Gerald Rudolph Ford, the 38th president of the United States, died Tuesday. He was 93 years old.
"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," Ford's wife, 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."
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.
A respected and beloved elder statesman in his post-White House years, Ford ascended to the presidency in the wake of the Nixon administration scandals. Ford was the first and only president to reach the Oval Office having never been elected vice president or president.
While his most controversial move as president was his quick pardoning of Richard Nixon, Ford always maintained he did so to hasten the nation's healing. He pardoned Vietnam draft resisters a week later.
Ford served in the U.S. Navy during the World War II, was a long-time congressman from Michigan, survived two assassination attempts during his presidency, and, at the time of his death, was the oldest living member of the Warren Commission that investigated the death of John F. Kennedy.
Though he was often parodied as physically clumsy, Ford was actually a gifted athlete who turned down a professional football career to pursue a law degree and worked as a coach and physical education teacher throughout his early career, even after he began practicing law and during his military service.
The Early Years
Gerald R. Ford was born July 14, 1913, in Omaha, Neb., to Leslie Lynch King and Dorothy Ayer Gardner King. He was originally named Leslie Lynch King Jr., after his father, but his parents separated when he was just two weeks old. In 1916, Dorothy married Gerald R. Ford, a paint salesman, and began calling her son Gerald R. Ford Jr.
Dorothy and Ford Sr. had three more sons, Thomas, Richard and James, and Ford was raised the oldest boy in a close and loving family. But, he did not know his mother's husband was not his biological father until 1930, and did not legally change his name until 1935.
After his high school graduation in 1931, Ford received a scholarship to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Majoring in economics and political science, Ford was a star athlete. He played on the university's national championship football teams in 1931 and 1933 and was voted the Wolverines' most valuable player in 1934.
Ford passed up a professional football career to take a job as a boxing coach and assistant football coach at Yale, where he attended law school. He graduated in 1941 in the top 25 percent of his class. It was during his law school years that Ford was introduced to politics, when he worked on Wendell Willkie's 1940 presidential campaign.
After graduating from Yale, Ford returned to Michigan and established a law firm in Grand Rapids and taught a course in business law at the University of Grand Rapids. He also served as line coach for the school's football team until World War II.
In April 1942, Ford joined the U.S. Naval Reserve as an ensign and the next year was stationed aboard the USS Monterey, a light aircraft carrier that participated in most of the major operations in the South Pacific. In December 1944, a typhoon pounded the Monterey, which caught fire. Ford was nearly swept overboard, the closest he came to death during the entire war.
After his discharge in 1946 as a lieutenant commander, Ford returned to Grand Rapids and became a partner in a law firm. He found himself in new ideological terrain — an isolationist before the war, Ford was now a committed internationalist.
Ford decided to challenge incumbent Rep. Bartel Jonkman, an isolationist, for the Republican nomination in the 1948 election. Ford beat Jonkman and went on to win the seat with 61 percent of the vote.
The voters of Michigan would re-elect him 12 times, each time giving him more than 60 percent of the vote.
It was during his House campaign that Ford married Elizabeth Ann Bloomer Warren, a department store fashion consultant — legendarily campaigning on his wedding day. Gerald and Betty Ford had four children between 1950 and 1957: Michael Gerald, John Gardner, Steven Meigs, and Susan Elizabeth.
A Distinguished Legislative Career
Ford served in the U.S. House of Representatives from Jan. 3, 1949, to Dec. 6, 1973. He described himself as "a moderate in domestic affairs, an internationalist in foreign affairs, and a conservative in fiscal policy."
The Republican Party tapped Ford as a rising star early in his career. Throughout the 1950s, he was encouraged to run for both the Senate and for governor of Michigan, but Ford declined these offers. His true ambition was to become Speaker of the House, a post Ford would never achieve due to the Democrat's hold on the House throughout his tenure.
Ford was a member of a group of younger, more progressive House Republicans who believed the party's old guard had grown stagnant. In 1961, in a revolt of the "Young Turks," Ford became chairman of the House Republican Conference — the number three leadership position in the party — and later rose to become House minority leader.
In 1963 President Johnson appointed Ford to the Warren Commission investigating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Ford never wavered in his belief that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. In 1965 Ford co-authored, with John R. Stiles, a book about the findings of the commission, "Portrait of the Assassin."
In the 1968 and 1972 elections, Ford supported his good friend, Richard Nixon. On good terms with both the conservative and liberal wings of the Republican Party, he made the short list of possible vice presidential candidates in 1968.
In late 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned his office after pleading no contest to a charge of income tax evasion. Nixon chose Ford as Agnew's replacement. In Ford, the tarnished Nixon administration found a candidate of impeccable character and reputation.
Ford was confirmed and sworn in on Dec. 6, 1973. But he would serve only nine months as vice president, his entire term overshadowed by the unraveling of the Nixon administration.
By the summer of 1974, the public outrage over the Watergate scandal — the 1972 break-in of the Democratic headquarters during the 1972 campaign and the cover-up of the incident by Nixon officials — reached full pitch. Facing impeachment, Nixon resigned from office, the first president in U.S. history ever to do so. On Aug. 9, 1974, Ford took the presidential oath of office, saying that "the long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works."
A month after taking office, on Sept. 6, 1974, Ford granted Richard Nixon a "full, free and absolute pardon" for all federal crimes Nixon committed, or may have committed, during his presidency. The decision was the most difficult and controversial of his presidency, and resulted in a public distrust of him that persisted throughout his tenure.
Ford claimed at the time, and has always maintained, that he pardoned Nixon to dispatch of the matter quickly so that the nation, and the American people, could move on. The pardon was a major factor in Ford losing the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter.
Years later, former President Bill Clinton praised Ford for keeping the big picture in mind and not getting swept away as Clinton had done.
"You didn't get caught up in the moment and you were right. You were right for the controversial decisions you made to keep the country together and I thank you for that," Clinton said in 1999 when Ford received the Congressional Gold Medal. The medal represents Congress' highest expression of appreciation and is inscribed "Lives of Service, Examples of Integrity.
The Ford Presidency
Beyond the problems created by the Nixon pardon, Ford also had to confront other difficulties when he took office — the United States was embroiled in a controversial war in Southeast Asia and plagued by rising inflation and threats of energy shortages.
Ford's philosophy on domestic policy was best summed up by a line from one of his favorite speeches: "A government big enough to give us everything we want is a government big enough to take from us everything we have."
Ford pursued modest tax and spending cuts as well as industry deregulation and decontrolling energy prices to stimulate production. He believed these strategies would contain both inflation and unemployment while reducing the size of the federal government and helping the nation overcome the energy crisis.
The 94th Congress, however, was controlled by the Democrats, who had won huge gains in the 1974 elections. Congress pushed through legislation with little regard for Ford's views; the president responded by using the veto — 36 times in total — his only means of combating Congress.
As Ford took office, the Nixon administration's policy of detente — increased diplomatic, commercial and cultural contact between the United States and the Soviet Union — was beginning to disintegrate and Soviet relations gradually got worse.
Still, the Ford administration was able to reach two important agreements with the Soviets. The first, the Vladivostok Accords of November 1974, was an arms control agreement designed to strengthen the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) of 1972. The second was the Helsinki Agreements of 1975, which aimed to observe universal standards of human rights in exchange for Western nations' recognition of Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe.
In January 1973, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger signed the Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam, intending to assist South Vietnam in fending off the North. But that same year, Congress banned the use of appropriated funds in the region, halting American involvement in Vietnam. In April 1975, when the North Vietnamese communists began conquering the South and overwhelmed what was left of the South Vietnamese government, Ford and Kissinger were unable to persuade Congress to provide military aid to South Vietnam.
Ford believed America should have seen Vietnam through to the end.
"It has been said that the United States is overextended, that we have too many commitments far from home, that we must re-examine what our truly vital interests are and shape our strategy to conform to them," Ford said. "I find no fault with this as a theory, but in the real world such a course must be pursued carefully. We cannot, in the meantime, abandon our friends while our adversaries support and encourage theirs."
But on April 30, 1975, the last Americans were evacuated by helicopter from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon as the North Vietnamese took control of the South.
There would be one more chapter to the U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia when, two weeks after the fall of Saigon, on May 12, 1975, Cambodian forces led by a new communist government captured an American freighter, the Mayaguez, in the Gulf of Siam, taking its crew hostage. Kissinger persuaded Ford not to negotiate for the hostages but to instead demonstrate to the world that the United Stated could still assert its power. On May 14, 1975, as the 39 hostages were being safely released, the U.S. attacked Cambodian naval bases. Forty-one Americans were killed in the action.
As 1975 wound down, Congress and the president struggled repeatedly over presidential war powers, oversight of the CIA and covert operations, military aid appropriations, and the stationing of military personnel. Then, in September 1975, on two separate trips to California, Ford was the target of assassination attempts. Both of the assailants were women — Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, a former follower of Charles Manson, and Sara Jane Moore.
As Ford headed into the 1976 election, the biggest threat to his presidency came from fellow Republican Ronald Reagan. The fight with Reagan was long and bitter, but Ford won the nomination, selecting Kansas Sen. Robert Dole as his running mate. Ford lost the general election to Jimmy Carter in one of the closest elections in history.
Return to Private Life
After leaving the White House, the now former president and his wife chose to make California their home, building a new house in Rancho Mirage. After a nearly lifelong career in public office, Ford was finally free to pursue financial and business opportunities. He hired an agent from the William Morris Agency and negotiated a television deal with NBC, and both he and his wife received lucrative advances to write their memoirs.
Ford also joined the boards of several companies, among them American Express and Amex and Travelers Group, and he became popular on the lecture circuit.
Since leaving office, Ford voiced concern about political partisanship, civility in politics, and the policies of affirmative action. In 1998 he authored two opinion pieces, one with former President Jimmy Carter, regarding the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton.
In 1999, Ford received the Medal of Freedom. This honor, the nation's highest civilian award, was presented by Clinton in recognition of Ford's role in guiding the nation through the turbulent times of Watergate, the Nixon resignation and the end of the Vietnam War.
As Ford entered his 80s, his athletic life began to catch up with him. In 1990, Ford underwent surgery to have cartilage inserted into his left knee. The procedure was repeated in 1992 on his right knee. In 1995, Ford had surgery on his shoulder to repair an injury that dated back to his college football career. Two months later, Ford re-injured the shoulder while golfing with former President Clinton and former President George H.W. Bush, and underwent a second surgery.
In 2000, Ford suffered a mild stroke while attending the Republican convention in Philadelphia. Ford made a full recovery, resuming his golf game. In 2006, he was hospitalized in January for 12 days with pneumonia, and again with shortness of breath in July.