Gerald Rudolph Ford, who steered the United States out of one of its greatest Constitutional crises, was a decent man destined to be remembered as the only president never elected on a national ticket.
His death Tuesday came just six weeks after he became the longest-lived president in U.S. history, surpassing the life span of Ronald Reagan, who died in 2004 at 93 years and 120 days. It also ends an unprecedented era in American history that saw five presidents alive at the same time.
A man of Congress whose political aspiration was to be speaker of the House, not president of the United States, Ford will lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda Saturday evening after a funeral service and public viewing starting Friday at the Fords’ adopted home in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
There will be a funeral service Tuesday at Washington’s National Cathedral after which the body of the 38th president will be flown to his hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich. He will lie in repose and be buried Wednesday at his presidential museum in the district that elected him to Congress for 13 terms before he took the helm of a nation sharply polarized by the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal that forced Richard Nixon from the White House.
Tributes to Ford, a World War II Navy veteran, college football star and longtime Michigan GOP congressman, poured forth Wednesday, led by statements by President Bush and Vice President Cheney, who served Ford as his White House chief of staff.
“Americans will always admire Gerald Ford’s unflinching performance of duty and the honorable conduct of his administration and the great rectitude of the man himself,” Bush said. “For a nation that needed healing and for an office that needed a calm and steady hand, Gerald Ford came along when we needed him most.”
Cheney echoed those themes, and lamented the passing of a man who embodied the values of “decency, integrity and devotion to duty… He was a dear friend and mentor to me until this very day.”
Tapped by President Nixon to be vice president when Spiro Agnew was forced to resign over tax evasion charges, Ford became president when Nixon quit to avoid all-but-certain impeachment for the cover-up of the 1972 burglary at Democratic party headquarters at Washington’s Watergate complex.
Ford pardoned Nixon and said he believed it was for the good of the nation, but the nation apparently didn’t agree, turning Ford out of the White House when he sought election in his own right in 1976.
As president from 1974 to 1977, Ford sought to restore Americans’ faith in government, presided over the end of the Vietnam War, strived to mend relations between the White House and Congress, and made it a priority to bring the ravages of inflation under control.
“He held the nation together in a very turbulent time,” said Roderick Hart, professor of communication and government at the University of Texas-Austin. “He was very modest, not a sterling president. He was thrust into a series of situations and was in over his head from the beginning.”
Ford said he found the presidency not to be as powerful an office as it is believed to be.
“The best is the feeling that, to a degree, you can actually do something to make things better for the country,” he said. “Presidents do have a lot of power, but not as much as the press and the public generally think. And that inability to do things overnight, I think, is the most discouraging part of being president.”
Ford was born Leslie Lynch King Jr. on July 14, 1913, in Omaha, Neb. His parents divorced and his mother remarried Gerald Rudolph Ford, a Grand Rapids, Mich., businessman who adopted the child and gave him his name. Young Gerald Ford Jr. grew up in the manufacturing town, becoming an Eagle Scout as well as a scholar and athlete. He went on to study economics and political science at the University of Michigan.
Ford was a star with the university’s football team, the Wolverines, and was voted its most valuable player in 1934. But he turned down contracts to play for either the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions. He went to Yale Law School instead.
“I’ve often thought I wish I played maybe one year, but, you know, it’s one of those decisions you make,” he said.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II in 1941, Ford joined the Navy and was assigned to South Pacific duty aboard the light aircraft carrier USS Monterey. He rose to lieutenant commander before he mustered out and returned to Grand Rapids.
There the war veteran defeated entrenched isolationist Rep. Bartel Jonkman in the Republican primary with backing from Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, R-Mich., chief architect of the party’s internationalist wing.
Mid-campaign Ford also married Elizabeth “Betty” Bloomer, a member of Martha Graham’s dance troop. They had four children: Michael, Jack, Steven and Susan.
In Washington, Ford quickly moved up the GOP ranks, serving on the House Appropriations Committee and winning the No. 2 post of Republican whip in 1963 and Republican leader in 1965. Even so, Ford found time to serve as a PTA officer at his children’s high school in Alexandria, Va.
He was tapped for the Warren Commission, which examined President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Ford insisted that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin and saw “no evidence of a conspiracy, foreign or domestic,” involving Oswald’s role.
Ford speechwriter Craig Smith called Ford a “consensus leader” in Congress, which was controlled by Democrats for most of Ford’s political career.
“Ford is what I would call a responsible or authentic conservative, (and) fairly libertarian,” Smith said. “He believed in a strong national defense, in federalism and in strict construction of the Constitution.”
But as crisis hit the Nixon administration following 1972’s break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate, the White House increasingly relied on Ford to help the administration deal with a slowly escalating scandal.
In 1973, Agnew was forced to resign as vice president after pleading no-contest to tax evasion in a case involving corruption in Maryland, where Agnew had been governor. Nixon asked Ford to become vice president in December 1973, giving Ford a front-row seat as Nixon tried simultaneously to manage the mushrooming Watergate scandal and withdraw from Vietnam. “Those nine months were, I think, quite different than any other,” Ford recalled.
Ford was caught in the middle of forces he couldn’t control. He had been friends with Nixon since he first came to Washington, supporting him as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice presidential running mate in 1952. In 1968, Nixon even considered picking Ford as his running mate before astonishing the Republican convention by picking Agnew.
Appointed, not elected, as Nixon’s vice president, Ford gradually distanced himself.
“If I were too supportive of Nixon and something turned up, then it would have made me look ridiculous. The media would have accused me of being a patsy,” he later explained. “If I were too critical of Nixon, if I backed off and criticized him, undercutting him in public, the impression would have been that I was trying to get rid of him so I could be president.”
But with Congress preparing to impeach Nixon, Nixon opted to resign Aug. 9, 1974, and allow Ford to assume the presidency and finish out Nixon’s term. With that, he became the only U.S. vice president and president to assume the nation’s top posts without being elected to either.
A month later, Ford granted Nixon a full pardon. “Someone must write the end to (Watergate),” Ford said.
Democrats were furious at Ford for the pardon, and congressional committees investigated it. But Ford urged Americans to move on and put Watergate behind them.
“I ask that we stop refighting the battles and the recriminations of the past,” Ford told Tulane University students in 1975. “I ask that we look now at what is right with America, at our possibilities and our potentialities for change and growth and achievement and sharing. I ask that we accept the responsibilities of leadership as a good neighbor to all peoples and the enemy of none. I ask that we strive to become, in the finest American tradition, something more tomorrow than we are today.”
Ford’s pardon remained a fatal issue for his presidency and was a dominant negative in the 1976 presidential elections.
Smith, Ford’s aide, said Ford’s compassion was to blame. “He was very compassionate, in fact, too much so. He pardoned Nixon and it cost him the presidency.”
Ford also faced the problem of mopping up in South Vietnam, which collapsed in 1975. “His worst moments came with the loss of South Vietnam,” Smith recalled. “It pained him greatly that after all our efforts Congress would not free him to protect our enormous investment. But, like Truman, who was his Zeitgeist, he believed in the rule of law and Congress. Another president might have taken action against the North Vietnamese and then asked for congressional approval.”
But political scientist John Mueller of the University of Rochester said Ford had no options for dealing with Vietnam, since the January 1973 agreement between the United States and Vietnam resulted in the United States stopping military assistance.
“By the time Ford came to office, Vietnam was substantially over,” Mueller said, with the public paying attention only during the final evacuation of Saigon in 1975.
Ford’s choices for domestic policies also were constrained by raging inflation, unleashed by spending on the war and fueled by the 1973 Arab oil embargo. Interest rates hit 10 percent when Ford was sworn in as president, and he launched the “Whip Inflation Now” program, using government persuasion to keep labor unions from negotiating large pay increases but rejecting Nixon’s 1970 inflation-fighting alternative of price controls.
But Ford’s voluntary inflation-fighting program fell apart, as the United States was whipsawed by escalating energy prices arising from the oil embargo imposed in response to western support of Israel in the 1973 Six Day’s War.
Americans were infuriated by gasoline shortages and long lines at gas stations, and Democrats blamed Ford.
“The Ford administration failed in getting inflation under control, but he was also president during a terrible oil shock that would be difficult to handle for any policymaker,” said public policy professor Jack High of George Mason University.
Ford fended off a primary challenge from California Gov. Ronald Reagan and went on to lose the 1976 election to Democrat Jimmy Carter by 500,000 votes. The irony wasn’t lost when aides to 1980 Republican nominee Reagan briefly flirted with the idea of a Ford “co-presidency” in their successful bid to oust Carter.
The White House years took their toll on both Ford and his wife, Betty, who admitted an addiction to alcohol and pills and went on to found the Betty Ford Clinic to help others overcome addiction.
Betty Ford also was the first woman in political life to go public with her battle with breast cancer at a time when the disease was typically treated with silence.
In retirement Gerald Ford wrote his memoirs, “A Time to Heal,” and “Humor and the Presidency.” As president, Ford found himself the target of comedy spoofs as a klutz despite his lifelong athletic skills, but in private life he and his presidential library sponsored a presidential humor symposium that featured “Saturday Night Live” comedian Chevy Chase, whose stumbling impersonations of Ford became a trademark. Ford said the stumblebum image never bothered him. “It goes with the territory,” he said.
Ford’s stature grew in retirement as he and onetime political foe Carter frequently shared the spotlight as friends and elder statesmen, whether speaking out on Mideast peace or U.S. involvement in the Balkans. In 1999, the two were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, by President Clinton 25 years to the day Ford was sworn in as president.
The awards came shortly after Ford and Carter jointly took to the editorial pages of the New York Times to urge the Senate not to expel Clinton from office but to censure him for lying and obstructing justice about his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky.
Ford joined Carter and Clinton in 2004 in an extraordinary letter to President George W. Bush urging him to press Congress to renew the ban on assault weapons, which the three former presidents described as “the weapons of choice for gangs, drug traffickers and paramilitary extremist groups.” But the assault weapons ban died.
Ford also was a behind-the-scenes force in persuading the Supreme Court to uphold continued use of affirmative action in college admissions in 2003 in a case involving his alma mater, University of Michigan. His involvement went far beyond his public role as the author of editorial-page pieces in support of the policy that he started writing shortly three white applicants sued in 1999.
Ford and longtime top adviser Jim Cannon, chairman of the U.S. Naval Academy board of visitors, recruited retired top military brass to tell the justices that the fate of the armed forces, now 40 percent minority, depended on a diverse officer corps educated on campus. The friend-of-the-court brief from Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and more than 40 others convinced five of nine justices to uphold affirmative action’s continued use.
Ford’s stature was reinforced when he and Betty returned to Washington in June 2003 to be feted on his 90th birthday, when he joined the ranks of John Adams, Herbert Hoover and Ronald Reagan as the only presidents to live to 90.
Congress, the White House and the National Press Club staged lavish celebrations, with Bob Schieffer summing it up for the press club audience: “In four decades as a reporter, Gerald Ford was the nicest and most decent person I ever covered,” veteran CBS Washington bureau chief and anchor Schieffer said.
Ford continued to play golf into his 90s even though he was reduced to being “a nine-holer.” He remained active in charity work and community causes, including the Betty Ford Clinic that is now spearheaded by the Fords’ daughter Susan.
His last trip to Washington with wife Betty was for Ronald Reagan’s funeral service at Washington National Cathedral June 11, 2004.
The following November, he attended the groundbreaking of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. He recalled how he never thought such an honor was possible back in 1931 when his high school principal gave him a $100 check for tuition “to make darn sure that I went to school at Ann Arbor.”
At his 90th birthday celebration in Washington, Ford told well-wishers he hoped to be remembered as a man who tried to heal a nation’s wounds: “I hope historians 50 years from now would say that President Ford took over in a very difficult time — when we had the Watergate scandal, the war in Vietnam, economic problems — and in a period when there was great distrust of the White House, he restored public confidence,” he said.
In recent years, Ford’s age caught up with him. He suffered two mild strokes since 2000.
He was hospitalized for tests last December. In January, he developed pneumonia and spent 12 days in the hospital. In August, doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., implanted a cardiac pacemaker in Ford’s chest and performed a coronary angioplasty. In October, he again was hospitalized for unspecified tests.
The last public statement by the former commander-in-chief came November 12, when he reached the age of 93 years and 121 days. Characteristically, he played down the significance of the historic benchmark he had surpassed. Far more important to him was the affection of his family and friends, he said.
“I thank God for the gift of every sunrise, and even more, for all the years He has blessed me with Betty and the children, with our extended family, and the friends of a lifetime,” Ford’s statement said.
(E-mail Mary Deibel at DeibelM(at)shns.com or visit www.shns.com.)