From the Archives: Gerald Ford Dies at 93

Special to The Times

Gerald R. Ford, who as the 38th president of the United States helped restore the nation's political stability after the trauma of the Watergate scandal, has died, his widow, Betty, announced Tuesday night.

"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," the former first lady 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."

He died at 6:45 p.m. Tuesday at his home in Rancho Mirage. No cause of death was released.

Ford had been in declining health for several years. In August he had a cardiac pacemaker implanted during a stay at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. A few days later, he underwent a second heart procedure when stents were placed into two of his coronary arteries to increase blood flow.

With Ford's death, George H.W. Bush, 82, becomes the oldest living former president. He and President Carter were both born in 1924, but Bush was born in June and Carter in October.

President George W. Bush's chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten, told Bush of Ford's death just before 8 p.m. PST, Deputy White House Press Secretary Scott Stanzel said. Bush, at his ranch near Crawford, Texas, called Betty Ford about an hour later "to express his personal condolences," Stanzel said.

In a prepared statement released by the White House, said Bush and First Lady Laura Bush were "greatly saddened" by Ford's death. "The American people will always admire Gerald Ford's devotion to duty, his personal character, and the honorable conduct of his administration," the statement said. "We mourn the loss of such a leader, and our 38th president will always have a special place in our nation's memory. On behalf of all Americans, Laura and I offer our deepest sympathies to Betty Ford and all of President Ford's family. Our thoughts and prayers will be with them in the hours and days ahead."

Ford, a Republican, served first as vice president and then as president without benefit of election. He was House minority leader in 1973 when he was chosen by President Nixon to serve as vice president after Spiro T. Agnew was forced to resign because of financial irregularities. Less than a year later, Ford was thrust into the Oval Office when Nixon resigned because of Watergate.

Ford took the presidential oath at 12:03 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 9, 1974, in a nationally televised ceremony in the East Room of the White House. Once sworn in, he stepped to a microphone to address the cameras and hundreds of tearful staffers who had just waved goodbye to Nixon's helicopter as it rose from the White House lawn.

"Our long national nightmare is over," Ford said. "Our Constitution works; our great republic is a government of laws and not of men."

Untainted himself by Watergate, Ford was left the task of restoring public confidence in an institution badly damaged by the corrosive constitutional crisis that, until Nixon's resignation, was spiraling toward the president's impeachment and conviction in the Senate.

But, after serving barely a month as president, Ford made the controversial decision to grant Nixon a blanket pardon for any crimes he may have committed while in office. Many thought Ford's move fueled national cynicism about government and the officials who ran it. Others thought it was the correct decision to move the country past Watergate.

Ford defended his actions by saying he had hoped to end the bitter debate over whether to prosecute Nixon, which had become a serious distraction for the White House. He conceded after his narrow defeat by Carter in 1976, however, that the pardon instead had had "an adverse impact" on his popular support, although he maintained that he had made the "right decision."

Ford took over a disoriented and virtually immobilized administration at a time of mounting problems. Abroad, the long, costly U.S. military presence in Southeast Asia was nearing an end. At home, an economy warped by inflation and energy shortages was sliding into a recession.

The new president sought to distinguish his habits from the perception that his predecessor ran an imperial presidency. Ford replaced Nixon's aides, and White House officials became more accessible than they had been in years. Trust and civility began to reappear in relations with Congress and the public.

One morning, he invited the White House press corps to chat with him while he ate a typical breakfast. As photographers snapped away, Ford sliced and buttered his own English muffins in the manner of the Upper Midwesterner he was.

Although Ford defended the American commitment in Southeast Asia after most U.S. officeholders wrote it off as political poison, he showed early sensitivity as president to the domestic divisions left by the unpopular conflict.

To promote "the rebuilding of peace among ourselves," he initiated a conditional clemency plan that he said would give draft dodgers and deserters a chance to "work their way back" to full citizenship.

Supporters praised Ford for integrity, openness and stubborn determination. His detractors called him unimaginative and outdated, an accidental president unqualified for the White House. A public perception of Ford as a fumbler took shape after a series of minor accidents was exploited in derisive commentary and cartoons.

He survived two attempts on his life. Both occurred in California in the same month -- September 1975.

On the morning of Sept. 5, a young woman named Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, a member of the Charles Manson family who had not been involved in Manson-related murders, aimed a borrowed .45-caliber pistol at Ford as he crossed a park near the state Capitol in Sacramento. The gun misfired as a Secret Service agent grabbed her arm.

Less than three weeks later, on Sept. 22, Sara Jane Moore, later diagnosed as psychologically disturbed, fired a shot at Ford from across the street as he emerged from the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. A retired Marine who saw Moore raise the gun struck her arm and deflected the shot. Again, Ford was not injured.

Both women were convicted for the attempted assassinations and were sentenced to life imprisonment.

But more fundamental problems confronted Ford's administration and, indirectly, his candidacy for an elected presidential term of his own.

Although the end of the Vietnam War in May 1975 meant that the nation was technically at peace for the first time in 11 years, international tensions continued. The administration was in a drawn-out confrontation with Congress on military posture, foreign policy and controls over covert intelligence operations.

On the foreign policy front, Ford -- with help from holdover Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger -- played a leading role in the Helsinki Accords, in which the Soviet Union in 1975 agreed to basic freedoms of religion and conscience for all peoples. Although some dismissed the accords as worthless, some historians now believe they paved the way for later democratic reforms among the Soviet people.

Domestically, Ford sought to slay the twin beasts of a deepening recession and ballooning inflation with an economic program that was largely ineffective. He dubbed it "Whip Inflation Now," using the acronym WIN. Unemployment in 1975 had reached 9.2%, a 34-year-high, and inflation was at 11%.

Ford offered everyone in the nation a WIN button to encourage support for his campaign for such voluntary measures as cost-cutting by businesses and compliance with a 55-mph speed limit to reduce reliance on foreign oil. Soon there were WIN parades, WIN work projects and WIN flags.

But unemployment continued high into the 1976 election year. And, although the pall of Watergate was largely lifted, basic policy directions were little changed from the Nixon era.

FORD was born July 14, 1913, in Omaha, the only child of Leslie and Dorothy Gardner King. They christened him Leslie Lynch King. After a divorce in 1915, Dorothy King took the boy to live with her parents in Grand Rapids, Mich., and later married a young paint salesman, Gerald R. Ford, who adopted the child and changed his name to Gerald R. Ford Jr. In time, there were three half-brothers. The elder Ford formed his own paint company and nursed the family through the Great Depression.

Young Gerald starred at center on the 1930 championship football team at South High School, then won a football scholarship to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where he earned his keep as a fraternity house dishwasher and had a B average when he was graduated in 1935.

Ford turned down two offers to play professional football to take a job as assistant football and boxing coach at Yale, which financed his attendance at Yale Law School. He was in the top third of his class when he received his degree in 1941.

He launched a law practice in Grand Rapids, but a few months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, he joined the Navy. Assigned in 1943 to the new light aircraft carrier Monterey, he had earned 10 battle stars in the South Pacific and was a lieutenant commander when he returned to Grand Rapids in 1945.

Ford signed on with a local law firm, then soon found himself vice president of a group of former servicemen campaigning for action on veterans' housing. It was this entree to local politics that led Ford in 1948 to successfully challenge U.S. Rep. Bartel J. Jonkman, an isolationist Republican representing the 5th District, for the GOP nomination.

Ford's election that fall with 61% of the vote was routine in the 5th District, which had last sent a Democrat to Congress in 1910.

A well-kept secret during the primary campaign was Ford's engagement to Elizabeth Anne Bloomer, a trained dancer and former model. Gerald and Betty Ford were married a month before the 1948 general election.

It was a close, enduring match. The Fords lived for a time in apartments around Washington, then moved into a comfortably unassuming house in Alexandria, Va., where they raised their four children: Michael Gerald, John "Jack" Gardner, Steven Meigs and Susan.

Freshman congressman Ford soon achieved a place on the Appropriations Committee, the starting-point for all money bills. Assigned to the subcommittee on defense, he became a specialist in Pentagon budgeting and acquired a belief in military strength that he carried with him to the White House.

Ford began to emerge from the GOP rank and file in February 1952 when he joined 17 other House Republicans in a letter urging Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower to run for president. The 1952 election put Eisenhower in the White House and gave the vice presidency to Nixon, then a U.S. senator from California and a friend of Ford's from when they served together in the House.

The new vice president was Ford's well-placed link with the Eisenhower administration. And it worked two ways: When a GOP moderate faction tried to force Nixon off the 1956 GOP ticket, Ford helped douse the revolt. Nixon remembered the service and brought Ford into his circle of advisors when he waged his losing presidential campaign against Sen. John F. Kennedy in 1960.

A week after the assassination of President Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson named Ford to the seven-member commission headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren that investigated the killing. After a 10-month inquiry, the commission found unanimously that the murder was the work of a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald.

Ford, who was the last surviving member of the Warren Commission, co-wrote a book with John R. Stiles on the findings of the panel, "Portrait of the Assassin."

In January 1965, Ford became House minority leader, but so few were the Republicans at the time that he was in no position to block or amend Johnson's "Great Society" programs.

But Ford did serve notice on the Johnson White House not to expect GOP support in the House for the escalating war in Vietnam unless Republicans were consulted on policy. A hawk on Vietnam, Ford branded the administration's limited war policies a failure and called for vigorous action against communist supply lines.

Johnson, however, ignored Ford's criticisms and dealt with the GOP congressional leadership primarily through the late Sen. Everett M. Dirksen (R-Ill.), an old colleague who supported him on Vietnam. Privately, Johnson dropped widely repeated gibes that Ford "played football too long without a helmet."

The close election that put Nixon in the White House left House Republicans 26 votes short of controlling the House. But, as minority leader, Ford provided crucial support for President Nixon. He backed Nixon's policies on waging the war in Southeast Asia and in withdrawing from it. And, despite his two decades as a cold warrior, he supported Nixon's moves toward detente with Moscow and endorsed Nixon's visit to mainland China.

Despite Nixon's reelection in 1972, Republicans failed to capture the House, and Ford knew he probably would never achieve his ambition of becoming speaker of the House. He talked of serving out his last term and retiring on his generous congressional pension and maybe practice a little law.

NO one, least of all Ford, foresaw the combination of scandal and political accident that within two years would dispel this dream of honorable retirement. When Agnew resigned office in disgrace after pleading no-contest to financial corruption charges Nixon was empowered by the 25th Amendment to appoint a new vice president. He selected Ford. And when Watergate soon after engulfed Nixon, Ford found himself in the Oval Office.

The Watergate scandal involved the June 1972 burglary of Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington. The break-in and efforts to cover up the crime reached all the way to the Oval Office. A number of administration officials resigned; some were later convicted of offenses connected with efforts to cover up the affair. The House Judiciary Committee ultimately recommended three articles of impeachment against Nixon. Rather than face a trial in the Senate, Nixon announced on Aug. 8, 1974, that he would resign the next day.

The healing process Ford envisioned for his presidency was severely jolted at an early stage by his abrupt televised announcement on Sept. 8, 1974 of an unconditional pardon of Nixon for any crimes he might have committed as president. No charges were pending against Nixon, but multiple breaches of trust and law were indicated by the record of a House impeachment inquiry.

Ford said he believed that a Nixon trial would fuel "ugly passions" and that "Richard Nixon and his family have suffered enough."

Public reaction was negative and some suspected that the pardon was part of a deal that had been arranged to get Nixon to resign.

Ford denied this and took full responsibility for the decision.

He added: "I do believe the buck stops here and I cannot rely on public opinion polls to tell me what is right."

Until he became vice president and then president, Ford was barely known outside Washington. Many Americans drew their first impression of the 38th president from the televised image of a friendly, big-boned man who looked a bit ill at ease amid the improvised inaugural solemnities.

Ford was 61 at the time but looked younger. Smiles came easily to his square-jawed face. He wore his thinning hair short, with sideburns to mid-ear. It had been 40 years since he had starred at football for the University of Michigan, but he still had an athlete's bearing.

In formal speeches, Ford was more earnest than eloquent and he said himself that he was "no orator." His delivery of prepared texts was wooden and his impromptu comments from the platform and in his numerous news conferences were in workaday political prose. On informal occasions, he was approachable and unpretentious. At ease in the Oval Office puffing on one of his many pipes, he was a good listener and a persuasive negotiator.

Ford nominated former New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller to fill the vice presidency, and Congress confirmed the choice. It was an overture to the Republican center that galled conservatives, who had never accepted the moderate New Yorker. Rockefeller, considered a liability to Ford's bid for the 1976 nomination, withdrew himself from consideration as a vice presidential candidate in November 1975.

Ford began his tenure with a Cabinet inherited from Nixon, but eight of the 11 faces changed in his administration's first 18 months. Though he retained Kissinger, despite the secretary of State's many critics, he fired Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger, a brainy, blunt advocate of military power and an open critic of Kissinger's handling of detente with the Soviet Union. Also dismissed, then invited to stay on until his successor was in place, was William E. Colby, who had headed the CIA during 16 bleak months of Watergate-related investigations.

To succeed Schlesinger -- who soon reappeared in government as Carter's Energy secretary -- Ford picked Donald H. Rumsfeld, until then the chief of the White House staff. And to succeed Rumsfeld, Ford elevated a lower-level presidential aide then known as Richard B. Cheney, now Vice President Dick Cheney. For the CIA post, Ford nominated George H.W. Bush, a former Texas congressman and onetime GOP national chairman who then headed the U.S. mission in Beijing. Ford enjoyed the presidency and worked hard at it, but his style was unexciting. Little innovation came out of the Ford White House. Such surprises as there were -- notably the Nixon pardon and the Cabinet shake-up -- generated more criticism than praise. Ford's business-oriented economic views alienated labor leaders, while his striving for improved relations with the communist powers brought him under right-wing fire.

In dealing with the Democratic-run Congress, Ford alternated between stubbornness and conciliation. He used his veto power liberally and set a modern record by rejecting 46 bills in his first 18 months as president, but he was overridden eight times. The effect of many of the vetoes was to put pressure on Congress to scale down costly programs.

Yet throughout Ford's presidency, policy differences with Congress seemed never to erase his old ties with Capitol Hill, where he had served 25 years in the House, nine of them as minority leader. He had friends in both parties and was esteemed as a hard-working square shooter.

Ford kept himself open to advice from many quarters. Indeed, some critics complained that he listened too much and initiated too little, that he vacillated and failed to show affirmative leadership. For example, he denounced the idea of a federal "bailout" to save New York City from bankruptcy -- prompting the New York Daily News to print its famed ""Ford to City: Drop Dead" headline -- but then supported a $2.3-billion short-term loan program to tide the city over.

On other occasions he took firm stands and stayed with them despite the consequences, as when he advocated higher fuel prices to force conservation, handing Democrats a powerful campaign issue.

By April 1975, Ford's Gallup Poll rating had slid to 39%. The downward trend was halted by Ford's vigorous response to the seizure of an unarmed American container ship, the Mayaguez, by a Cambodian gunboat.

The Mayaguez and its 39-man crew were released May 14, 1975, hours after Ford had ordered a military operation that threw 210 Marines, three warships and 300 aircraft into action. Fifteen servicemen died and 50 were wounded in the assault. Although his resort to arms drew some criticism, his firm decision to draw the line at what he called "an act of piracy" acted as a tonic to a public demoralized by the communist victory in Southeast Asia.

On the domestic front, Ford took steps to eliminate abuses by the CIA and related agencies. There was abundant evidence when he took office that the intelligence agencies had been misused for illicit snooping on strictly domestic groups -- and not only by the Nixon administration.

Ford promised in his first speech to Congress that there would be "no illegal tappings, eaves-droppings, buggings or break-ins by my administration." He appointed Rockefeller to head a commission to investigate the matter, which several months later found that while most CIA activities were within the agency's charter, some had been "plainly unlawful and constituted improper invasions of the rights of Americans."

Ford later directed all agencies in the foreign intelligence field not to spy on Americans electronically, not to intercept their mail or infiltrate domestic organizations. He was naturally positioned to run for the GOP nomination in 1976, but he withheld his decision on whether to run until it was clear that his wife, Betty, had fully recovered from a mastectomy she underwent in September 1974. The public disclosure of her illness -- a taboo subject at the time -- sparked an outpouring of support, and many women credited her with encouraging early checkups that may have saved their own lives.

"Her honesty has always been one of the qualities about her that I love," President Ford said.

(The first lady became even more celebrated after leaving the White House when in 1978 she disclosed her dependence on alcohol and prescription drugs. In 1982, she founded the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, where tens of thousands of patients have sought rehabilitation from drug and alcohol addictions.)

Ford was the first president in the 185-year history of the office to lack the mandate of victory in a national election, and many saw him as a GOP workhorse, more dogged than talented, a caretaker predestined to be replaced in the 1976 election. A swarm of Democrats judged that he was beatable. He also faced serious competition from within his own party.

Undeterred, Ford announced in July 1975 that he would run for a full term in 1976. The early declaration failed to head off a strong challenge in the GOP primaries from former California Gov. Ronald Reagan.

After a long, hard and sometimes bitter struggle, Ford won his party's nomination at the Kansas City convention. He chose Kansas Sen. Robert J. Dole as his running mate.

Ford's acceptance speech, considered the best of his career, challenged Carter to meet him "face to face" in a televised series of campaign debates, the first of their kind since 1960. Carter accepted, and in the first debate, Ford did well.

Forward motion faltered, however, after Ford declared in the second debate that "there's no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe." Ford first tried to explain that he had meant the United States did not acquiesce in Soviet domination, then admitted after six days that he had simply made a mistake.

That blooper in early October coincided with other troubles. Most seriously, he was forced by public protests to accept the resignation of Earl L. Butz, the Agriculture secretary he had inherited from Nixon, after published reports of an obscene gibe Butz had made about blacks. Ford's low-key reaction to the Butz gaffe did nothing to mend fences with African American voters, who backed Carter 9 to 1 on Election Day. When all election returns were in on Nov. 2, Carter had won by 51%-48%.

As his brief term ended, Ford won praise from many quarters for his ability to bolster the public's shaken confidence in government. At the January 1977 inaugural, he seemed near tears when his Democratic successor, Carter, turned to him and extended public thanks to the retiring president "for all he has done to heal our land."

Ford seemed at peace with himself as he left Washington late on Inauguration Day for Palm Springs, where he and his wife lived temporarily. They moved in March 1978 into a new home in Rancho Mirage, close to the desert golf courses he loved.

For a time, he held open the possibility he might run against Carter in 1980, but he abandoned the idea. He did, however, make frequent appearances at GOP fundraising events. He also collected substantial fees for speeches before business groups, served on several corporate boards and raised money for favorite charities. His activities slowed only after two total knee replacements.

The Fords usually spent winters at his California home and office and summers at their home in Beaver Creek, Colo. The Gerald R. Ford Library was established on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor. A separate Gerald R. Ford Museum was opened in Grand Rapids.

In recent years, however, Ford had struggled with health problems. The former president suffered two small strokes in 2000 and was hospitalized briefly in 2003 when he became dizzy on the golf course near his home in Rancho Mirage. He and his family did not go to the Ford home in Vail, Colo., for the Christmas 2004 holiday because his doctors did not want him to travel. Ford was also unable to accompany President Bush and former Presidents Bush and Clinton to the funeral of Pope John Paul II last year.

In January, he was admitted to the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage and stayed 12 days after experiencing what was described as pneumonia. Seven months later came the stay at the Mayo Clinic to have a cardiac pacemaker implanted.

Throughout retirement, Ford maintained a healthy sense of humor about one characteristic of his presidency -- his portrayal as a stumbling chief executive who often fell on ski slopes and bumped his head on helicopter doors. "I've always been secure," he explained.

He even helped host two national seminars on "Humor and the Presidency." At one, comedian Chevy Chase paid him a tongue-in-cheek tribute by remarking that "while he was healing the country, he was usually hurting himself."

Ford's presidency may have been lackluster by many standards, yet his legacy was generally considered positive.

"Having inherited a nation preoccupied with Vietnam and Watergate -- and in many respects both frustrated and disillusioned -- Ford succeeded in refocusing the nation's energies on the future," said presidential scholar Roger B. Porter.

It is how the president himself had hoped to be judged -- as a healer.

"I hope I am remembered as a president who took over in very tough, difficult times -- the time of Watergate and Vietnam when there was an awful lot of distrust for government in our country," Ford once said. "In two years I was able to heal most of the wounds -- of the scandals and war -- and restore public confidence in the presidency."

news.obits@latimes.com

Times staff writers Jon Thurber and Stuart Silverstein in Los Angeles and James Gerstenzang in Waco, Texas, contributed to this report.

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