Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

Ford Congress

“Is Congress a Joke?”

by Gleaves Whitney

March 16, 2022

Mark Twain served up joke after joke when it came to one class of Americans in particular. See if you can figure it out.

“It can probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.” ~Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar

“Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” ~Mark Twain, a Biography

“Fleas can be taught nearly anything that a Congressman can.” ~What Is Man?

“In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then He made congressional committees.” ~adapted from Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World

Given how much Capitol Hill has been the perennial butt of jokes, it’s a wonder that a Boy Scout like Gerald Ford ever ran for Congress. On second thought, maybe it’s not.

Ford’s family, coaches, and midwestern upbringing taught him that service was not an abstract noun but an action verb. Service in the Boy Scouts and Eagle Scouts during the Depression gave young Jerry the opportunity to develop socially valuable skills and virtues. High school and college sports taught him to excel as a team player. Military service in World War II imparted the lesson that freedom isn’t free, that sacrifice is required to preserve the American experiment in self-government. All of Ford’s engendering experiences translated into concrete actions for the greater good.

After the war, Ford decided to run for Congress because that’s where he felt he could do the most to serve the greater good. Ever the competitor, he entered his first race for Michigan’s Fifth Congressional District because it had become putty in the hands of a corrupt political boss, the incumbent was an isolationist, and postwar America needed smart, energetic leadership in a world threatened by nuclear annihilation. Ford won that first race and never looked back. He was re-elected to Congress 12 times, winning each contest with more than 60 percent of the vote.

On Capitol Hill and back in his district, Ford defined himself as “a moderate in domestic affairs, a conservative in fiscal affairs, and an internationalist in foreign affairs.” In 1976, he ran for President on five organizing principles that grew out of his 25 years in Congress: (1) increased freedom for all American citizens from the encroachments of an ever-expanding federal government; (2) the preservation of America’s free enterprise system; (3) fiscal responsibility that restrained Congress; (4) a strong national defense; and (5) affirmation of the rights and responsibilities of state and local governments.

Despite his strong adherence to limited government, free-markets, and ordered liberty, Ford learned to work with a variety of people with whom he disagreed, always trying to see the issues from their viewpoint and learn what they might teach him. Both sides of the aisle, after all, were patriotic, and both were trying to do their best for the nation. A 2006 editorial in The New York Times noted that Ford “saw himself as a negotiator and a reconciler….”

In all the years he served in Congress, Ford steadily mastered virtues and skills that the greatest legislators have always possessed. Consider some of the dynamic polarities that he had to learn to balance:

  • the humility to listen, discipline to study, capacity to understand, and judgment to vote in a way that balanced what was best for Michigan’s Fifth Congressional District … and the nation as a whole;
  • skill in mastering parliamentary procedure … and crafting legislating in key areas of lawmaking–in Ford’s case, the federal budget, congressional appropriations, and national defense;
  • the good sense to know when to act as a mirror that reflected the values and interests of his district … and when to act as a lamp that helped lead his constituents to a broader, deeper understanding of how to manage the challenges they faced;
  • the courage to vote consistent with one’s conscience and understanding, even when it is not the popular thing to do. Ford never dodged a tough vote. He never shrank from his accountability to the people who elected him. His candor with his constituents is one of the reasons he was re-elected a dozen times with more than 60 percent of the vote.

Gerald Ford was never one to take himself too seriously. He could laugh at Congress’s expense as easily as the next guy. But, joking aside, he went to Capitol Hill with high purpose. Congress was the institution where an earnest Boy Scout from Grand Rapids, Michigan, could realize his potential to serve the American people for the greater good.

One way Gerald “Jerry” Ford served his community and his country was in Congress. He was 35 years old when he first ran to represent Michigan’s Fifth District in 1948. In all, he would be re-elected to serve the people of Kent and Ionia counties another twelve times. Ford served on Capitol Hill until December 1973 when, during a national crisis, he answered the call to become the nation’s 40th Vice President. Eight months later he would become the 38th (but first unelected) President of the United States. Throughout his adult life, Ford’s work was aligned with his character, and his character was aligned with “the things that are timeless.” ~Campaign poster in the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum


  • What is your opinion of Congress?
  • What qualities does a good legislator have?
  • What made Gerald Ford a good legislator?
  • In your reading have you learned of any scandals with which Ford was associated during his congressional career?
  • Compare serving in Congress during the Cold War (Ford served from the late 1940s to the early 1970s) to serving in Congress today.
  • To what degree do you possess the temperament, virtues, and skills to do all the things an elected representative is required to do?


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