Gerald R. Ford, who struggled to heal the nation's Watergate wounds in a short and turbulent tenure as the nation's only nonelected president, died Tuesday ...
WASHINGTON — Gerald R. Ford, who struggled to heal the nation’s Watergate wounds in a short and turbulent tenure as the nation’s only president who was not elected as either vice president or president, died Tuesday at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. He was 93.
The death was announced by his wife, Betty, in Rancho Mirage. No cause of death was announced, but the former president had suffered from pneumonia and heart ailments in the past year.
President Ford took over as the nation’s 38th president Aug. 9, 1974, but economic woes and his pardon of Richard Nixon undercut his campaign of reconciliation and eventually his presidency.
“Our long national nightmare is over,” he said after taking the oath of office to replace a disgraced Nixon, who resigned rather than face almost-certain impeachment over his role in covering up the Watergate scandal.
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Referring to Nixon’s departure, President Ford said: “Our Constitution works. Our great republic is a government of laws and not of men.”
But as he took charge with those reassuring words, events would show that moment was perhaps the high point of a presidency that suffered for lack of a true electoral mandate.
President Ford managed to eke out a narrow yet party-dividing victory for the Republican nomination after a strong primary challenge from former California Gov. (and later president) Ronald Reagan. But in November he lost to Democrat Jimmy Carter in one of the closest elections in U.S. history after starting out far behind in the polls. Carter, a former Georgia governor, made the pardon a central campaign issue.
President Ford achieved a rare distinction in 2003, when he became only the fourth former president to reach 90, after John Adams, Herbert Hoover and Reagan. He said upon turning 90 that: “I’m still playing golf. I’m still a nine-holer; my legs can’t handle 18 very well.”
Though he left the Oval Office with a reputation of being one of the nicest, most decent presidents in U.S. history, the nice guy failed to extend the Republican electoral victories that began with Nixon’s capture of the White House in 1968. Many observers saw President Ford as a victim of his predecessor’s scandal and the distrust it brought his party.
But in the first few weeks after Nixon’s departure, he brought a calming presence to the nation’s highest office, shunning the imperial atmosphere fostered by Nixon. His straightforward manner eased the nation’s concerns after a major constitutional crisis had nearly torn it apart. He also communicated a spirit of openness and sincerity as he crisscrossed the country, visiting all 50 states during his first 16 months in office.
President Ford’s wife, Elizabeth Ann “Betty” Ford, had stayed out of the spotlight during his congressional career. She spent much of her time raising their four children, Mike, Jack, Steve and Susan. But as first lady, she assumed a larger public role, stressing help for handicapped children and favoring the Equal Rights Amendment.
After breast-cancer surgery in 1974, she campaigned for greater public awareness of the disease. And after successfully battling her own dependency on drugs and alcohol, she helped establish the Betty Ford Center at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage.
The “accidental president,” as some called President Ford, was also prone to accidents. His occasional stumbles and gaffes made him a favorite target of comedians, including Chevy Chase on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.” He bumped his head on the presidential helicopter and, on an overseas trip in 1975, he fell down the ramp of Air Force One. Yet with an outstanding football career at the University of Michigan, he was perhaps the best athlete to occupy the Oval Office.
He wrote in his autobiography, “A Time to Heal,” that he laughed at the jokes made at his expense about such missteps, but he added that if the people internalized an image of him as a bumbling, stumbling leader, that wouldn’t be funny for his presidency.
The acid-tongued Lyndon Johnson once said President Ford played too much football without his helmet on.
In his nearly 2 ½ years as chief executive, President Ford dealt with many thorny problems besides Watergate and the Nixon pardon. He presided over the final act of the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam: the April 28, 1975, evacuation of U.S. personnel as the North Vietnamese stormed Saigon. Throughout his presidency, he strove to stabilize an economy plagued by inflation, recession and fears of energy shortages.
Early in his tenure, he ordered a clemency program for Vietnam-era draft evaders and deserters that required them to do public service. About 15,000 Americans, civilian and military, participated.
There were two attempts on President Ford’s life in September 1975 on separate trips to California. Both of the would-be assassins were women, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore. For a while, he cut back on his travel as a result.
Though he was a creature of Congress, as president he often found himself at odds with a Democrat-controlled Capitol Hill, particularly on legislation to deal with the economy, and vetoed 66 pieces of legislation. He battled with Congress over energy legislation and whether spending should be cut to match tax reductions.
With inflation at 12 percent when he took office, he renounced Nixon’s wage-and-price controls and opted instead for a “Whip Inflation Now” or “WIN” program, complete with WIN buttons that yielded more laughter than cooperation.
In 1975 the economy sank into a steep but brief recession, and unemployment soared to more than 9 percent. Joblessness and inflation abated in 1976, and tax cuts proposed by the White House helped. But the recovery slowed right before the November election, bad timing for the president.
President Ford, 61 when he took over the White House, was born Leslie Lynch King Jr. on July 14, 1913, in Omaha, Neb. He became Gerald R. Ford Jr. after his mother divorced and remarried.
When he assumed the presidency, he was a veteran congressional leader with three sons and a daughter whom his wife almost exclusively raised as he tended to his political career. He had promised her he would not run for president in 1976, but political demands dictated otherwise.
His family made more news than he did on occasion, with Betty Ford creating a controversy by saying she would not be surprised to learn her children had smoked marijuana and wouldn’t be shocked if her teenage daughter engaged in premarital sex.
In a long congressional career in which he rose to be House Republican leader, President 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.”
In October 1973, he was picked to be Nixon’s vice president under authority of the 25th Amendment. He replaced Spiro Agnew, who had stepped down after pleading no contest to a charge of income-tax evasion after receiving illegal payments.
Once he became president, President Ford named former New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller as vice president, completing the only nonelected team to lead the national government. But in an effort to appease the party’s right wing, Rockefeller was dumped as his 1976 running mate in favor of Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas.
President Ford later said one of his biggest regrets was in caving to right-wing pressure and dropping Rockefeller from the ticket.
Gerald Ford never aspired to be president. His ambition as a congressman pointed in one direction: speaker of the House. He said he believed in limited government and admitted he did not have presidential “vision,” which he defined as grand governmental schemes and the rhetorical ability to sell them to the public.
Yet when he put his principles in action, sometimes they proved costly. When he opposed a federal bailout of a financially pinched New York City, the New York Daily News splashed a “Ford to City: Drop Dead” headline on its front page.
The president said a bailout would have enabled the city to escape dealing with its problems. Some critics thought that position cost him New York in the 1976 election.
But nothing compared with Nixon’s pardon for political impact. On Sept. 8, 1974, roughly a month after he took over, President Ford issued a “full, free and absolute pardon” to Nixon in a decision that put an indelible mark on his presidency and gave Carter a handy campaign issue.
Critics said the pardon had been hatched as part of a deal that would bring him to power, but President Ford denied that was the case. He said that as vice president, he had rejected an overture delivered by Nixon’s chief of staff, Alexander Haig, suggesting that Nixon would quit if he agreed in advance to pardon him. Haig denied he had offered such a deal.
In his autobiography, President Ford said he decided on his own to pardon Nixon, explaining that Nixon’s humiliation over resigning was punishment enough and that putting him on trial would revisit the sins of Watergate and cause greater turmoil. “The healing process would have been torn apart,” he said.
In retrospect, many political scientists give President Ford credit for making a tough decision that would, over time, help heal the country. In later years he was honored for making one of the most courageous decisions in U.S. politics.
On May 21, 2001, he received a Profile in Courage Award from the family of President Kennedy for his pardoning of Nixon. In his remarks, he said, “No doubt arguments over the Nixon pardon will continue for as long as historians relive those tumultuous days.”
President Clinton presented him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1999 for guiding the nation through the difficult times of Watergate, Nixon’s resignation and pardon, and the nation’s difficult disengagement from Vietnam.
Politically, President Ford — like Nixon — mistrusted the GOP’s right wing. President Ford and Reagan never were close, for instance, and campaign memos written on his behalf in 1976 identified Reagan’s followers as “right-wing nuts.” The president also said he was miffed because Reagan provided only lukewarm support for his run against Carter.
President Ford had his shortcomings as a campaigner. His staff often criticized his speaking style and speeches that weren’t considered punchy enough. At a campaign speech in Illinois, for example, he stumbled over the words “fly swatter” several times.
But his most serious misstep came in a debate with Carter, when he declared that Eastern Europe was not under the domination of the Soviet Union.
After leaving Washington, the Fords lived in Rancho Mirage and the former president served on numerous corporate boards and played in many golf tournaments. He also was active as a commentator on politics and was host of the American Enterprise Institute’s World Forum.
In office, President 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 had 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 memoirs 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.
As a child, the future president lived in Grand Rapids, Mich., where he moved with his mother, Dorothy Gardner King, two weeks after his birth. Five months later, on Dec. 19, 1913, her divorce from Leslie Lynch King was made final.
In Feb. 1, 1916, his mother married Gerald R. Ford Sr., a paint salesman, who adopted her young son and renamed him. The couple had three sons of their own, but the elder Fords never told the younger children or Gerald that he was adopted. The future president didn’t know he was adopted until he was 17, when his real father came to Michigan and introduced himself.
A football star in high school, the future president attended the University of Michigan on an athletic scholarship. Although he often has been referred to as a former All-American football player, he did not make the first team at Michigan until his senior year, when he was named the team’s most valuable player and was picked for the College All-Star Game.
After turning down offers to play professional football, he went to Yale Law School, where he helped pay his expenses by working as an assistant football coach. He received his law degree in 1941, and joined the Navy less than a year later.
President 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.
A final assessment
Concerning President Ford’s pardon of Nixon, 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.”
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.”
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.