LOS ANGELES - Gerald Ford, the only unelected president in United States’ history, has died, his wife, Betty, said Tuesday. 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,” Mrs. 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.”
The statement did not say where Ford died or list a cause of death. Ford had battled pneumonia in January 2006 and underwent two heart treatments — including an angioplasty — in August at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
He was the longest living president, followed by Ronald Reagan, who also died at 93. Ford had been living at his desert home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., about 130 miles east of Los Angeles.
Ford was an accidental president, President Richard Nixon’s hand-picked successor.
He took office on Aug. 9, 1974, after Nixon resigned in disgrace over the Watergate scandal and flew off into exile, declaring “our long national nightmare is over.”
But Ford revived the 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 the election to a term of his own in 1976, but 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 also earned a place in the history books as 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.
Not imperial. Not reclusive. And, of greatest satisfaction to a nation numbed by Watergate, not dishonest.
Even to millions of Americans who had voted two years earlier for Nixon, the transition to Ford’s leadership was one of the most welcomed in the history of the democratic process — despite the fact that it occurred without an election.
After the Watergate ordeal, Americans liked their new president — and first lady Betty, whose candor charmed the country.
They liked her for speaking openly about problems of young people, including her own daughter; they admired her for not hiding that she had a mastectomy — in fact, her example caused thousands of women to seek breast examinations.
BETTY FORD CENTER
And 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 admitted to having 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.
Ford slowed down in recent years. He had been hospitalized in August 2000 when he suffered one or more small strokes while attending the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia.
The following year, he joined former presidents Carter, Bush and Clinton at a memorial service in Washington three days after the Sept. 11 2001 attacks. In June 2004, the four men and their wives joined again at a funeral service in Washington for former President Reagan. But in November 2004, Ford was unable to join the other former presidents at the dedication of the Clinton presidential library in Little Rock, Ark.
In January, Ford was hospitalized with pneumonia for 12 days. He wasn’t seen in public until April 23, when President Bush was in town and paid a visit to the Ford home. Bush, Ford and Betty posed for photographers outside the residence before going inside for a private get-together.
The intensely private couple declined reporter interview requests and were rarely seen outside their home in Rancho Mirage’s gated Thunderbird Estates, other than to attend worship services at the nearby St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Palm Desert.
In a long congressional career in which he rose to be House Republican leader, 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.”
When Agnew resigned in a bribery scandal in October 1973, Ford was one of four finalists to succeed him: Texan John Connally, New York’s Nelson Rockefeller and California’s Ronald Reagan.
“Personal factors enter into such a decision,” Nixon recalled for a Ford biographer in 1991. I knew all of the final four personally and had great respect for each one of then, but I had known Jerry Ford longer and better than any of the rest.
“We had served in Congress together. I had often campaigned for him in his district,” Nixon continued. But Ford had something the others didn’t, he would be easily confirmed by Congress, something that could not be said of Rockefeller, Reagan and Connally.
So Ford it was. He became the first vice president appointed under the 25th amendment to the Constitution.
On Aug. 9, 1974, after seeing Nixon off to exile, Ford assumed the office. The next morning, he still made his own breakfast and padded to the front door in his pajamas to get the newspaper.
Said a ranking Democratic congressman: “Maybe he is a plodder, but right now the advantages of having a plodder in the presidency are enormous.”
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.”
For Ford, a full term was not to be. He survived an intraparty challenge from Ronald Reagan only to lose to Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Bush honors Ford
President Bush hailed former President Gerald Ford for using common sense and “quiet integrity” to restore Americans’ confidence in the presidency after the Watergate scandal.
“The American people will always admire Gerald Ford’s devotion to duty, his personal character and the honorable conduct of his administration,” Bush said Tuesday night in a statement.
Former first lady Nancy Reagan added her condolences.
“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 in a statement.