Gerald Ford dies at 93

WASHINGTON -- Gerald R. Ford, who picked up the pieces of a shattered presidency in the wake of the "long, national nightmare" of Watergate, has died. He was 93.

WASHINGTON -- Gerald R. Ford, who picked up the pieces of a shattered presidency in the wake of the "long, national nightmare" of Watergate, has died. He was 93.

"His life was filled with love of God, his family and his country," Betty Ford said in a brief statement issued from her home in Rancho Mirage, Calif.

Ford had battled pneumonia in January and underwent two heart treatments in August.

His reputation was forged in Richard Nixon's shadow, and he torpedoed his own election hopes by pardoning his disgraced predecessor. But he is being hailed as a sunny and decent man who calmed a roiled country as much through his plainspoken manner as through his official actions.

"He assumed the presidency in an hour of national turmoil and division," President Bush said. "With his quiet integrity, common sense and kind instincts, President Ford helped heal our land and restore public confidence in the presidency.


"The American people will always admire Gerald Ford's devotion to duty, his personal character, and the honorable conduct of his administration. We mourn the loss of such a leader."

The 38th president of the United States survived two assassination attempts and was the last surviving member of the Warren Commission that investigated the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He was also the only chief executive not elected to office as either vice president or President.

He was twice thrust into uncharted waters with the resignations of Vice President Spiro Agnew and President Nixon. In his 29 months in office, the mild-mannered, respected Ford began the long, slow process of restoring national confidence in the office disgraced by Nixon.

"I'm a Ford, not a Lincoln," he said humbly at his 1974 swearing-in ceremony.

Yet his pardon of Nixon likely destroyed his only shot at being elected to the nation's highest post. Not helping was his unwavering loyalty to a battered Republican Party, and a brutal recession -- an economic downturn that couldn't be cured by the WIN (Whip Inflation Now) button Ford sported on his lapel.

While the strapping athlete rose in politics thanks in part to a storied college football career and was an accomplished skier, Ford was plagued by a reputation for clumsiness as president and was mercilessly satirized as an accident-prone klutz by Chevy Chase of "Saturday Night Live." His gaffes weren't only physical: Ford never lived down a 1976 presidential debate in which he declared, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe."

Even if he was unfairly portrayed as a bumbler, Ford projected an innate decency and stability that helped the nation slowly emerge from the aftermath of perhaps its greatest constitutional crisis.

Ford also shined after his presidency, supporting his wife, Betty, whose disclosure of alcohol and drug addiction spurred national awareness of the substance-abuse plague, and led to the rehab center that bears her name.


And when he had a chance in 1980 to step back into the limelight as running mate to Republican savior Ronald Reagan, Ford bowed out, refusing to take the No. 2 spot after holding, however briefly, the highest and loneliest office in the land.

In retirement, Ford carved out a comfortable and lucrative lifestyle, wintering in Rancho Mirage, Calif., and spending the summers in an elegant home he built near the ski slopes in Beaver Creek, Colo.

After World War II service aboard an aircraft carrier, Ford returned to his hometown of Grand Rapids and joined a local law firm. But he quickly felt the pull of politics.

In 1948, Ford married Elizabeth Bloomer, a former model and dancer, in Grand Rapids. It proved a good-luck charm for Ford, who handily won the election and entered Congress a fair-haired boy of 35.

He notched the chairmanship of the House Republican Conference in 1963, and soon after served on the bipartisan Warren Commission, which investigated the Kennedy assassination.

In 1965, Ford co-authored "Portrait of the Assassin," which backed the commission's controversial finding that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.

That same year, Ford led a group of "Young Turks" who overthrew old guard Republicans, winning for himself the House minority leader's job.

In the late 1960s, Ford earned a reputation as a Nixon loyalist -- a tag he would never shake. He chaired the 1968 and 1972 GOP national conventions, where Nixon was nominated for the nation's highest office.


In 1969 and 1970, Ford was again seen as doing Nixon's bidding by spearheading efforts to impeach liberal Supreme Court Justice William Douglas, whom the President despised.

When the Watergate scandal broke, Ford steadfastly stood by Nixon. Ford's loyalty was rewarded on Oct. 12, 1973, when Nixon named him to replace Spiro Agnew, who resigned after being brought down by impending charges of bribery, extortion and conspiracy.

With the Watergate scandal roiling, legislators in the House and Senate, knowing they might very well be picking the country's next President, approved Ford by overwhelming majorities. He was sworn in Dec. 6, 1973.

It wasn't long before he would be taking an oath for an even higher office. Facing certain impeachment, Nixon became the first U.S. president to resign.

Ford, who had never been elected to office outside Michigan's 5th Congressional District, was sworn in as president of the United States just past noon on Aug. 9, 1974.

"Our long national nightmare is over," Ford told a shaken nation. "Our Constitution works. Our great republic is a government of laws and not of men."

His reassuring words of healing, though, gave way to shock and anger in some quarters a month later when Ford issued a preemptive "full, free and absolute pardon" to Nixon, who had never been charged with a crime.

The pardon did little to help Ford, who also inherited inflation, a recession, unemployment and an energy shortage from Nixon. And in the same month as the pardon, first lady Betty Ford underwent a radical mastectomy on her right breast for cancer. Even with personal and political woes, Ford in July 1975 declared his candidacy for the presidency.


Two months into his run, on a stop in Sacramento, Manson family member Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme pointed a .45-caliber handgun at Ford. Secret Service bodyguards quickly grabbed the gun, which had misfired, subdued Fromme and hustled a shaken Ford to safety inside the state capitol.

Ford had a closer call 17 days later in San Francisco when another Manson family member, Sara Jane Moore, fired at Ford as he left the St. Francis Hotel. The shot was deflected by a spectator, and Moore was wrestled to the ground by Secret Service agents.

Meanwhile, with the nation sick of professional politicians -- and the Watergate scandal, a Georgia peanut farmer named Jimmy Carter emerged seemingly out of nowhere as the Democratic front-runner. The perennially smiling first-term governor told the country what it wanted to hear: "I'll never lie to you."

Ford faced off with Carter in three debates -- most memorably stating that Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe were free from Soviet dominance, an inexplicable gaffe.

Still, Ford roared back from a huge deficit and made it a close election. Carter and running mate Walter Mondale took 50 percent to Ford and Bob Dole's 48 percent of the popular vote, while winning a 297-to-241 margin in the Electoral College.

-- Copyright © 2006, New York Daily News/Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

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