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Gerald Ford 1913~2006

Calm after the storm

Chief Justice Warren Burger swears in Gerald R. Ford as 38th president August 9, 1974, as Betty Ford looks on.

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Never elected to the presidency, Ford restored dignity to White House after the Watergate scandal

(CNN) -- Gerald R. Ford, who told an uneasy nation that "our long national nightmare is over" after assuming the presidency from Richard Nixon in 1974, was the only politician who served as vice president and president but was never elected to either office.

Of the nine vice presidents who filled a vacant presidency, Ford was the only one who was not elected. He was appointed and confirmed as vice president in October 1973 when Spiro T. Agnew resigned after pleading no contest to a charge of income tax evasion.

Nearly a year later, he became president, filling the vacancy and taking the oath of office on August 9, 1974 after Nixon resigned.

"I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your president by your ballots," Ford told Americans after he was sworn in.

But assuming the presidency was not the beginning of this curious legacy, nor was it the end.

Assassins tried twice to shoot Ford and failed, in one case because the would-be assassin, Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, was unable to pull the trigger at point-blank range. In the other case, Sara Jane Moore managed to get off a shot, but her hand was knocked away and Ford was again unharmed.

Ford was also the only sitting president to be involved in an automobile accident when a carload of teens crashed into his limousine in Hartford, Connecticut. As the limousine accelerated away, it rear-ended the Secret Service car ahead of it.

Ford was not driving the limousine, of course, but he was prone to mishaps nonetheless. A vigorous, athletic man who turned down a chance to play pro football, Ford bumped his head getting into helicopters, stumbled exiting Air Force One and was photographed sprawled in the snow while skiing.

Ford and Chief of Staff Dick Cheney work aboard Air Force One in 1975.  

Comedian Chevy Chase regularly spoofed Ford on "Saturday Night Live," once reporting that Ford had stuck his thumb in his own eye and that "Secret Service men wrestled the thumb to the ground."

Ford explained himself to Americans, reminding them "I am a Ford, not a Lincoln."

But in later years, historians and others have begun to develop a greater appreciation for Ford. Rather than an amiable, bumbling, political dupe, some came to regard Ford as a cool, able administrator who restored dignity and integrity to the White House and put the nation's affairs back on an even keel.

Journalist Richard Reeves, who wrote an unflattering biography of Ford called "A Ford, Not a Lincoln" in 1975, admitted later that he was wrong.

"Jerry Ford, perhaps the most accidental of American presidents, [did] a better job than I had predicted or imagined," Reeves wrote in American Heritage magazine. "You have my respect and thanks, Mr. President."

Formative years

Ford was born Leslie Lynch King, Jr. in Omaha, Nebraska, on July 14, 1913. His parents, Leslie Lynch King and Dorothy Ayer Gardner, had been married on September 7, 1912, at Harvard, Illinois. But two weeks after he was born, his mother left his father and took her son first to her sister's home in Oak Park, Illinois and then to her parents' home in Grand Rapids, Michigan. An Omaha court granted Ford's mother a divorce on December 19, 1913.

Ford was a star lineman on the University of Michigan football team in the 1930s.  

In Grand Rapids, Ford's mother met businessman Gerald R. Ford and they were married in 1917. Soon after, they began calling Dorothy Ford's son Gerald R. Ford Jr. His name, however, was not legally changed until December 3, 1935.

Dorothy and Gerald R. Ford Sr. had three sons after they were married, Ford's half-brothers Thomas, Richard and James. Ford was 13 when he learned that Gerald R. Ford Sr. was not his biological father but he did not meet his birth father until 1930, when Leslie King paid an unexpected visit to Grand Rapids.

Ford worked in his stepfather's paint business and learned discipline, education and hard work. Ford told Jerald F. TerHorst, one of his biographers and former press secretary, "I've often thought, even nowadays: Now how would he have done this?"

An all-city and all-state center in high school, Ford won a football scholarship to the University of Michigan, where his odd jobs included washing dishes for his fraternity. In his senior year, he was Michigan's most valuable player as a lineman and played in the College All-Star game against the Chicago Bears.

But he turned down offers of $200 a game to play with the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions and went to Yale University to coach boxing and football while pursuing a law degree.

Years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson remarked, "There's nothing wrong with Jerry Ford except that he played football too long without a helmet." The comment got lots of mileage, but when Ford got his law degree from Yale in 1941, he graduated in the top third of his class.

When the United States entered World War II, Ford joined the U.S. Naval Reserve in April 1942 and was commissioned an ensign. In 1943, he was assigned to the light aircraft carrier USS Monterey, which took part in major operations across the Pacific.

He had a close call with death, not through combat, but during a typhoon in December 1944 during which he nearly was swept overboard into the Philippine Sea. The ship was damaged during the storm and a resulting fire and was taken out of service.

Ford spent the rest of the war ashore and was discharged in February 1946 with the rank of lieutenant commander, having accumulated 10 battle stars. He remained in the Naval Reserves until 1963.

After the war, he practiced law for three years before entering a congressional race as a Republican in 1948. Ford captured 60.5 percent of the vote, a margin of victory he surpassed in every election thereafter.

Rising in the minority

President Richard Nixon meets with Ford in the Cabinet Room in 1971. Ford was House minority leader at the time.  

Ford established himself as a moderate in domestic and international affairs and a fiscal conservative. He developed a reputation for being open, honest, decent, likable and ideologically flexible and was cited in 1961 by the American Political Science Association as a "congressman's congressman."

Ford was one of the "Young Turks" -- a group of young, progressive House Republicans who wanted to oust the older GOP leadership - and he eventually became House minority leader. He hoped to become House speaker one day.

He also earned himself a spot on the Warren Commission, tasked with investigating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and was the last living member of the commission.

Ford was remarkably loyal to Nixon, defending the president long after it was apparent that Watergate was more than just a burglary.

In his first days in office, Ford was burdened with Nixon's continuing fate. His decision to pardon Nixon just a month after becoming president was a shock to most Americans and a scandal to many.

"I knew it would be controversial. It turned out to be much more unpopular at the time than I anticipated, but that made no difference whatsoever. I never backed off because it was the right thing to do," Ford said in a 2001 CNN interview.


When Nixon resigned, there were suspicions that Ford made a deal with Nixon's White House Chief of Staff Al Haig: if Nixon resigned, he would be pardoned. Haig and Ford repeatedly denied it.

"He very, very categorically under oath denied any possibility of a deal. And that should be enough for most people, but it's not in this conspiratorial town of Washington," Haig said.

Even Ford's own staffers were divided on the pardon. TerHorst quit as Ford's press secretary, protesting the "double standard" that allowed Nixon to go free when other members of his administration, not to mention young men who refused to serve in Vietnam, were being prosecuted.

In his autobiography, "A Time to Heal: The Autobiography of Gerald R. Ford," Ford discussed the decision to pardon.

"I simply was not convinced that the country wanted to see an ex-president behind bars. We are not a vengeful people; forgiveness is one of the roots of the American tradition. And Nixon, in my opinion, had already suffered enormously.

"His resignation was an implicit admission of guilt, and he would have to carry forever the burden of his disgrace. But I wasn't motivated primarily by sympathy for his plight or by concern over the state of his health. It was the state of the country's health at home and around the world that worried me."

In 2001, Ford received the Profiles in Courage award from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library for his decision to pardon former President Richard Nixon. Caroline Kennedy, President Kennedy's daughter, gave Ford the award, saying Ford placed his "love of country ahead of his own political future."

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, acknowledged at the ceremony that he had criticized Ford at the time of the pardon.

"But time has a way of clarifying past events, and now we see that President Ford was right," Kennedy said. "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."

Controversial presidency

The pardon was just the beginning of Ford's problems. He inherited inflation, a recession, high unemployment and an energy crisis that caused huge lines at gas pumps around the country.

"His presidential term was beset by all sorts of problems: the economic downturn in the country, stagflation, by the fact that he ran into all sorts of foreign policy difficulties including the withdrawal from Vietnam which was the final nail in the Vietnam coffin, so to speak," said presidential historian Robert Dallek.

Ford talks to a Vietnamese refugee as he holds her baby on a U.S. Air Force bus in 1975.  

While the U.S. involvement in Vietnam was winding down, hundreds of thousands of pro-American Vietnamese were at risk when North Vietnamese forces approached South Vietnam's capital of Saigon. Ford ordered an airlift that removed 237,000 refugees from Da Nang.

"It was perhaps the most courageous thing I have ever seen a president do," said Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to Ford and later to President George Bush. "If we had lost more troops, it would have been the end of him."

Ford also sent Marines to recapture the cargo ship Mayaguez seized by Cambodia in May 1975. Although 41 Americans were killed and 50 were wounded re-taking the ship, Ford's ratings improved.

He also continued efforts to relieve Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union at summits with Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev and the 1975 Helsinki Conference on European Security, which advanced human rights principles.

Ford benefited from having an unusually close and supportive family. His wife, Betty, was one of the most candid first ladies, saying her four children had probably smoked marijuana and that she probably would have too had she been young. She also generated enormous public sympathy from her battle with breast cancer, and she later brought awareness to the problems of alcoholism and addiction.

Ford also was the president who got to celebrate the nation's bicentennial testimonial to democracy in 1976.

That same year, he ran to be elected to a full term but first had to fend off a primary challenge from California Gov. Ronald Reagan. Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, whose appointment was opposed by many conservatives, was replaced on the ticket by Kansas Sen. Bob Dole.

Ford hurt his campaign during his debate with Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter in San Francisco, California, when he said: "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe," and, "I don't believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union."

Ford meant that Eastern European countries were not dominated in spirit by the Soviet Union but his remarks gave Carter an opening.

"I would like to see Mr. Ford convince the Polish-Americans and the Czech-Americans and the Hungarian-Americans in this country that those countries don't live under the domination and the supervision of the Soviet Union behind the Iron Curtain," Carter said.

In the end, it was a close election with Carter winning by 2 percent in the popular vote and by 56 electoral votes. For many, Ford's campaign never recovered from the Nixon pardon.

"And if anything made the difference in the voters' minds, it was probably the Nixon pardon," Dallek said.

Ford's refusal to bail out New York City when it teetered on fiscal collapse also cost him votes, but it has been hailed since for forcing local governments to become fiscally more responsible.

Four years later, Ford almost became another political oddity. Reagan, the 1980 Republican nominee for president, offered the vice-presidential slot to the former president, although Ford turned him down. Reagan then chose George Bush and they went on to a landslide victory against Carter.

Years of reflection

In retirement, Ford summered in Beaver Creek, Colorado, and wintered in Palm Springs, California. Unlike other presidents, he kept a relatively low profile, limiting his appearances largely to golf tournaments.

He also jointly sponsored symposiums on world affairs with Carter as the two former presidents found they had more in common after the White House.

Ford listens to a discussion on the evacuation of Americans from Beirut, Lebanon, in June 1976.  

When he did speak out, he pulled no punches. In an October 4, 1998, article published in The New York Times, Ford wrote that President Clinton, who was facing impeachment in the House over the Monica Lewinsky scandal, should not be impeached but should be forced to stand before the House and listen to the representatives denounce him.

Once Clinton was impeached, Ford co-wrote a New York Times article with Carter titled "A Time To Heal Our Nation." Published on December 21, 1998, the two presidents called for a bipartisan resolution of censure by the Senate instead of a trial.

In August 1999, Ford received the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award. In October of that same year, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. At the ceremony for the congressional medal, Clinton said Ford made many tough decisions in the White House that were criticized by people like himself, who were caught up in the moment.

"You didn't get caught up in the moment and you were right. You were right for the controversial decisions you made to keep the country together and I thank you for that," Clinton said.

While at the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, Ford suffered a mild stroke and was released from the hospital a week later. In 2003, he was admitted to the hospital after he became dizzy playing a game of golf.

In his later years, Ford kept out of the public eye even more than usual. He did not attend the 2004 Republican National Convention, the dedication of Clinton's presidential library in November 2004 or the second inauguration of President George W. Bush in January 2005.

He did attend the funeral of President Reagan in June 2004. In July 2006, Ford became only the second former U.S. president -- after Reagan -- to reach his 93rd birthday.

Ford never wanted to be president. His ambition was to be House speaker, something he did not achieve.

As for his legacy as president, he had no regrets.

"I had to move forward and heal the wounds of Watergate and the tragedy of Vietnam. And I think by moving forward, doing something courageous, even if unpopular, gave some spirit and a new attitude on the part of the American people," he said.

With the benefit of time and distance, the man fate picked for the nation's highest office may have been just what his country needed.

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