- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Gerald R. Ford, the nation’s 38th president, has died.

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,” Betty Ford said in a brief statement issued from her husband’s office in Rancho Mirage, Calif., yesterday. “His life was filled with love of God, his family and his country.”

The statement neither said where Mr. Ford died nor gave the cause of death. Mr. Ford, the longest-living president, had battled pneumonia and heart disease in recent years.

Mr. Ford was the first man to become president without ever having been elected president or vice president. With a reputation as a big-hearted, honest man, he was strong enough to shore up America in the time of Watergate-era uncertainty and smart enough to restore its values and direction with a sure and steady hand.

In a statement early this morning, President Bush called Mr. Ford “a great American who gave many years of dedicated service to our country,” adding that Mr. Ford “helped heal our land and restore public confidence in the Presidency.”

Mr. Ford was appointed vice president and took office in December 1973 after resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew. He ascended to the presidency when President Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974, to avoid imminent impeachment and removal from office over the cover-up of the Watergate burglary.

That pivotal moment was one of poignant civility. As Mr. Nixon prepared to step aboard a helicopter and leave the White House for the last time, he reached out and took Mr. Ford’s large hand in his own.

“Goodbye, Mr. President,” Mr. Nixon said quietly.

“Goodbye, Mr. President,” Mr. Ford replied.

As the chopper circled overhead, the new leader turned to his wife Betty and told her, “We can do it. We’re ready.”

“I assume the presidency under extraordinary circumstances,” Mr. Ford told the nation at 12:03 p.m. that summer day. He said he hoped to make a compact with his countrymen, he said.

“Not an inaugural address, not a fireside chat, not a campaign speech, just a little straight talk among friends,” Mr. Ford said. “And I intend it to be the first of many.”

“My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over,” he said.

A Watergate-mired Mr. Nixon hoped that appointing Mr. Ford as vice president would preserve party unity and add the stability of a man with a solid reputation. He was sworn in as the first vice president to be appointed under the vacancy provisions of the 25th Amendment.

Mr. Nixon resigned from office less than nine months later, leaving Mr. Ford with the burdens of office.

“I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your president by your ballots, and so I ask you to confirm me as your president with your prayers,” he told the country.

He was also left with a difficult political decision — should he pardon Mr. Nixon? Mr. Ford prayed with wife Betty for guidance and consulted with his closest allies and weighed the equities. He decided that a pardon of Mr. Nixon would help heal the country and set it right.

“My conscience tells me it is my duty not merely to proclaim domestic tranquility but to use every means I have to ensure it,” Mr. Ford told the American public on Sept. 8, 1974, before reading the proclamation before TV cameras in the Oval Office that granted Mr. Nixon “a full free and absolute pardon.”

His honeymoon with both press and public was quickly over. Some accused him of favoritism — pardoning Mr. Nixon while his underlings went off to jail. Even his personal press secretary resigned.

Mr. Ford stuck by his guns, and fired back that for the former president, the disgrace of resignation was “equivalent to serving a jail term.”

He paid the political price two years later in 1976, narrowly losing his re-election bid to Jimmy Carter by about 1.7 million votes and a 297-240 margin in the Electoral College.

Born Leslie Lynch King Jr. in Omaha, Neb., he was renamed Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr. as a toddler after his parents divorced and his mother remarried. Step-father Gerald Sr. remained a bulwark of support and kindness through his childhood, and eventually influenced a young Mr. Ford to run for Republican office.

Circumstances were modest but the family was close. Along with his three step-brothers, little Jerry dutifully did his chores; he could put a mean spiral on a football and learned early that everyone — even his enemies — had a good side.

“It was a philosophy,” he once said, “that has sustained me ever since.”

By high school, a tall and muscular Jerry turned into the all-American boy. He was a scholar, a state champion football player, an Eagle Scout. He entered the University of Michigan in 1931, became the Wolverines’ center and was voted the team’s most valuable player before graduating in 1935. His number “48” has since been retired by the university.

Both the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers quickly offered him a spot. But something had changed in Jerry Ford within the rigors of academia. He pined to become a lawyer, to study justice. About the only way he could afford to continue his education was to go work for a university. Since he was “a good kid who worked hard,” he recalled, Yale University hired him as a football coach.

He coached a team that included future senators Robert Taft and William Proxmire. He took law courses along with Cyrus Vance, Potter Stewart and Sargent Shriver, and managed to remain in the top 25 percent of his class and set up a new law practice back in Michigan.

World War II interrupted and Mr. Ford joined the Navy in 1942 and served onboard the aircraft carrier USS Monterey. On his postwar return to Grand Rapids, Gerald Ford Sr. — then the Republican county chairman — persuaded his stepson to enter politics — and to find a wife at the age of 35.

By 1948, he accomplished both. Thanks to insistent friends, he began to date Betty Warren, a fashion buyer who was fresh from a divorce. Mr. Ford decided to run for Congress against longtime incumbent Bartel Jonkman. He showed up at his wedding to Betty that October with mud on his shoes, straight from a Republican rally. The newlyweds spent their honeymoon campaigning.

Mr. Ford won the election, and the next 12 after that, each time winning 60 percent of the vote. He developed a friendship with another young lawmaker over the years: Richard M. Nixon. Mr. Ford joined the House Appropriations Committee in 1951 and in decade, became ranking minority member of its defense subcommittee.

Even as the politics grew more lethal, Mr. Ford remained, as he once put it, “disgustingly sane” and practical. In 1963, he was appointed to serve on the Warren Commission to investigate the assassination of President Kennedy and wrote a book about his experiences.

Mr. Ford’s true desire, though, was to become speaker of the House. Again, he challenged an entrenched incumbent and won the position of minority leader of the House from Charles Halleck of Indiana in 1965. He remained there eight years, making an average of 200 speeches around the country annually.

Mr. Ford criticized President Johnson’s Vietnam policy from the House floor. “What is especially dishonest is secretly to forbid strategic action and publicly portray it as an honest try,” he said. Mr. Ford favored conservative alternatives to social welfare programs, and supported Mr. Nixon in his election bids of 1968 and 1972.

But Mr. Ford was also a realist. The Democrats remained in firm control of the House at the time; Mr. Ford knew his chances of becoming speaker were slim. In 1973, he announced that he would run for re-election once more, then retire in three years. But the Agnew resignation and the series of events that led him to the presidency intervened.

“Personal factors enter into such a decision,” Mr. Nixon recalled for a Ford biographer in 1991. “I knew [several possible congressmen] personally and had great respect for each one of then, but I had known Jerry Ford longer and better than any of the rest.”

After Mr. Nixon’s resignation, Mr. Ford went to work as president, appointing Nelson Rockefeller, the former governor of New York, as his vice president, and hoped to solve such deep-seated problems as the divisive war in Southeast Asia, rising inflation, energy shortages and a truculent Congress.

Mr. Ford methodically addressed each one. His philosophy, he said, was that “a government big enough to give us everything is a government big enough to take from us everything we have.”

In 1974, he rewrote campaign finance laws, offered clemency for draft evaders and deserters and extended the Voting Rights Act to Spanish-speaking people.

Mr. Ford opened an anti-inflation campaign; he used his veto power 55 times and proposed modest tax and spending cuts to contain unemployment and inflation. Inflation dropped from 12.2 percent to 4.6 percent in two years. He signed legislation creating new energy agencies and a bill to decontrol domestic oil prices.

He kept at it, even as personal travails mounted. His wife Betty was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1974; Mr. Ford survived two assassination attempts in 1975.

He was philosophical and good natured about regular press reports that examined his occasional gaffes in excruciating detail. After losing his 1976 re-election bid, Mr. Ford retired and looked back only momentarily.

“What if I hadn’t pardoned Nixon?” he once recalled. “There were other ‘what ifs,’ but I realized early on that dwelling on them would be a pointless exercise.”

He returned with Betty to California and a private life, writing his memoirs, “A Time to Heal” and a book of presidential humor. He maintained a rigorous public speaking schedule, served on the board of several corporations and briefly flirted with the idea of running as vice president for President Reagan’s 1980 campaign.

In his last public appearance during the Republican convention in August, Mr. Ford told CNN, “Betty and I are having a magnificent life, 52 years of married life, and four great children, 15 grandchildren. Everything is breaking just right.”

Mr. Ford leaves his wife Elizabeth Bloomer Warren Ford and four children, Michael Gerald, John Gardner, Steven Meigs and Susan Elizabeth; and numerous grandchildren.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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