Gerald Ford turns 90

The voice is a little more raspy, but days before his 90th birthday former President Gerald Ford sounds full of energy and memories.

"I'm still playing golf. I'm still a nine-holer; my legs can't handle 18 very well," he laughs over the phone from his home in Beaver Creek, Colo. "We have a group of old-timers like myself and we get together. It takes us 2 1/2 hours."

Ford today becomes the fourth American president to reach 90, after John Adams, Herbert Hoover and Ronald Reagan. Ford is still quick with his analyses of world affairs and political intrigue, still the unpretentious man who became the accidental president when Richard Nixon resigned in 1974.

"As you know, I inherited a number of problems when I became president," he says. "The Watergate mess, the war in Vietnam and a serious economic recession. I hope and trust historians 50 years from now will say President Ford restored integrity and honesty in the White House and say he solved the problems in Vietnam, the Watergate mess and the economy."

They're not saying that yet, but they're getting there. Historical opinion has begun to be kinder to the pardon. Ford's top advisers - Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Alan Greenspan - are running key parts of the government. And Ford's most remembered quality, his ability to compromise and stay civil, is still prized in political circles - even if not always practiced.

Ford's 29½-month stint in the White House, while not much shorter than John F. Kennedy's, has been the forgotten presidency, said John Orman, professor of politics at Fairfield University.

When Ford is noted in history books, it's almost as a caretaker, the nation's only unelected president, unable to win a term of his own. It was Ford who presided over the fall of Vietnam, the then-worst American recession since the Depression, and who was almost humiliated by his own party when he nearly lost its nomination in 1976.

He remains most remembered for his conduct in the aftermath of Watergate. It made him and broke him.

Few argue that after enduring the ordeal leading up to and including the August 1974 Nixon resignation, the very sight of a steady, assured new president was an important boost to the country.

"He calmed everything down," said Barbara Franklin, then a member of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. "He was temperamentally right for the job."

But the Watergate wound proved too deep. Ford's Sept. 8, 1974, pardon of Nixon shattered the new president's honeymoon period.

"I remember going door-to-door campaigning and getting the door slammed in my face," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-4th District, who was then seeking a Connecticut House seat. "They told me, `We want to send your party a message.'"

Ford today says he had no choice.

"There was such venom towards Nixon for Watergate that the public just didn't understand there was something [to be considered] over and above Nixon's personal problems," Ford explains. "My problem was trying to restore public confidence across the board."

Instead, he was vilified, and the public rebelled at the polls. The 1974 election produced one of the biggest Democratic congressional majorities since the 1930s. The economy was stumbling, Vietnam fell in April 1975 and Ford was routinely portrayed in the media as not only ineffective, but prone to pratfalls and embarrassments, like the October night in 1975, when his limo was slammed by a Buick full of teenagers in downtown Hartford.

Asked if that image bothered him, the one-time University of Michigan football star says, "I'm pretty tough-skinned. Anybody that had a career in athletics gets used to sportswriters, and they're tougher than political writers. I had a lot of experience with the press. And I'm still here." And he's still swimming twice a day, about five laps.

Ford's image was unfair and inaccurate for other reasons, said Ford press secretary Ron Nessen. "Vietnam ended on his shift, but it was not like an earlier time when people asked, `Who lost China?'" Nessen said.

And while the economy was plagued by a lengthy recession, Nessen argued that Ford helped bring the country back.

The Consumer Price Index increase of 4.9 percent in 1976 would be the lowest in a 10-year inflationary period between 1973 and 1981. Ford vetoed 55 different bills, largely because he thought Congress was spending too much.

History is starting to side with Nessen.

"He was a negotiator. He reached out," said Lee Edwards, then editor of Conservative Digest.

While Ford was undeniably conservative, he lacked the ideological rigidity of many Republicans who followed. He supported the Equal Rights Amendment. He backed the new regulatory agencies like the Occupational Health and Safety Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Ford today laments the ideological extremes that paralyze Washington and make politics little more than a shouting match.

"Partisanship doesn't help anything, except maybe to boost the pride of the parties," he says. "When you serve in the legislative branch, particularly, you have to have the flexibility to negotiate.

"[Former House Speaker] Tip O'Neill and I used to battle like cats and dogs on the House floor," Ford recalled, "but when we got through a day's work, we'd have a beer and discuss how we could solve things together."

Many Ford appointees became pivotal Washington figures and some still are today. President Bush's father was his CIA director. His U.N. ambassador, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, began a distinguished Senate career in 1977. Associate Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens is still on the bench. Ford's White House chief of staff, Dick Cheney, is the vice president. Ford Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld holds that job today. Top economic adviser Alan Greenspan chairs the Federal Reserve Board. Deputy Budget Director Paul O'Neill was Bush's treasury secretary.

Not surprisingly, Ford thinks his proteges and President Bush are "doing well. I happen to think he [Bush] made the right decision on the war on Iraq, regardless of whether or not they find weapons of mass destruction."

"Saddam Hussein was a bad person in a critical part of the world," Ford says. "It was good to get rid of him, though I have to admit the after-the-war part of the problem is not going as well as we hoped."

On the record deficits that are occurring on Bush's watch: "I think President Bush is handling our fiscal problems reasonably well," Ford says. "We need to be patient."

He would not say whether the Bush tax cuts have been too big. "I'm sort of in the middle on the tax cut question," Ford says, and then he laughs. "Typical."

Ford's hope for history may be coming true.

Two years ago, the Kennedy family gave Ford its Profiles in Courage award for the Nixon pardon. A 1974 critic, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., turned to Ford at the 2001 ceremony.

"Time has a way of clarifying past events," Kennedy said, "and now we see that President Ford was right. His courage and dedication to our country made it possible for us to begin the process of healing and put the tragedy of Watergate behind us."

In his understated way, Ford today is clearly pleased. "That was a great admission," he says. "One of the nicest things that's happened in recent years."