Gerald R. Ford, who picked up the pieces of Richard Nixon's scandal-shattered White House as the 38th and only unelected president in America's history, has died, his wife, Betty, said Tuesday. He was 93.
Ford had battled pneumonia in January 2006 and underwent two heart treatments -- including an angioplasty -- in August at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
He was the longest living president, followed by Ronald Reagan, who also died at 93. Ford had been living at his desert home in Rancho Mirage, California, about 130 miles east of Los Angeles.
(Statements from President Bush, V.P. Cheney, Nancy Reagan, John Cornyn and a special memory from Chet Edwards, as well as related links to information on the life and times of Gerald Ford can be found further down on this story.)
Ford was an accidental president, Nixon's hand-picked successor, a man of much political experience who had never run on a national ticket. He was as open and straightforward as Nixon was tightly controlled and conspiratorial.
He took office minutes after Nixon flew off into exile and declared "our long national nightmare is over." But he revived the debate a month later by granting Nixon a pardon for all crimes he committed as president. That single act, it was widely believed, cost Ford election to a term of his own in 1976, but it won praise in later years as a courageous act that allowed the nation to move on.
The Vietnam War ended in defeat for the U.S. during his presidency with the fall of Saigon in April 1975. In a speech as the end neared, Ford said: "Today, America can regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam. But it cannot be achieved by refighting a war that is finished as far as America is concerned." Evoking Abraham Lincoln, he said it was time to "look forward to an agenda for the future, to unify, to bind up the nation's wounds."
Ford also earned a place in the history books as the first unelected vice president, chosen by Nixon to replace Spiro Agnew who also was forced from office by scandal.
He was in the White House only 895 days, but changed it more than it changed him.
Even after two women tried separately to kill him, the presidency of Ford remained open and plain.
Not imperial. Not reclusive. And, of greatest satisfaction to a nation numbed by Watergate, not dishonest.
Born a King, Ford Assends to Presidency
Gerald Ford didn't have that name when he was born in 1913.
His birth name was Leslie King, changed after his mother remarried and his stepfather, Gerald Ford, Sr., handed down the name.
Ford didn't meet his biological father until he was a senior in high school.
After playing football with the championship-winning University of Michigan in 1932 and '33, Ford received offers to play professionally. But he opted instead to study law at Yale, and entered politics as a volunteer for the 1940 Republican presidential campaign.
After serving with the Navy in the Pacific during World War Two, Ford returned to Michigan to practice law, becoming active in Republican reform politics.
In 1948, Ford beat a Republican incumbent in the Michigan congressional primary. He then went on to win the House seat, with a little more than 60 percent of the vote.
The Nixon Pardon
Ford hoped pardoning Richard Nixon after Watergate would be the first step to being elected president. It didn't work out that way.
Ford lost the 1976 presidential election to his opponent, Democrat Jimmy Carter. But in his autobiography, Ford wrote that the pardon was a necessary step in helping the country heal and move forward after Watergate.
He said he realized he would draw the ire of many by pardoning Nixon. But he also said not doing so could have resulted in a long legal drama, overshadowing his presidency and possibly his election campaign.
During his struggle with the decision, Ford said that Nixon "didn't seem to be responsive at all."
In his book, Ford described reviewing the writings of Alexander Hamilton and a 1915 decision by the Supreme Court for guidance. He says he later felt an "unbelievable lifting of a burden" and knew he'd made the right choice.
It could've been the most important thing anyone ever did for Richard Nixon, but did Nixon ever thank Gerald Ford for pardoning him?
The answer, apparently, is no.
CBS newsman Bob Schieffer told AP Radio News in 2003 that he asked Ford if he felt Nixon should've thanked him, and Ford replied, "it would've helped."
Schieffer pressed Ford and asked how he felt about Nixon not thanking him, and Ford chuckled and said, "well, that's Nixon for you."
Schieffer says Ford believed that the pardon was "the major factor" in his later losing the presidential race to Jimmy Carter.
It was the only election Ford ever lost.
The Clumsy Athlete
He had a reputation for being a klutz, but Gerald Ford was one of the nation's most athletic and fit presidents.
He had a deliberate manner of speaking and some highly publicized mishaps. Then there were the jokes on the early days of "Saturday Night Live."
But Ford played center on the University of Michigan football team that enjoyed undefeated, national championship seasons in 1932 and 1933. He turned down offers from the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers to play in the National Football League.
In the White House, Ford was an avid swimmer, skier, golfer and tennis player.
But a few of his golf shots went out of bounds. One even hit a spectator.
Journalists also reported when Ford tumbled while skiing, when he slipped and fell on some metal steps while getting off Air Force One in the rain in Austria and when he bumped his head on an airplane doorway.
Statements on Ford's Death
-- Betty Ford, widow of Gerald Ford: "My family joins me in informing you that Gerald R. Ford - our beloved husband, father, grandfather, and great grandfather - has passed away at 93 years of age. His was a life full of love for God, family, and country."
-- President George W. Bush: "Laura and I are greatly saddened by the passing of former President Gerald R. Ford.
"President Ford was a great American who gave many years of dedicated service to our country. On August 9, 1974, after a long career in the House of Representatives and service as Vice President, he assumed the Presidency in an hour of national turmoil and division. With his quiet integrity, common sense, and kind instincts, President Ford helped heal our land and restore public confidence in the Presidency.
"The American people will always admire Gerald Ford's devotion to duty, his personal character, and the honorable conduct of his administration. 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."
-- Nancy Reagan, widow of Former President Ronald Reagan: "Ronnie and I always considered him a dear friend and close political ally. His accomplishments and devotion to our country are vast, and even long after he left the presidency he made it a point to speak out on issues important to us all."
-- Vice President Dick Cheney, who served as White House Chief of Staff under Ford: "I am deeply saddened by the death of former President Gerald R. Ford.
"President Ford led an honorable life that brought great credit to the United States of America. Throughout his career, as a Naval officer, Congressman, Vice President and President, Gerald Ford embodied the best values of a great generation: decency, integrity, and devotion to duty. Thirty-two years ago, he assumed the nation's highest office during the greatest constitutional crisis since the Civil War. In that troubled era, America needed strength, wisdom, and good judgment, and those qualities came to us in the person of Gerald R. Ford. When he left office, he had restored public trust in the presidency, and the nation once again looked to the future with confidence and faith.
"I was proud to know President Ford, and to have served in the White House as his chief of staff. He was a dear friend and mentor to me until this very day. I feel a great sense of loss at his passing, and Lynne and our daughters join me in offering heartfelt sympathy to Betty Ford and her entire family."
-- Rep. Chet Edwards, D-District 17: "President Ford’s greatest gift to the nation was his deep sense of personal decency. The genuine respect he showed to others restored Americans’ faith in our democracy in the wake of Watergate and exemplified the kind of bipartisan public service that Americans yearn for today.
"In May of 1974, just four months before he became President, then Vice President Ford was the commencement speaker for my Texas A&M graduation ceremony in College Station. In a reflection of his lifelong commitment to putting friendship above partisanship, he accepted an invitation from Democratic Congressman Olin E. Teague, a long-time friend, to speak at Teague’s beloved alma mater, A&M.
"At the commencement ceremony, I received A&M’s Earl Rudder/Brown Foundation Award, given to two graduating seniors. The award was in honor of Congressman Teague’s close friend, General Earl Rudder, who led the 2nd Battalion Rangers up the cliffs of Point du Hoc at Normandy on D-Day. Congressman Teague also decided that day to offer me a job as a legislative assistant in his Washington office. I believe that my receiving the Earl Rudder Award had a lot to do with Mr. Teague hiring me. That is why I have often wondered how different my life might have been had Vice President Ford not accepted Mr. Teague’s invitation to be the A&M commencement speaker in 1974.
"As a young legislative aide to Congressman Teague in 1975, I met President Ford when he came to Capitol Hill to attend a reception in honor of Congressman Teague. It was a great privilege for me to meet the President who had brought the nightmare of Watergate to an end, and I learned first-hand that his humility, decency and respect for personal friendships were the real thing."
--Sen. John Cornyn, Texas: “Today our country mourns the loss of the 38th President of the United States. I extend my sympathy to his family and loved ones.
"Gerald Ford’s long career was dedicated to public service, and his Presidency and many years in Congress are a testament to that service. We’re grateful to President Ford for his calming voice that brought unity during a difficult period in our nation’s history."