San Diego Union Tribune

December 27, 2006

Healed nation after Watergate


With his golden retriever, Liberty, at his side, President Ford worked in the Oval Office on Nov. 7, 1974, a few months after taking office upon Richard Nixon's resignation. Mr. Ford, the only U.S. president never elected on a national ticket, led the nation through a time marked by scandal and war.

WASHINGTON – Former President Gerald Rudolph Ford, who led the country out of the Watergate era but lost his own bid for election after pardoning President Nixon, died yesterday. 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,” Betty Ford said in a brief statement issued by 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. at his home in Rancho Mirage, about 130 miles east of Los Angeles, his office said in a statement. No cause of death was released. Funeral arrangements were to be announced today.

Mr. Ford had battled pneumonia in January and underwent two heart treatments – including an angioplasty – in August at the Mayo Clinic.

President Bush called the late president a “great American” who helped heal the nation after Nixon resigned in disgrace.

“The American people will always admire Gerald Ford's devotion to duty, his personal character and the honorable conduct of his administration,” Bush said last night in a statement from his ranch in Crawford, Texas. “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.”

Mr. Ford, the only U.S. president never elected on a national ticket, applied a healing balm to a nation badly wounded by scandal and war.

Ford visited the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich., in 2003.

As of Nov. 12, he had lived longer than any previous president.

Leon Parma, a close friend and longtime San Diego businessman, first met Mr. Ford when Parma was chief of staff to then-Rep. Bob Wilson, R-San Diego.

“America has lost a compassionate leader,” Parma said. “Fifty-eight years of marriage of the president and Betty Ford is one of the great love stories of our time.

“There was no greater love than what was expressed by this couple for each other and for their family. For five decades, we were privileged to observe this romance. Our prayers are with Betty and the family today.”

Ascent to power

Mr. Ford was a creature of Congress, where he served for 25 years in the House, and had no higher political aspiration than to become speaker.

But Mr. Ford's goal became a victim of the Watergate scandal and other misdeeds that began destroying Nixon's presidency, including the forced resignation of Nixon's first vice president, Spiro Agnew.

Mr. Ford, then 60, was chosen by Nixon to replace Agnew in October 1973, confirmed by the Senate in November and the House in December, and immediately sworn in.

Getty Images
/ 1974 National Archives photo
President Ford and first lady Betty Ford prepared for a meeting in the Oval Office. While in the White House, Betty Ford battled alcohol and drug addiction and also fought breast cancer.

Eight months later, when Nixon became the first U.S. president to resign, Mr. Ford suddenly found himself in the Oval Office. He took the oath as the 38th president from Chief Justice Warren Burger on Aug. 9, 1974, in the White House's East Room.

Responding moments later to the nation's most serious constitutional crisis since the Civil War, he offered the reassuring words, “Our long national nightmare is over.”

The morning after being sworn in, Mr. Ford, still in his bathrobe, called in photographers to show the country that he toasted his own English muffins, an effort to begin changing the public's negative perception of the presidency. The country quickly embraced this folksy career Republican congressman from Grand Rapids, Mich.

But the honeymoon ended abruptly a month later.

A fateful pardon

On Sept. 8, Mr. Ford, in a televised address, announced that he had pardoned Nixon for whatever his role in Watergate would turn out to be, though the disgraced president at that point had not been charged with any formal crimes.

All available evidence indicates that Mr. Ford granted the pardon not as the result of a secret deal with Nixon but to spare the country the agony of a possible prosecution of a former president.

1991 file photo / Union-Tribune
President Ford joined Bob Hope for a round of golf at the Shearson Lehman Andy Williams San Diego Open. After leaving office, Ford often played in charity golf tournaments.

He also acted in the hopes of ridding his presidency of a problem that threatened to distract him from the business of governing, but it turned out to be a colossal political misjudgment.

With his popularity plummeting because of the pardon, Mr. Ford never seemed to regain his political balance. Burdened as well by an ailing economy and a politically debilitating intraparty challenge from Ronald Reagan, Mr. Ford nonetheless was the GOP nominee in 1976.

But the country turned the presidency over to Jimmy Carter, the former Georgia governor and a Democrat, in one of the closest races ever.

Despite his political shortcomings, Mr. Ford restored a sense of civility to life at the summit of American politics. Few doubted his fundamental decency as a human being.

By projecting a sense of openness and honesty, he helped the country overcome the breach of faith associated with his predecessor, whose resignation forestalled a congressional impeachment vote that almost certainly would have resulted in Nixon's expulsion from the presidency.

A young football star

Born Leslie L. King Jr. in Omaha, Neb., on July 14, 1913, Mr. Ford barely knew and ultimately repudiated his ne'er-do-well and abusive father. As a young man, he legally adopted the name of his stepfather, who raised him in Grand Rapids, Mich., a small but growing city in America's heartland.

Married in 1916, Dorothy and Gerald R. Ford Sr. had three sons of their own. The eldest, Tom, was born in 1918, followed by Dick and Jim.

University of Michigan / Associated Press
Gerald R. Ford, shown in 1934, played center on the University of Michigan's 1932 and 1933 national champion football teams.

The future president was a hard-working youth who knew the pinch, but never the great want, of the Depression. Mr. Ford made his mark as a football player who won All-Big Ten honors as a center at the University of Michigan and attracted offers from the Green Pay Packers and Detroit Lions.

Instead, he accepted a job as an assistant football coach at Yale.

A good but not outstanding student as an undergraduate at Michigan, Mr. Ford then managed to wangle a spot at Yale Law School, despite the fact that he didn't quite measure up to its exacting admissions standards.

But by attacking the academic challenge with typical industry, Mr. Ford graduated in the top one-third of his law school class before joining the Navy in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor.

As a junior officer on a small aircraft carrier, he saw combat in the Pacific during World War II.

Into the political arena

Returning home, Mr. Ford joined the leading law firm in Grand Rapids and began preparing for his entry into Republican politics.

Targeting a five-term GOP incumbent, Mr. Ford outhustled his overconfident opponent, winning the party primary in September 1948 and guaranteeing himself a seat in the U.S. House from the solidly Republican district.

A month later, he married Betty Warren, marching to the altar in a pair of shoes muddied by a morning's campaigning on a local farm.


Once in Washington, Mr. Ford quickly became acquainted with Nixon, then a California congressman. From the outset, Mr. Ford established himself as an internationalist who often sided with Democratic presidents on foreign affairs and as a fiscal conservative on matters of domestic policy.

Though he had been a congressional hawk on the war in Vietnam, he later found himself obliged as president to close the book on America's military involvement there.

Mr. Ford enthusiastically immersed himself in the often arcane but critically important details of the dizzying array of federal spending programs that came up annually for committee review.

Thanks to his subcommittee assignment on the powerful Appropriations Committee, he developed a special expertise in the area of military affairs.

This solid grounding in the intricacies of federal budgeting won him the bipartisan respect of his peers as a serious and fair-minded legislator. It also stood him in good stead once he arrived at the White House.

There, his command of spending issues strengthened his hand in dealing both with a sprawling federal bureaucracy and a strong-willed Congress.

But as demands on his time mounted in tandem with his ascent to the pinnacle of American politics, Betty Ford ended up paying a heavy price.

Left on her own to raise the couple's four children – Mike, Jack, Steven and Susan – she began a lifelong battle with alcoholism.

Later in life, she candidly acknowledged that liquor afforded her “pleasure and escape” from the pressures and loneliness of Washington. She also developed a dependency on painkillers prescribed to ease the discomfort of a pinched nerve in her back.

While not intimate friends in Congress, Mr. Ford and Nixon remained politically supportive over the years. Mr. Ford backed Nixon's controversial investigation in the late 1940s of Alger Hiss, the State Department official suspected of having ties to the Communist Party.

He also sided with Nixon against other powerful Republican figures who tried unsuccessfully to drive Nixon from the GOP ticket in 1952 over a slush-fund controversy. Nixon went on to serve as vice president under President Eisenhower.

Rising in the ranks

In a gesture that signified the high regard in which Mr. Ford was held, President Johnson asked him to serve on the Warren Commission, which investigated the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. He was the last surviving member of that group.

A few years after that appointment, though, relations between Johnson and Mr. Ford became strained after Mr. Ford attacked the administration's Great Society programs as profligate and its Vietnam War policies as overly timid.

Clearly not content with a backbencher's role, Mr. Ford capitalized on the impatience of other younger moderates in 1962, when they helped him topple the aging chairman of the House Republican Conference.

Mr. Ford's victory vaulted him to the No. 3 spot in the party's House leadership hierarchy. Two years later, Mr. Ford, again aided by discontent among the party's Young Turks faction, was chosen minority leader by his GOP colleagues.

Running for re-election to the House in 1972, Mr. Ford told intimates that he intended to serve only one more term if the Republicans failed to win a majority that would elevate him to the speakership.

The GOP fell short, but fate forced him to put his retirement plans on hold.

Prosecutors had alerted the Nixon administration that they had compiled a compelling bribery and extortion case against Agnew stemming from his years as governor of Maryland and including evidence that he had accepted an envelope of cash in his White House office.

Agnew was forced to resign in October 1973. Two days later, Mr. Ford was tapped by Nixon to fill the vacancy.

After a massive FBI investigation, Mr. Ford was confirmed by the Senate and sworn in on Dec. 6. In a speech to the nation immediately afterward, Mr. Ford, striking a characteristically humble note, declared, “I am a Ford, not a Lincoln.”

Watergate alters fate

By then, Nixon was in the final throes of a losing battle to preserve his presidency against charges of Watergate complicity.

His administration was under siege from mounting evidence of a high White House effort to cover up Republican involvement in the June 17, 1972, arrests of men charged with the burglary and bugging of Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office-apartment-hotel complex.

Over the ensuing months, Mr. Ford moved from being a Nixon defender to a more nuanced position that allowed him to criticize the Watergate actions of White House operatives – and Nixon's own efforts to withhold evidence from investigators – while trying to protect the political interests of the Republican Party itself.

By August 1974, the evidence revealed that Nixon had engaged in an elaborate cover-up plot to obstruct justice, causing his defenses in Congress to crumble. The president, faced with a stark choice of impeachment or resignation, chose to relinquish the office to Mr. Ford.

Outwardly upbeat, Mr. Ford was struggling behind the scenes with the Nixon legacy. It soon became apparent to him that the scandal's aftermath would be prolonged and that he had to offer a definitive answer to Nixon's legal future before the Ford presidency could come into its own.

When an aide protested his decision to offer a pardon pre-empting a grand jury investigation that seemed certain to end in an indictment of Nixon, Mr. Ford snapped, “Damn it, I don't need polls to tell me whether I'm right or wrong!”

Less than a week after the pardon, Mr. Ford's approval ratings in public-opinion polls plunged from 71 percent to 50 percent, signifying that Americans suddenly began viewing him in a different light – just another politician who may have cut a deal with his predecessor in order to gain the presidency.

In an effort to dispel that notion, Mr. Ford became the first president since Abraham Lincoln to offer personal testimony before a congressional committee.

Although he denied to the lawmakers giving Nixon any reason to expect a pardon upon leaving office, Mr. Ford never again enjoyed the kind of popular good will that characterized the pre-pardon period of his presidency.

When the nation voted in the 1974 elections less than a month after his appearance on Capitol Hill, Mr. Ford and the Republicans suffered a major political defeat in Congress.

Riding a vengeful public mood spawned by Watergate, the Democrats captured 43 House seats, three Senate seats and four additional governorships.

As if the official stresses of the presidency weren't enough, Mr. Ford soon found himself facing a family health crisis.

In September 1974, Betty Ford underwent a radical mastectomy after doctors discovered a malignancy in her right breast. The experience prompted her to join a public campaign to educate women about the importance of early cancer detection that preoccupied her well beyond the couple's White House years.

Meanwhile, other public problems were piling up on Mr. Ford's desk, including a rapidly deteriorating military situation in South Vietnam. Mr. Ford had to order the last-ditch evacuation of the remaining U.S. military and diplomatic personnel from that country in what he later described as the “saddest hour of my time in the White House.”

A close race in '76

Forced by Reagan's challenge to fight for the presidential nomination all the way to the GOP convention, Mr. Ford entered the fall general-election campaign against Carter in a weakened political condition.

When the votes were counted, Mr. Ford came up just shy, losing 49.9 percent to 47.9 percent.

Once out of office, Mr. Ford seemed to retire from public view. He and his wife took up residence in Rancho Mirage, and he played in charity golf tournaments and gave speeches for large fees.

His death brought many personal condolences last night.

“I was deeply saddened this evening when I heard of Jerry Ford's death,” former first lady Nancy Reagan said in a statement. “Ronnie and I always considered him a dear friend and close political ally.”

“Jerry Ford was the most personally beloved president of the modern era,” said Herb Klein, retired editor in chief of Copley Newspapers, parent company of The San Diego Union-Tribune.  “He was a courageous leader and loyal friend I will never forget.”

Klein said he sent a Christmas card to Mr. Ford this year and included in it a recollection of a reporter who asked Klein which president he would most prefer to have a beer with. He responded that it would be Mr. Ford. “I thought it would cheer him up,” Klein said.

He said Mr. Ford was fun to be with. “You didn't feel like you were with a president. You felt like you were with a friend.”

Union-Tribune news services contributed to this report.

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