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Gerald Ford 1913~2006

An honorable man

President Ford's second official White House portrait

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By Bruce Morton

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Gerald R. Ford will go down in the history books for at least one odd reason. He's the only completely unelected president we've ever had.

Other vice presidents have become president, of course, Lyndon Johnson after John Kennedy's assassination, to name one. But he had been elected vice president. Gerald Ford hadn't.

What happened was that Richard Nixon's original vice president, Spiro Agnew, had turned out to be a crook, stuff he'd done while governor of Maryland, but taking payoffs while vice president. What to do?

The decision was to let Agnew plead no contest to a felony charge and resign. No messy trial and no jail time. If it had all happened a few years earlier, there'd have been no vice president. Lyndon Johnson, after he succeeded Kennedy, didn't have one until he won the presidency in 1964.

But by the time Agnew resigned, Congress and the states had approved the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, which provided that, "Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both houses of Congress."

Nixon, his original vice president run out of town in disgrace, wanted a replacement that would be easily confirmed. And nobody fit that description better than the Republican leader in the House, Ford, a congressman from Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Ford, a star player on Michigan's national championship football teams, a World War II Navy vet with a law degree from Yale, was elected to the House in 1948. He was elected Republican leader in 1965. Republicans were then in the minority in the House but Ford hoped to become House speaker -- not president -- one day.

Congress was a much less partisan, more civil place then than it is now. Ford, just about everybody agreed, might not be one of the House's great intellectuals, but he was as honest and honorable and decent a man as you could find. Democrats and Republicans trusted and liked him and they voted overwhelmingly to confirm him as vice president. He took office December 6, 1972.

All well and good, he might have thought. But his boss, Richard Nixon, was hip-deep in the Watergate scandal, when some of his campaign people had broken into Democratic headquarters. Nixon knew nothing of the burglary, but congressional hearings revealed Nixon had tape-recorded conversations with aides in the White House. And those tapes showed clearly that the President was heavily involved in trying to cover up the break-in.

The House Judiciary Committee approved articles of impeachment, with enough Republican support to easily pass the full House. Nixon, to avoid certain impeachment and conviction in the Senate, became the first president ever to resign the office.

Ford, the congressman from Grand Rapids, became the 38th president of the United States on August 9, 1974. He couldn't have been more different from Nixon.

"I am a Ford, and not a Lincoln," he told America. "Our long national nightmare is over. The Constitution works." And of course, it had.

As president, Ford chose New York's moderate Republican governor, Nelson Rockefeller, as his vice president. And he did one other thing, which may have sealed his political fate. The grand jury, which indicted so many of Richard Nixon's aides, had listed Nixon himself as an "unindicted co-conspirator." As an ex-president, he might have been indicted.

But Ford thought the "national nightmare" had gone on long enough, and gave Nixon a full pardon. His press secretary resigned in protest, and many would later say the decision had cost him the 1976 election. Ford always countered that he'd done the right thing -- for the country, not simply for Nixon, and, looking back, he was probably right.

His presidency? Saigon fell on his watch, a defeat Nixon managed to postpone until he'd left. Ford rescued an American merchant ship called the Mayaguez, which Cambodian gunboats had seized. And he survived two assassination attempts, both by women -- Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, a Charles Manson disciple, and Sara Jane Moore.

And then it was time for the 1976 campaign. Ford survived a spirited, close primary challenge by Ronald Reagan. The GOP convention didn't like Rockefeller -- too liberal -- so Ford chose Kansas Sen. Bob Dole as his running mate and lost a very close election to a one-term Georgia governor named Jimmy Carter.

Lots of things can decide a close election. Did the Nixon pardon cost him the election? Maybe. But that never bothered Ford, an honorable man who did what he thought was right, whatever the political effects might be. That's the kind of man he was.

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