From staff and wire reports
Former president Gerald R. Ford, who inherited the daunting task of calming a divided nation when he assumed the presidency at the height of the constitutional crisis spawned by the Watergate scandal, died late Tuesday, December 26, 2006, at the age of 93. He was born July 14, 1913.
A 13-term congressman from Michigan who rose to the post of House minority leader, Ford was vice president when Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974 as a result of the Watergate controversy.
As the 38th president, Ford, who enjoyed a reputation for integrity on both sides of the political aisle, immediately tried to soothe the wounded nation. "The long national nightmare is over," he said as he was sworn in on Aug. 9, 1974. "Our constitution works."
Although Ford's approval ratings initially soared, he would lose the 1976 presidential contest to former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter - largely, in the view of historians and his biographers, because he pardoned Nixon just months after being sworn in to office.
The pardon ignited a political firestorm and prompted Democrats to question whether Nixon had made a deal with Ford to protect him from prosecution in exchange. Ford resolutely denied that there was any quid pro quo.
Ford's pardon "weakened his political capital and made Democrats more willing to resist him," says Yanek. Mieczkowski,. a Ford biographer who teaches history at Dowling College. He says the pardon was like a "ghost that hung over Ford and his party for the rest of the decade."
Ford remains the only unelected U.S. president. He said he did not regret his decision to pardon Nixon.
"There was such venom toward Nixon for Watergate that the public just didn't understand there was something (to be considered) over and above Nixon's personal problems," Ford said in 2003. "My problem was trying to restore public confidence across the board."
In 1999, Ford was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Clinton, who said of him: "The respect he commands has grown in the years since he left office. President Ford represents what is best in public service and what is best about America."
An endearing bumbler
Ford's public persona during his presidency was as a mangler of the English language who had a tendency toward verbal and physical stumbles. Comedian Chevy Chase, in Saturday Night Live's early years, made a name for himself mocking Ford's inelegance, such as when he declared in a 1967 debate with Carter that: "There is no Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe."
His friends, family and staffers, however, contended that this former star football player and son of Michigan possessed the right blend of heartland decency and reverence for his country to be able to steady the nation after the morass of Watergate and the reverberations of the Vietnam War.
To his family, colleagues and historians, his presidency - even his pardon of Nixon - illustrated his central traits: decisiveness, decency and concern for country first.
"People are coming around to the idea that his pardon of Nixon was the right thing to do for the country," daughter Susan Ford says. "He knew it then. Leadership and decency are the things that stand out in my mind when I think of my dad."
Ron Nessen, Ford's press secretary, says Ford, the only Eagle Scout ever to become president, was the right man at the right time for America.
"The nation was so torn apart by Watergate," Nessen says. "People had lost faith in the presidency. Ford just started knitting things back together. Plus, he seemed like the guy next door because that's what he was. He wasn't Richard Nixon."
An American life
Ford was born Leslie Lynch King. Jr. on July 14, 1913,. in Omaha. His father, an alcoholic, threatened his mother with a knife just after his birth, and she moved her 2-week-old son to Grand Rapids, Mich., to live with her parents.
Three years later, she married Gerald Ford, a paint salesman. The Fords called their son Gerald, and in 1935,. Leslie King changed his name to Gerald Ford.
"He was not raised with a silver spoon in his mouth by any means," Susan Ford says. "There's something to be said for growing up that way. I wouldn't call him frugal, but he'll pay in cash or he won't buy it."
During summers, he filled paint cans at his father's store. And, in his college years at the University of Michigan, Ford held a variety of jobs, including summer stints as a park ranger at Yellowstone National Park and as a model. Ford and his then-girlfriend, Phyllis Brown, appeared on the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine in 1942.
Chase and other comedians in the 1970s parodied Ford as clumsy. His legendarily wayward drives on the golf course prompted Bob Hope to wisecrack: "It's not hard to find Jerry Ford on a golf course - you just follow the wounded."
But the jokes belied elite athletic ability. Ford played football and basketball and ran track in high school, earning all-city and all-state honors as a star center in football. He went on to star on national championship football teams at the University of Michigan in 1932. and '33.. And he received offers to play professionally from the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions.
He turned down those offers to coach boxing and football and study law at Yale University. Among those under his football tutelage: future senators Robert Taft Jr., of Ohio, and William Proxmire of Wisconsin.
"He probably had the most athletic background of any president," says presidential historian Fred Greenstein of Princeton University.
The Washington years
A year after earning his law degree from Yale in 1941,. Ford joined the Navy and served aboard the USS Monterey in the South Pacific, including the allied assaults on Wake Island and Okinawa. He was discharged as a lieutenant commander in 1946. and later said that his experience in the war prompted him to become an internationalist, rather than adopting the pre-war tendency of Republicans to support keeping the United States in isolation from the rest of the world.
Ford returned to Grand Rapids and joined a law firm. In 1948,. he challenged the isolationist congressman in his home district, won the Republican nomination and got 61% in the general election.
During the campaign, he married Elizabeth Bloomer Warren. She was divorced, a dancer and a fashion consultant for a department store.
"They are soul mates," Susan Ford says. "They finish each others sentences. They learned how to argue and disagree without being disagreeable. They are so devoted to each other." The Fords had four children - Michael, John, Steven and Susan - and lived in a comfortable middle-class neighborhood in Alexandria, Va., a Washington suburb.
Ford represented the Grand Rapids area in Congress from 1949 to 1973.. He described himself as a "moderate in domestic affairs, an internationalist in foreign affairs and a conservative in fiscal policy," according to his official biography.
He rose through the ranks to become House minority leader in 1965, leading GOP opposition to President Lyndon Johnson's social programs and urging Johnson to escalate the bombing in Vietnam. Johnson said Ford was a "nice guy, but he played too much football with his helmet off."
In 1963, Johnson appointed Ford to the Warren Commission, which had been charged with investigating President Kennedy's assassination. It found that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone and not as part of a conspiracy, as had been speculated.
Throughout his career, Ford was widely seen as a decent, honorable man. "He was someone who was regarded as wholesome, unpretentious," Greenstein says. "He had a long, responsible public career."
The accidental president
A friend of Nixon, Ford backed his successful presidential campaigns in 1968 and 1972. In 1973,. Nixon chose him to replace Vice President Spiro Agnew, who had resigned after pleading no contest to charges of tax evasion.
By then the Watergate scandal had erupted. It began with men working for the president men who worked for Nixon's re-election committee?? attempting to plant wiretaps at Democratic National Committee campaign headquarters in the Watergate hotel and office hotel complex in Washington. The attempted coverup culminated in impeachment proceedings against Nixon and his resignation on Aug. 9, 1974..
That same day, Ford became the 38th president.
Thirty days later, on Sept. 8, Ford announced his decision to pardon Nixon after attending historic St. John's Episcopal Church by himself that morning. Of the Nixons, Ford told the country: "Theirs is an American tragedy in which we have all played a part. It could go on and on and on, or someone must write the end to it. I have concluded that only I can do that, and if I can, I must."
Ford has acknowledged he badly misjudged the public outcry over his decision, and fallout continued through his two years in office. His first press secretary, Gerald. terHorst,. resigned. Speculation grew so rampant of a deal between Nixon and Ford that Ford took the unprecedented step of testifying under oath on the matter to the House Judiciary Committee in October, 1975.
"My view is that is that getting Nixon off the national agenda was a good thing," said presidential scholar Fred Greenstein of Princeton University. "His support level plummeted with the surprise announcement of Nixon's pardon. But he then rebounded in a rather effective way. One is struck by how he was on top of issues and ran an open administration."
Realizing he hadn't appropriately consulted Congress on the pardon, Ford volunteered to testify on Capitol Hill, Greenstein said. "It was a classy thing to do."
While He never really outran the shadow of Watergate, but Ford moved on to concentrate on the faltering economy, which was in recession and plagued by the 1973 Arab oil embargo. Ford negotiated bills with the Democratic Congress to cut taxes and deregulate some industries, but he was also remembered for vetoing more bills - 65 - during his time in office.
Ford was very proud of the veto strategy," says Mieczkowski, the biographer. "Democrats thought it was government by impasse, but Ford viewed it as one of the great accomplishments of his entire presidency. It was a way to lead Congress from his perspective - a president who was unelected and had limited capital after the pardon."
Ford made one Supreme Court appointment, John Paul Stevens in 1975. Ford had been looking for a moderate judge who would have broad appeal. Today, Stevens votes with the liberal bloc of justices on the court and is known as a defender of prisoners' rights, access to abortion and a high wall of separation between church and state.
In foreign policy, Ford continued the diplomatic policy of detente with the Soviet Union. In 1975, the war in Vietnam ended with the fall of the South Vietnamese government.
Ford also displayed an eye for talent. He chose Dick Cheney as his chief of staff, Donald Rumsfeld as his Defense secretary and Alan Greenspan as chairman of his council of economic advisers. All would go on to serve in subsequent administrations. Greenspan became an immensely powerful chairman of the Federal Reserve.
"It was a White House that was an incubator for later presidencies," Greenstein says.
Inside the White House, Ford's family made news. In 1974, Betty Ford was diagnosed with breast cancer. She acknowledged it publicly, which was rare at the time.
Later, she would admit to alcoholism and prescription pill addiction. The Betty Ford Center, in Rancho Mirage, Calif., was established to treat those with drug and alcohol addictione.
"When she had her breast cancer and mastectomy, I admired her forthrightness in making it public," President Ford told The Detroit News. in an interview. "The net result was thousands of women had comparable examinations and many, many, many lives were saved.
"Also, I equally admired her when she recognized that she had the problem of alcoholism and a prescribed pill addiction. Her candor, honesty, forthrightness are characteristics I strongly admired, and I think they helped my administration."
Ford faced other crises. On two trips to California in September, 1975, he was the target of assassination attempts. Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme and Sara Jane Moore went to prison for the assaults. Ford was not struck either time.
The pressure and trappings of the office didn't change Ford as a man, Nessen says.
"If you spend 20 years of your life running for president, it changes your personality," Nessen says. "His personality did not have those distortions built into it. He never expected to be president, he didn't want to be. He's a very down-to-earth guy."
That was evident one night at the White House when Liberty, the family's golden retriever, licked Ford's face at 3 a.m. It was a sign that the dog, due to deliver a litter of puppies, needed to go outside. Now. Ford put on a robe and slippers and took the dog out to the South Lawn.
When they tried to return, they found the elevator out of service and doors locked. The president and his pregnant dog padded around the White House grounds until the Secret Service finally let them in.
By 1976, Ford had a tough primary race for his party's nomination. He beat Ronald Reagan and chose Kansas Sen. Bob Dole as his running mate.
But a tougher test awaited in Carter. Watergate and the Nixon pardon shadowed Ford's campaign, as did his debate stumble about Eastern Europe in a key debate with Carter. "His staff let him down," Nessen says. "We should have acknowledged the mistake. It did, I think, contribute to an unfair image of him not being very bright."
But Nessen says an increase in unemployment before the election probably was a greater factor in Ford's loss to Carter.
Ford left office in January 1977. At his inauguration, Carter said, "For myself and for our nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land."
In 1980, Ford declined an offer from Reagan to be his running mate.
In retirement, Ford lectured and hosted public policy conferences. Until recently, he attended annual reunions of Ford administration alumni in Washington. From Carter to the current President Bush, occupants of the Oval Office have hailed his counsel and good judgment. After Carter's loss to Ronald Reagan in 1980, he and Ford took to the speaking circuit together and became what Ford described in a 2001 speech to Congress as "very warm and dear friends."
The Fords spent their summers at their home in Beaver Creek, Colo., and winters in California.
And he continued to receive warm receptions in Washington whenever he returned.
"In four decades as a reporter, Gerald Ford was the nicest, most decent person I ever covered," CBS News veteran Bob Schieffer said when Ford appeared at the National Press Club in 2003. "Mr. President, we love you."