December 27, 2006 at 1:00 am

1913 ~2006

38th President from Grand Rapids restored honor to White House

WASHINGTON -- Gerald R. Ford, a man whose quiet self-confidence and reputation for honesty helped lift the nation out of its worst constitutional crisis in more than a century, has died, his wife, Betty, said Tuesday. He was 93.

Ford was president for 895 days. But he will be remembered for two things: His grace as he took office and helped calm a nation rocked by scandal, and his pardoning of Richard Nixon.

America loved him for the first. It never quite forgave him for the second.

Although Ford was born in Nebraska, Michigan claimed him. He was the only Michiganian to serve in the White House.

After he left office in 1977, Ford remained active for years, serving on corporate boards of directors, giving speeches -- mostly for money -- and playing lots of golf. He never returned to live in Grand Rapids, the community that provided him a job in Congress for 25 years. Instead, he spent his time shuttling between homes in Palm Springs, Calif., and Vail, Colo.

He suffered two minor strokes in 2000, and was hospitalized three times in 2006.

Ford, who was appointed vice president and then assumed the presidency after Nixon resigned, was the only vice president and the only president to ascend, unelected, to both positions.

Clearly, he was a man who seemed right for the times.

"Ford was a good president, not a great president, but a good president," former Arizona Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater once remarked. "He restored honor to the White House and the country could not ask him to do more, or expect more. History should treat him kindly."

Term unremarkable but memorable

Ford's brief presidency was not remarkable. The unpopular Vietnam War ended on his watch, but only because a fed-up Congress refused to spend more money. He helped guide the country out of a deep recession, although he initially thought inflation was the bigger problem.

New Yorkers will remember Ford. He once said he would not help the city avoid bankruptcy, prompting the famous New York Daily News headline: "Ford to City: Drop Dead."

And although he prided himself on his friendships in Congress, Ford governed as president by a ruthless use of the veto. In his 2 1/2 years in the Oval Office, he vetoed 66 bills passed by Congress. All but a dozen vetoes were sustained.

But Ford's real contribution was to restore a sense of integrity and decency to the office of the presidency after Watergate -- a complex web of political scandals from 1972-74. The ugly chapter of the Nixon presidency included the illegal break-in of Democratic headquarters by White House operatives, secret White House tapes and dirty tricks against Nixon's opponents

When asked during a 1998 speech at the National Press Club how he would like historians to remember him, Ford replied without hesitation:

"I hope historians will write: He healed the land and he restored public confidence in the White House."

Tumultous times for nation

Ford took office Aug. 8, 1974, as the 38th president of the United States during a tumultuous period in America's history. Not since the Civil War had the Constitution been so threatened.

Nixon, overwhelmed by the Watergate scandal and threatened by impeachment, had just become the first American president to resign in disgrace. Only 10 months earlier, Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced out of office, also amid scandal.

Ford, named by Nixon to replace Agnew, now succeeded Nixon. The conservative pipe-smoking lawmaker from Grand Rapids became president without a vote of the people.

Ford's lifelong ambition was to run the House of Representatives. Suddenly, he was running the country.

In his 25 years in Washington as a congressman from Michigan -- the last 10 as the Republican leader in a Democratic-controlled House -- Ford was known for his honesty and candor, not for his oratory.

In fact, in addressing his former House colleagues after being sworn in as vice president, Ford said: "I am a Ford, not a Lincoln. My addresses will never be as eloquent as Mr. Lincoln's. But I will do my very best to equal his brevity and his plain speaking."

But in his remarks after being sworn in as president in the East Room of the White House, Ford uttered nine of the most eloquent words ever spoken by a president: "My fellow Americans," he said, "our long national nightmare is over."

On Aug. 9, 1994, the 20th anniversary of that momentous event, Ford recalled his stirring words. "I wanted to show the country and the world that Watergate had ended," he said. "I wanted us to see that that long nightmare was over, a new era had begun and it was time to look to the future."

The nation breathed a collective sign of relief.

For months, Watergate had consumed the nation. Now, Nixon was gone and honest, reliable Jerry Ford was in control.

Pardon stirs discontent

The nation's euphoria was short-lived. Thirty days after taking office, Ford stunned the nation by abruptly announcing on Sunday morning, Sept. 8, he was pardoning Nixon for all crimes he may have committed while in office.

Nixon had been named an "unindicted co-conspirator" by a Watergate grand jury. There was a widespread demand that Nixon be held accountable for the months of turmoil he had put the country through.

The pardon fueled suspicions that a deal had been cut between Nixon and Ford before Nixon agreed to resign. No matter how vigorously he denied it, Ford was unable to convince the public there had been no deal.

Congress demanded hearings. In an unprecedented move, Ford agreed to testify. Ford sought to convince Congress and the nation that he pardoned Nixon so he could get on about the business of governing the country. As long as the issue remained unresolved, he said, it would dominate everything he did.

Moreover, he said, a trial and possible conviction of a former president would be too wrenching an ordeal for the country.

"There was no deal, period, under no circumstances," Ford told a House committee.

Still, the public was skeptical. He lost his re-election bid to Georgia's Jimmy Carter two years later by 2 percentage points in the popular vote and by 56 electoral votes. It was the closest electoral election in 60 years.

There is no definitive proof the Nixon pardon cost Ford the election. But in balloting that close, it is certainly conceivable that the resentment people still felt about the pardon was enough to give the presidency to Carter.

Leader solid, plain-spoken

There was never anything fancy or put on about Ford. He was what you saw: a solid, no-frills lawmaker with conservative, Midwestern values.

Ford summed up his life perhaps better than anyone when he testified before the U.S. Senate after his appointment to succeed Agnew:

"I am not a saint and I am sure I have done things I might have done better or differently, or not at all," he said then.

"I have also left undone things that I should have done. But I believe and hope that I have been honest with myself and with others, that I have been faithful to my friends and fair to my opponents and that I have tried my very best to make this great government work for the good of all Americans."

Born Leslie King Jr.

Gerald Ford was born Leslie King Jr. in 1913 in Omaha, Neb., the son of a man who routinely beat and terrorized his young wife.

Ford's mother, Dorothy Avery Gardner, bundled up her 16-day-old son and fled to her sister's home in Oak Park, Ill. Sixteen months after their marriage, Ford's parents were divorced.

James Cannon recounted Ford's early childhood in his "Time and Chance: Gerald Ford's Appointment with History," a biography of the ex-president published in 1994. Ford told a book reviewer for the Boston Globe that he was unaware of his father's brutality until he read Cannon's book.

Dorothy, her baby and her parents moved to Grand Rapids a short time later. There, the young mother met Gerald Ford, a Grand Rapids paint salesman. The couple was married in 1916, and her son was called Gerald Ford Jr. But it wasn't until 1935 that Ford officially changed his name to honor his stepfather.

"Gerald Ford was my father," he explained.

Ford prospered in the religious, conservative atmosphere of Grand Rapids. He became an Eagle Scout and was an All-State center on South High's 1930 state championship football team. And he religiously followed his stepfather's three dictums: tell the truth, work hard and come to dinner on time.

His football prowess won Ford an education at the University of Michigan. His old high school football coach helped arrange a scholarship for him. Ford also waited tables in the cafeteria.

A reserve center for most of his college career, Ford finally made first string in his senior year and was named the team's most valuable player. The Wolverines also wound up with their worst record in 50 years.

Even so, Ford was good enough to be offered $200 a game, playing for the Detroit Lions. But Ford, determined to go to law school, turned down the team.

Distinguished group of Yalies

After graduating from U-M, Ford coached football and boxing at Yale University. While coaching, Ford attended Yale Law School, and graduated in the top third of the class of 1941.

It was a distinguished class. His classmates included Byron White, who became a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court; Cyrus Vance, secretary of state in the Carter administration; Sargent Shriver, who married into the Kennedy clan and was named by President Kennedy as the first director of the Peace Corps; and Raymond Shafer, who became governor of Pennsylvania.

Although Ford was offered jobs in New York and Philadelphia law firms, he knew that one day he wanted to run for public office and felt his best shot was to return to Grand Rapids, where he was best known.

To fulfill his dream, Ford gave up his first love, Phyllis Brown, a New York model, to move back home. There he set up a small law practice with a friend, Philip Buchen.

But the war interfered with his plans. Ford enlisted in the Navy and served as a gunnery officer aboard the USS Monterey, a small aircraft carrier that operated in the Pacific Theater. In 13 months of action, the ship and its crew earned 11 battle stars.

After the war, Ford returned to his Grand Rapids law practice and began planning an ambush political campaign against Rep. Bartel J. Jonkman -- a crusty, 10-year veteran who preached the politics of isolationism. The contest was the GOP primary because in heavily Republican Grand Rapids, victory in the primary was tantamount to election.

At a cocktail party in 1947, as he was planning his campaign, Ford met Betty Warren, a 29-year-old former Martha Graham dancer and New York model, who was working as a fashion coordinator for a Grand Rapids department store.

Betty, who grew up in Grand Rapids, returned to her hometown five years earlier, when her dancing career stalled. There she met and married William Warren, a traveling salesman with a weakness for strong drink. Five years later, she was in the midst of a divorce when she met the earnest young lawyer.

Ford proposed the following spring, but told Betty they would be married in the fall -- after the election.

Breezes to House victory

Ford defeated the surprised Jonkman in the primary in September and a month later, he and Betty married.

As expected, Ford handily won the general election in November, defeating Democrat Fred Barr, a close personal friend who even contributed money to Ford's campaign.

Moments after Ford was sworn in on Jan. 3, 1949, a young congressman from California introduced himself to Ford. His name was Richard Nixon. Ford was assigned an office in the Cannon House Office Building. Directly across the corridor was the office of Rep. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Ford later served on the commission headed by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren that concluded Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone when he assassinated President Kennedy in Dallas.

A hardworking, conscientious lawmaker who was well-liked and respected by his peers, Ford rose in the leadership ranks. In 1962 he was elected chairman of the House Republican Conference. Then in January 1965, Ford dethroned Indiana's Charles Halleck to become Republican leader.

Ford loved the House. His greatest ambition was to become its leader. But Republicans held a majority in the House only one term throughout his career, from 1952-54. By 1972, the frustration of so many years in the minority had finally gotten to Ford. He resolved to retire from politics in 1976.

But his career plans dramatically changed Oct. 12, 1973, when Nixon tapped Ford to succeed Agnew as vice president. Agnew, the former Maryland governor, had resigned two days earlier rather than face charges of taking bribes both while as governor and as vice president.

Nixon really wanted to appoint former Texas Gov. John Connally. But he turned to Ford after being told by congressional leaders that the Democrat-turned-Republican Connally would have difficulty being confirmed.

In a letter to biographer Cannon, Nixon said he also settled on Ford because he was an old and close friend, shared his views on foreign and domestic policy and "above all could be counted on to be a team player."

As vice president, Ford proved Nixon right. He was loyal. Even as the noose around Nixon tightened, Ford repeatedly defended the president. Five days before Nixon resigned, Ford told reporters: "I still believe the president is innocent of any impeachable offense."

A reluctant candidate

Initially, Ford had no plans to run for president in 1976. Testifying before the Senate at his vice presidential confirmation hearing, Ford was emphatic.

"I have no intention to run in '76 and I can foresee no circumstances where I would change my mind," he said.

But he did. Ford liked being president. He decided he wanted to be elected on his own. But to appease Republican conservatives, he first dumped his vice president, former New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, and replaced him with Kansas Sen. Bob Dole. Ford later called his rejection of Rockefeller "cowardly" and said it was the "worst political mistake" of his lifetime.

Moreover, it didn't work. Ronald Reagan challenged Ford in the primaries and right through the convention.

Ford won the nomination, but Reagan's hammering took its toll. Ford was damaged goods. The combination of Reagan's campaign, the pardon of Nixon, and Ford's misstatement during the campaign that Eastern Europe was not dominated by the Soviet Union, was enough to allow Jimmy Carter to defeat him narrowly.

And while Americans may forget most of what Ford did during the brief period he was president, they are unlikely to ever forget how he got there.