December 27th, 2006 05:56 EST
Ford Helped U.S. Recover from Watergate
WASHINGTON, Dec. 27, 2006 – Americans will remember former President Gerald R. Ford as a man with the courage to heal a nation.
Ford, who died at his California home last night at age 93, assumed the presidency at a grim time in American history.
In the midst of a distinguished career in the House of Representatives, the Michigan Republican was President Richard M. Nixon’s choice to succeed Spiro T. Agnew as vice president. Agnew resigned in disgrace on Oct. 10, 1973, after pleading no contest to corruption charges, and Nixon himself was facing impeachment.
Nixon’s difficulty started with a break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate building here during the 1972 presidential campaign and evolved into a cover-up that involved many figures in the administration up to the president.
By August 1974, the prevailing mood in the country had turned against Nixon. Nixon had been re-elected in a landslide in November 1972, but revelations about the Watergate cover-up kept surfacing. A Senate select committee led by Sens. Sam Ervin and Howard Baker investigated, and Americans began realizing how far the corruption had crept into the administration. In July 1974, Congress voted to begin impeachment proceedings against the president. Nixon weighed what lay ahead for him, and on Aug. 9, 1974, became the first president of the United States to resign from office.
The resignation was effective at noon. At 12:05 p.m., Gerald Ford began the healing process in a speech to America and the world. “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over,” Ford said. “Our Constitution works; our great republic is a government of laws, and not of men. Here, the people rule.”
A year before becoming president, Ford was not even in line for the job. He was the House minority leader, and his fondest wish was for the Republicans to gain control of the legislative body so he could become speaker of the House. After Agnew’s resignation, Nixon nominated Ford for the vice presidency. The Senate confirmed Ford, and he took that office on Dec. 6, 1973.
Ford was born Leslie Lynch King Jr. on July 14, 1913, in Omaha, Neb. His parents divorced, and his mother took him to Grand Rapids, Mich., to live with her parents. In 1916, she married Gerald R. Ford, and Leslie King became Gerald R. Ford Jr.
Ford excelled in school and in sports. He became an Eagle Scout in 1927 and was an all-state football player. He attended the University of Michigan, where he studied political science and economics and starred on the football team. When he finished college, the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions approached Ford to play for them, but he opted to become a boxing coach at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., where he received his law degree in 1941.
During World War II, Ford joined the Naval Reserve and was commissioned as an ensign. At first, he was a physical fitness instructor at a pre-flight school at Chapel Hill, N.C., but in 1943, he reported to the aircraft carrier USS Monterrey and participated in operations in the Pacific Theater. He ended the war as a lieutenant commander and returned to Grand Rapids.
The future president joined a local law firm, and in 1948, challenged incumbent isolationist Republican legislator Bartel Jonkman. He won by a wide margin and took office on Jan. 3, 1949. At the height of the election campaign, Ford married Elizabeth Ann Bloomer Warren, known as “Betty.”
Ford built a reputation in the House of Representatives as an effective legislator. He rose in the ranks and served as the ranking member on the House Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Ford as one of the members of the Warren Commission looking into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
In 1965, Ford ran for and was elected as minority leader in the House. He held that position until he became vice president.
During his term as president, Ford faced many challenges. The Soviet Union was still a power, and Ford continued Nixon’s policy of working to thaw relations with the Soviet Union. The Ford administration began negotiations of strategic arms limits and negotiated the Helsinki agreements on human rights.
In the Middle East, the Ford administration launched “shuttle diplomacy” in an effort to carve out a peace.
In Asia, the war in Vietnam continued as Ford took office. North Vietnamese regulars took the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon in April 1975, and the war was effectively over. But on May 12, Khmer Rouge forces seized the U.S. merchant ship Mayaguez miles off the Cambodian coast. Ford ordered U.S. forces to retake the ship and free the 39 crewmembers. U.S. forces freed the vessel and the crewmen, but 41 Americans died in the operation.
Ford’s most controversial position was one taken a month after taking office. He believed that prosecuting Nixon would keep the United States mired in the Watergate scandal. He granted Nixon a pardon before the filing of any criminal charges against him. Many said the decision was the result of a deal, but Ford always maintained it simply was the right thing to do.
In 1976, Ford faced down a challenge from Ronald Reagan and received the Republican nomination for president. At the beginning of the campaign, he was far behind the Democratic candidate, former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter. Ford campaigned well and closed the gap, but lost one of the closest presidential elections in history.
Ford retired to California and was much in demand as a speaker and lecturer. In August 1999, then-President Bill Clinton awarded Ford the Medal of Freedom – the country’s highest civilian award. Clinton, a Democrat, did it in recognition of Ford’s role in guiding the United States through the turbulent post-Watergate era.
Upon learning of Ford’s death last night, President Bush issued a written statement praising the former chief executive. “With his quiet integrity, common sense, and kind instincts, President Ford helped heal our land and restore public confidence in the presidency,” Bush’s statement said. In a televised statement this morning, Bush called Ford “a true gentleman who reflected the best of America’s character.”
In 1979, Ford published his autobiography, titled “A Time to Heal.”
U.S. flags will fly at half-staff for 30 days in Ford’s honor. The former president is survived by his wife and four children. An announcement on funeral arrangements is expected later today.
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service