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