WASHINGTON—Gerald Rudolph Ford, an Eagle Scout from Grand Rapids, Mich., whose earnest integrity helped Americans recuperate from the devious evils of the Watergate affair, has died at age 93.
Ford was the nation's only unelected president, radiant with decency, successful without seeming ambitious, "an ordinary man," according to biographer James Cannon, called to serve America in extraordinary circumstances.
Nobody's fool—Ford graduated in the top third of his Yale Law School class—he profited all his life from people who underestimated him. But Ford was a wooden speaker, more consensus-builder than leader, and, in what was then the closest presidential election in 60 years, he lost in 1976 to Jimmy Carter.
It was the only election America's 38th president ever lost. But it was also his only campaign outside Michigan's Fifth District, the optimistic, entrepreneurial, moderate Republican stronghold that Ford represented in Congress—embodied, you could say—for nearly 25 postwar years.
Ford, then House minority leader, intended to retire in 1976 and had promised his wife, Betty, that he would. But Richard Nixon picked Ford in October 1973 as his second vice president. Nixon's first, Spiro Agnew, had been forced to resign in a plea bargain after Justice Department investigators determined that Agnew had taken kickbacks from Maryland contractors.
"Well, it would be a good way to end my career," Ford responded with characteristic, slightly ungainly modesty. He was the choice, Nixon had determined, of most Democratic and Republican congressional leaders. Ford succeeded Nixon on Aug. 9, 1974, after irrefutable taped evidence showed that Nixon had, despite his denials, participated in the cover-up of a break-in at Democratic Party headquarters.
"My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over," said Ford as he took office. Ford had argued with his speechwriter that "long national nightmare" was too hard on Nixon, but it was just the right chord to strike, as were Ford's first White House days. After two weeks on the job, Ford's Gallup Poll approval rating had soared to 71 percent.
Then, a month later, from an absolute conviction that it was, Ford said, "the right thing to do," he forfeited much of his popularity and his political future in a single stroke: He pardoned Nixon unconditionally. While Ford denied that the pardon had been part of the bargain with Nixon to induce him to step down, that suspicion was widespread and persistent.
"This blundering intervention is a body blow to the President's own credibility and to the public's reviving confidence in the integrity of its government," sputtered a New York Times editorial. Overnight, Ford's popularity plummeted 22 points.
The political price was certifiably permanent. Ford lost the popular vote to Carter by 47.9 percent to 49.9 percent in 1976. Roughly six percent of voters interviewed in exit polls said Ford's pardoning of Nixon had made it impossible for them to vote for him.
Was there a deal? Ford's standing in history depends largely on the answer. Certainly, Nixon's chief of staff, Alexander Haig, had approached Ford while Ford was vice president to sound him out on a pardon for Nixon. And certainly, Haig, who served as Ford's chief of staff, kept Nixon abreast of Ford's thinking about a possible pardon after Nixon resigned.
Ford was "not instinctively suspicious" by nature, however, and may not, according to longtime senior adviser Robert Hartmann, have considered his pardon discussions with Haig to have been soundings-out for Nixon's benefit. Haig, at any rate, kept his conferring with Nixon about a pardon secret from Ford.
Rep. Peter Rodino, D-N.J., who'd been chairman of the House Judiciary Committee investigating the Watergate affair, tried to clarify the ambiguous situation in an interview 17 years later with Ford biographer Cannon. "Nixon, being the kind of manipulator he was, knew that Ford was a feeling, humane and decent guy," Rodino told Cannon, "and might have felt that a pardon was something he could count on from Ford. But Jerry Ford is not the man who would ever make a deal like that. Jerry was like a Boy Scout—the truth is the truth.
"Any number of people felt there had to be a deal," Rodino said, "but they didn't know Jerry Ford."
Rodino accepted Ford's explanation that only a pardon could avert years of sordid, distracting humiliation that trials of Nixon and his henchmen would have produced.
None of the other ups and downs of Ford's 895-day presidency—the final helicopter withdrawal of U.S. Marines from Saigon, the big red-and-white Whip Inflation Now lapel buttons, the beginnings in Helsinki, Finland, of successful arms reduction measures—defined the man as clearly as Ford's pardon of Nixon did.
Over a lifetime, Grand Rapids had created him. Born Leslie Lynch King, Jr. in Omaha, Neb., he adopted his stepfather's name after his parents divorced and his mother moved to Grand Rapids and married Gerald R. Ford Sr.
The stepson was a handsome and popular teen in the city of 169,000, a Boy Scout in fact and values. His mother, a good Episcopalian, was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The Depression had squeezed his stepfather, a varnish salesman to local furniture makers, however, to the point that college looked impossible for Ford. Thanks largely to a scholarship fund created from bookstore profits at Grand Rapids South High School, where he'd been an all-state center on the football team, Ford graduated from the University of Michigan in 1935.
Although "Saturday Night Live" caricatured Ford as a klutz, and TV news clips showed him hitting his head on two aircraft doorjambs, Ford was, among presidents, the most accomplished athlete. The Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions offered Ford post-college professional football contracts, Detroit's the better offer at $200 a game. Instead, he coached football and boxing at Yale for two years, and, on the second try, won admission to its law school.
The day after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, Ford shuttered his thriving Grand Rapids law practice and volunteered for the Navy. He served as a gunnery officer and later a navigation officer on a carrier that won eleven battle stars in 13 months in the Pacific. A year after the war, at age 35, he defeated Grand Rapids' five-term House Republican incumbent. Two weeks after the primary, he married Betty Bloomer Warren, a divorced former John Robert Powers model. She'd been a Martha Graham dancer in New York, then fashion coordinator for Herpolsheimer's, a Grand Rapids department store.
Rep. Ford and Hubert Humphrey, Minnesota's new senator, both got their start in the 81st Congress, sworn in January 1949. One class ahead of them were Reps. Richard Nixon of California and John Kennedy of Massachusetts. Ford's big break was to be named, while a freshman, to the Appropriations Committee's subcommittee on the Army. It was a powerful post that Ford, a hawk when it came to Vietnam and the Cold War, worked extraordinary hours to master.
Coupled with frequent trips to Grand Rapids, however, it meant Ford was rarely home in Alexandria, Va., with the family's two—and eventually four—children. To cope, Betty Ford admitted in her autobiography, "The Times of My Life," she'd sometimes put a spoonful of vodka into her morning coffee. Alcohol, coupled with painkillers taken for a persistent back ailment, led her to admit in 1978, with candor unique among First Ladies, to a substance abuse problem. Betty Ford recovered within the year.
The Fords retired to Rancho Mirage, Calif., and a home alongside the 13th hole at the Thunderbird Golf Club. A $1 million deal as an NBC commentator, a $1.5 million deal for his-her memoirs, and numerous corporate consultancies and board memberships made the Fords multimillionaires in their retirement. Betty Ford co-founded the non-profit Betty Ford Center for substance abusers in 1982.
Presidents Ford and Carter joined to oppose the Reagan administration's arms build-up and President George H.W. Bush's vow to impose no new taxes. Budget-balancing, they argued, was more important. In later years, Ford often appeared at charitable events, particularly those requiring a bag of golf clubs. He swam twice daily well into his 80s.
Four children survive the former president: Michael, director of student development at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.; Steven, an actor in Los Angeles; Jack, a businessman in San Diego, and Susan Ford Bales, an author and activist in drug- and cancer- awareness programs who lives in Corrales, N.M.
The family appeared close and warm for all its travails, largely thanks to Betty. She'd let it all hang out back in 1947 when the couple's courting was still dilatory. As her beau took off without her for a week's skiing in Utah, Betty gave him a lighter for his pipe. She'd had it engraved: "To the light of my life."