about Ford’s post-presidency, which was covered very lightly by Cannon. (Extenuating circumstance – he died before completing the book). However, Kaufman provided no deep insights into his post-presidency, basically outlining major political events of the other presidents and whether Ford would approve or disapprove of them. I wouldn’t have given “Ambition, Pragmatism, and Party” 3½ stars.