DAVID HUME KENNERLY / White House
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
“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
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.
/ 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.”
services contributed to this report.