Former President Gerald Ford dies at 93
RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. - Former President Gerald R. Ford, who declared "Our long national nightmare is over" as he replaced Richard Nixon but may have doomed his own chances of election by pardoning his disgraced predecessor, has died. He was 93.
The nation's 38th president, and the only one neither elected to the office nor the vice presidency, died at his desert home at 6:45 p.m. Tuesday.
"His life was filled with love of God, his family and his country," his wife, Betty, said in a statement.
Ford was the longest living former president, surpassing Ronald Reagan, who died in June 2004, by more than a month.
Ford's office did not release the cause of death, which followed a year of medical problems. He was treated for pneumonia in January and had an angioplasty and pacemaker implant in August.
Funeral arrangements were to be announced Wednesday.
"President Ford was a great man who devoted the best years of his life in serving the United States," President Bush said in a brief statement to the nation Wednesday morning. "He was a true gentleman who reflected the best in America's character."
Former President Carter described him Wednesday as "one of the most admirable public servants and human beings I have ever known." Former President Clinton said, "all Americans should be grateful for his life of service."
Ford was an accidental president. A Michigan Republican elected to Congress 13 times before becoming the first appointed vice president in 1973 after Spiro Agnew left amid scandal, Ford was Nixon's hand-picked successor, a man of much political experience who had never run on a national ticket. He was as open and straightforward as Nixon was tightly controlled and conspiratorial.
Ford took office moments after Nixon resigned in disgrace over Watergate.
"My fellow Americans," Ford 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."
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, contributed to Ford losing 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 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, his presidency 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 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.
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 them, 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 became the first vice president appointed under the 25th amendment to the Constitution.
On Aug. 9, 1974, after seeing Nixon off, 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."
In 1976, 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.
"His life-long dedication to helping others touched the lives of countless people," Carter said Wednesday. "He frequently rose above politics by emphasizing the need for bipartisanship and seeking common ground on issues critical to our nation."
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. 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 (news, bio, voting record), 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."
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 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.
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 biological 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 got twice as many votes as Rep. Bartel Jonkman 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.
"To his great credit, he was the same hard-working, down-to-earth person the day he left the White House as he was when he first entered Congress almost 30 years earlier," Clinton said Wednesday.
Ford had three sons, Michael, John and Steven, and a daughter, Susan. He 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.
After Ford's death, the U.S. flag over the White House was lowered to half-staff. The New York Stock Exchange held a moment of silence Wednesday in Ford's honor, while at Ford's presidential museum in Grand Rapids, a steady stream of visitors lit candles and lined up to sign condolence books about the former president.