The Associated Press
LOS ANGELES — Gerald R. Ford, who picked up the pieces of Richard Nixon’s scandal-shattered White House as the 38th and only unelected president in America’s history, has died, his wife, Betty, said Tuesday. He was 93.
“My family joins me in sharing the difficult news that Gerald Ford, our beloved husband, father, grandfather and great grandfather has passed away at 93 years of age,” Mrs. Ford said in a brief statement issued from her husband’s office in Rancho Mirage. “His life was filled with love of God, his family and his country.”
The statement did not say where Ford died or list a cause of death. Ford had battled pneumonia in January 2006 and underwent two heart treatments — including an angioplasty — in August at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
He was the longest living president, followed by Ronald Reagan, who also died at 93. Ford had been living at his desert home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., about 130 miles east of Los Angeles.
“I was deeply saddened this evening when I heard of Jerry Ford’s death,” former first lady Nancy Reagan said in a statement. “Ronnie and I always considered him a dear friend and close political ally.
“His accomplishments and devotion to our country are vast, and even long after he left the presidency he made it a point to speak out on issues important to us all,” she said.
Ford was an accidental president, Nixon’s hand-picked successor, a man of much political experience who had never run on a national ticket. He was as open and straight-forward as Nixon was tightly controlled and conspiratorial.
Minutes after Nixon resigned in disgrace over the Watergate scandal and flew into exile, Ford took office and famously declared: “Our long national nightmare is over.”
But he revived the debate over Watergate a month later by granting Nixon a pardon for all crimes he committed as president. That single act, it was widely believed, cost Ford election to a term of his own in 1976, but it won praise in later years as a courageous act that allowed the nation to move on.
The Vietnam War ended in defeat for the U.S. during his presidency with the fall of Saigon in April 1975. In a speech as the end neared, Ford said: “Today, America can regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam. But it cannot be achieved by refighting a war that is finished as far as America is concerned.” Evoking Abraham Lincoln, he said it was time to “look forward to an agenda for the future, to unify, to bind up the nation’s wounds.”
Ford also earned a place in the history books as the first unelected vice president, chosen by Nixon to replace Spiro Agnew who also was forced from office by scandal.
He was in the White House only 895 days, but changed it more than it changed him.
Even after two women tried separately to kill him, the presidency of Jerry Ford remained open and plain.
Not imperial. Not reclusive. And, of greatest satisfaction to a nation numbed by Watergate, not dishonest.
Even to millions of Americans who had voted two years earlier for Richard Nixon, the transition to Ford’s leadership was one of the most welcomed in the history of the democratic process — despite the fact that it occurred without an election.
After the Watergate ordeal, Americans liked their new president — and first lady Betty, whose candor charmed the country.
They liked her for speaking openly about problems of young people, including her own daughter; they admired her for not hiding that she had a mastectomy — in fact, her example caused thousands of women to seek breast examinations.
And she remained one of the country’s most admired women even after the Fords left the White House when she was hospitalized in 1978 and admitted to having become addicted to drugs and alcohol she took for painful arthritis and a pinched nerve in her neck. Four years later she founded the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, a substance abuse facility next to Eisenhower Medical Center.
Ford slowed down in recent years. He had been hospitalized in August 2000 when he suffered one or more small strokes while attending the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia.
The following year, he joined former presidents Carter, Bush and Clinton at a memorial service in Washington three days after the Sept. 11 attacks. In June 2004, the four men and their wives joined again at a funeral service in Washington for former President Reagan. But in November 2004, Ford was unable to join the other former presidents at the dedication of the Clinton presidential library in Little Rock, Ark.
In January, Ford was hospitalized with pneumonia for 12 days. He wasn’t seen in public until April 23, when President Bush was in town and paid a visit to the Ford home. Bush, Ford and Betty posed for photographers outside the residence before going inside for a private get-together.
The intensely private couple declined reporter interview requests and were rarely seen outside their home in Rancho Mirage’s gated Thunderbird Estates, other than to attend worship services at the nearby St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Palm Desert.
In a long congressional career in which he rose to be House Republican leader, Ford lit few fires. In the words of Congressional Quarterly, he “built a reputation for being solid, dependable and loyal — a man more comfortable carrying out the programs of others than in initiating things on his own.”
When Agnew resigned in a bribery scandal in October 1973, Ford was one of four finalists to succeed him: Texan John Connally, New York’s Nelson Rockefeller and California’s Ronald Reagan.
“Personal factors enter into such a decision,” Nixon recalled for a Ford biographer in 1991. I knew all of the final four personally and had great respect for each one of then, but I had known Jerry Ford longer and better than any of the rest.
“We had served in Congress together. I had often campaigned for him in his district,” Nixon continued. But Ford had something the others didn’t, he would be easily confirmed by Congress, something that could not be said of Rockefeller, Reagan and Connally.
So Ford it was. He became the first vice president appointed under the 25th amendment to the Constitution.
On Aug. 9, 1974, after seeing Nixon off to exile, Ford assumed the office. The next morning, he still made his own breakfast and padded to the front door in his pajamas to get the newspaper.
Said a ranking Democratic congressman: “Maybe he is a plodder, but right now the advantages of having a plodder in the presidency are enormous.”
It was rare that Ford was ever as eloquent as he was for those dramatic moments of his swearing-in at the White House.
“My fellow Americans,” he said, “our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works. Our great republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule.”
And, true to his reputation as unassuming Jerry, he added: “I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your president by your ballots. So I ask you to confirm me with your prayers.”
For Ford, a full term was not to be. He survived an intraparty challenge from Ronald Reagan only to lose to Democrat Jimmy Carter in November. In the campaign, he ignored Carter’s record as governor of Georgia and concentrated on his own achievements as president.
Carter won 297 electoral votes to his 240. After Reagan came back to defeat Carter in 1980, the two former presidents became collaborators, working together on joint projects.
Even as president, Ford often talked with reporters several times a day. He averaged 200 outside speeches a year as House Republican leader, a pace he kept up as vice president and diminished, seemingly, only slightly as chief executive. He kept speaking after leaving the White House, generally for fees of $15,000 to $20,000.
Ford was never asked to the White House for a social event during Reagan’s eight years as president.
In office, Ford’s living tastes were modest. When he became vice president, he chose to remain in the same Alexandria, Va., home — unpretentious except for a swimming pool — that he shared with his family as a congressman.
After leaving the White House, however, he took up residence in the desert resort area of Rancho Mirage, picked up $1 million for his memoir and another $1 million in a five-year NBC television contract, and served on a number of corporate boards. By 1987, he was on eight such boards, at fees up to $30,000 a year, and was consulting for others, at fees up to $100,000. After criticism, he cut back on such activity.
At a joint session after becoming president, Ford addressed members of Congress as “my former colleagues” and promised “communication, conciliation, compromise and cooperation.” But his relations with Congress did not always run smoothly.
He vetoed 66 bills in his barely two years as president. Congress overturned 12 Ford vetoes, more than for any president since Andrew Johnson.
In his memoir, “A Time to Heal,” Ford wrote, “When I was in the Congress myself, I thought it fulfilled its constitutional obligations in a very responsible way, but after I became president, my perspective changed.”
Some suggested the pardon was prearranged before Nixon resigned, but Ford, in an unusual appearance before a congressional committee in October 1974, said, “There was no deal, period, under no circumstances.” The committee dropped its investigation.
Ford’s standing in the polls dropped dramatically when he pardoned Nixon unconditionally. But an ABC News poll taken in 2002 in connection with the 30th anniversary of the Watergate break-in found that six in 10 said the pardon was the right thing to do.
The late Democrat Clark Clifford spoke for many when he wrote in his memoirs, “The nation would not have benefited from having a former chief executive in the dock for years after his departure from office. His disgrace was enough.”
The decision to pardon Nixon won Ford a John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award in 2001, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, acknowledging he had criticized Ford at the time, called the pardon “an extraordinary act of courage that historians recognize was truly in the national interest.”
While Ford had not sought the job, he came to relish it. He had once told Congress that even if he succeeded Nixon he would not run for president in 1976. Within weeks of taking the oath, he changed his mind.
He was undaunted even after the two attempts on his life in September 1975. Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a 26-year-old follower of Charles Manson, was arrested after she aimed a semiautomatic pistol at Ford on Sept. 5 in Sacramento, Calif. A Secret Service agent grabbed her and Ford was unhurt.
Seventeen days later, Sara Jane Moore, a 45-year-old political activist, was arrested in San Francisco after she fired a gun at the president. Again, Ford was unhurt.
Both women are serving life terms in federal prison.
Asked at a news conference to recite his accomplishments, Ford replied: “We have restored public confidence in the White House and in the executive branch of government.”
As to his failings, he responded, “I will leave that to my opponents. I don’t think there have been many.”
Ford spent most of his boyhood in Grand Rapids, Mich.
He was born Leslie King on July 14, 1913, in Omaha, Neb. His parents were divorced when he was less than a year old, and his mother returned to her parents in Grand Rapids, where she later married Gerald R. Ford Sr. He adopted the boy and renamed him.
Ford was a high school senior when he met his real father. He was working in a Greek restaurant, he recalled, when a man came in and stood watching.
“Finally, he walked over and said, ‘I’m your father,”’ Ford said. “Well, that was quite a shock.” But he wrote in his memoir that he broke down and cried that night and he was left with the image of “a carefree, well-to-do man who didn’t really give a damn about the hopes and dreams of his firstborn son.”
Ford played center on the University of Michigan’s 1932 and 1933 national champion football teams. He got professional offers from the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers, but chose to study law at Yale, working his way through as an assistant varsity football coach and freshman boxing coach.
Ford got his first exposure to national politics at Yale, working as a volunteer in Wendell L. Willkie’s 1940 Republican campaign for president. After World War II service with the Navy in the Pacific, he went back to practicing law in Grand Rapids and became active in Republican reform politics.
His stepfather was the local Republican chairman, and Michigan Sen. Arthur H. Vandenberg was looking for a fresh young internationalist to replace the area’s isolationist congressman.
Ford beat Rep. Bartel Jonkman by a 2-to-1 margin in the Republican primary and then went on to win the election with 60.5 percent of the vote, the lowest margin he ever got.
He had proposed to Elizabeth Bloomer, a dancer and fashion coordinator, earlier that year, 1948. She became one of his hardest-working campaigners and they were married shortly before the election. They had three sons, Michael, John and Steven, and a daughter, Susan.
Ford was the last surviving member of the Warren Commission, which investigated the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 and concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin.
Clifford, an adviser to presidents since Harry Truman, summed up his legacy: “About his brief presidency there is little that can be said. In almost every way, it was a caretaker government trying to bind up the wounds of Watergate and get through the most traumatic act of the Indochina drama.
“Ford … was a likable person who deserves credit for accomplishing the one goal that was most important, to reunite the nation after the trauma of Watergate and give us a breathing spell before we picked a new president.”