Gerald R. Ford, who picked up the pieces of Richard Nixon’s scandal-shattered White House as the 38th president and the only one never elected to nationwide office, 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,” former first lady Betty 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.”
He died at 6:45 p.m. Tuesday at his home in Rancho Mirage, about 130 miles east of Los Angeles, his office said in a statement. No cause of death was released. Funeral arrangements were to be announced Wednesday.
He was the longest living president, followed by Ronald Reagan, who also died at 93.
“The American people will always admire Gerald Ford’s devotion to duty, his personal character and the honorable conduct of his administration,” President Bush said in a statement Tuesday night. “We mourn the loss of such a leader, and our 38th president will always have a special place in our nation’s memory.”
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.
An accidental president
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 straightforward 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 Watergate debate 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 was 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.
After the Watergate ordeal, Americans liked their new president — and first lady Betty, whose candor charmed the country.
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 said she had 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.
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.”
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.”
In the 1976 election, Ford survived an intraparty challenge from Ronald Reagan only to lose to Democrat Jimmy Carter. 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.
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 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.”
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 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.