Gerald R. Ford, the nation's oldest living former president, began his 93rd birthday Friday with a note of praise and best wishes from the White House.

"Since leaving office, President Ford has set a high standard for grace and character," President Bush said in a written statement. "He has never forgotten his roots or lost sight of the things that matter — including his deep love for his wife and partner, Betty."

Ford has made few public appearances in recent months and has had some health setbacks, including a 12-day hospitalization in January for pneumonia.

The Michigan Republican became president after Richard Nixon resigned in 1974. He and his wife have lived in Rancho Mirage, Calif., since leaving the White House in 1977.

"Few leaders have ever faced such challenges upon taking office," Bush said. "Yet President Ford met them with steadfastness and courage."