December 27th, 2006 04:34 EST
Gerald Ford, Former U.S. President, Dead at 93
Washington -- Gerald R. Ford, the improbable 40th president of the United States, and the man charged with upholding the nation’s democratic traditions and soothing its sharp partisan divides in the aftermath of Richard M. Nixon’s resignation from the presidency, died December 26 at 6:45 p.m. PST (December 27, 0245 GMT). He was 93.
"My family joins me in sharing the difficult news that Gerald Ford, our beloved husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather has passed away at 93 years of age. His life was filled with love of God, his family and his country," his widow, Betty Ford, said in a statement released shortly after the former president’s death.
Praising Ford as "a great American who gave many years of dedicated service to our country," President Bush issued a statement expressing his sympathies to Ford’s family, mourning the loss of a leader known for his "devotion to duty, his personal character, and the honorable conduct of his administration."
The only individual elevated to the U.S. presidency without having been elected either to that office or the vice presidency, Ford served during a tumultuous period of increasing partisan and ideological divides, when Congress challenged many presidential prerogatives and attempted to assert greater control of the direction and substance of U.S. foreign policy.
"With his quiet integrity, common sense, and kind instincts, President Ford helped heal our land and restore public confidence in the Presidency," President Bush said.
Although Ford’s decision to pardon his predecessor for all offenses he "committed or may have committed or taken part in" during Nixon’s presidency cost the new president much of his initial popularity, Ford nearly won a full term of his own, narrowly losing the 1976 presidential election to Jimmy Carter.
Gerald Rudolph Ford Jr. was born Gerald Leslie King Jr. in Omaha, Nebraska, on July 14, 1913. His parents separated that same year, and the infant moved with his mother to Grand Rapids, Michigan, home of his maternal grandparents. In 1916, Dorothy King married Gerald R. Ford, a Grand Rapids paint salesman. In 1935, the young man legally took Ford’s name.
Ford attended the University of Michigan on a football scholarship. He played on two national champion teams and was voted most valuable player in his senior year of 1935. Offered professional contracts by two National Football League teams, Ford chose instead to pursue legal studies at Yale Law School. Admitted in 1938, he graduated in the top quarter of his class.
Ford briefly practiced law in Grand Rapids, but on U.S. entry into World War II, he received a commission in the Naval Reserve, saw action in the Pacific and, at war’s end, was discharged as a full lieutenant.
A CONGRESSMAN’S CONGRESSMAN
Ford’s quarter-century tenure in the U.S. House of Representatives spanned a period of substantial bipartisan foreign policy consensus built on international engagement and the "containment" of Soviet-sponsored communism. Along with Michigan’s Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg, Ford supported President Harry S. Truman’s Marshall Plan and U.S. membership in the United Nations. He defeated an isolationist incumbent in a 1948 Republican primary and was elected to Congress that fall.
Ford’s gregarious nature swiftly won him friends among congressional Republicans and Democrats alike. He was considered ideologically flexible and an astute practitioner of the art of legislative compromise. Typically viewed more as a practical lawmaker than an intellectual, Ford was not seen as a dynamic leader with presidential aspirations.
Ford’s voting record on domestic issues reflected that era’s mainstream Republicanism. He typically opposed expansion of the federal role in the economy but favored most civil rights legislation, casting votes for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In keeping with his role as a legislative craftsman, Ford gradually transformed himself into a respected expert in budgetary matters. In 1963, the American Political Science Association named him the "Congressman’s Congressman." In January 1965, supported by younger Republicans seeking a more vigorous opposition to the Democratic majority, Ford captured the position of House minority leader. He remained the House Republican leader until resigning from Congress in 1973 to assume the vice presidency.
Even as Ford assumed a leadership role in Congress, U.S. engagement in the Vietnam War began to fracture the bipartisan foreign policy consensus. Subjected to increasing criticism from within the Democratic Party, President Lyndon B. Johnson pursued a "gradualist" war strategy, and by March 1968 had moved unilaterally "to de-escalate the conflict." Meanwhile, Ford, in an April 1966 speech, attacked Johnson from the opposite perspective, charging him with "shocking mismanagement" of the war. The growing divide over Vietnam and more broadly over America’s role in the world would come to fruition during Ford’s presidency.
AN IMPROBABLE PRESIDENT
The October 1973 resignation of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew triggered the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which requires the president to nominate a replacement, subject to confirmation by Congress.
President Nixon, politically weakened by the Watergate scandal, and facing solid Democratic congressional majorities, was informed by leaders of both parties that the widely respected Ford was possibly the only member of the Republican leadership who could gain confirmation. Ford was sworn in as vice president on December 6, 1973. On Nixon’s resignation on August 9, 1974, Ford was sworn in as president, promising the nation, "Our long national nightmare is over."
The nation extended its new, unpretentious president ("I’m a Ford, not a Lincoln," he memorably said, likening himself to the more modest automobile) a measure of popular goodwill, but his political situation was weak. Ford’s September 9, 1974, pardon of Nixon likely spared the nation the embarrassing spectacle of one or more trials, but it was unpopular and cost Ford considerable support.
Lacking an electoral mandate of his own, the new president faced opposition over domestic and foreign policy issues, both from the majority Democrats and increasingly from within his own Republican party.
Ford’s presidency began during a period of economic crisis. He sought to address simultaneous increases in inflation and unemployment by trimming domestic spending even as congressional majorities favored the large-scale social programs established and expanded under Presidents Johnson and Nixon. Ford vetoed more than 50 bills passed by Congress, and managed to halve inflation -- from 11.2 percent to 5.3 percent.
Ford’s selection of the liberal New York Republican Nelson Rockefeller as his vice president damaged his standing among Republican conservatives, some of whom increasingly looked to the outgoing governor of California, Ronald W. Reagan, as a possible challenger to Ford.
FOREIGN POLICY AT A TIME OF DISSENT
Ford and Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, who also had served Nixon, sought to continue the containment of communist power while managing tensions with the Soviet Union through the Nixon-era policy of détente. Even though these policies initially were popular, they grew controversial as members of both political parties increasingly diverged from the old consensus Ford represented.
The 1974 congressional elections brought to Washington many new and younger members determined to challenge a containment policy they perceived as rigid, counterproductive and conducive to both a dangerous aggrandizement of presidential authority and the curtailment of domestic civil liberties.
Congress rejected Ford’s efforts to extend emergency aid to the beleaguered South Vietnamese regime, which ended with the fall of Saigon in April 1975.
Ford similarly was unable to lift fully a congressionally mandated arms embargo imposed on Turkey after the August 1974 Turkish military intervention on Cyprus despite the resultant loss of Turkish military bases. Nor could he prevent adoption of the Clark Amendment, which barred U.S. military aid to any faction in the Angolan Civil War, notwithstanding Cuban intervention in that conflict.
Increasingly, figures clustered around Reagan and Democratic Senator Henry M. Jackson challenged Ford’s continuance of détente with the Soviet Union. Even though Ford’s realist approach led to the 1974 Vladivostok summit with Leonid Brezhnev and a modest arms control agreement, conservative critics sought a harder line, and sought to wage against communism a contest of ideas and ideals.
1976 ELECTION AND BEYOND
Reagan launched a determined primary campaign to deny Ford the Republican presidential nomination in 1976. Ford narrowly turned back this challenge, but it weakened him politically. Ford was considered a decisive underdog in the fall election against the Democratic candidate, former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter. He nonetheless nearly closed the gap, losing to Carter by 297 electoral votes to 240, on a popular vote of 50 percent to 48 percent.
With the expiration of his term, many Americans came to hold Ford in greater esteem, valuing more highly his plain decency, his calm leadership during a time of political turmoil and his post-Watergate efforts to restore respect for and faith in government. By 1980, Ford was considered a respected political elder statesman.
Ford continued an active private life, teaching at the University of Michigan (whose public policy school is named for him) and on several corporate boards.
In 1999, President Bill Clinton awarded Ford the Presidential Medal of Freedom. "President Ford," Clinton said, "represents what is best in public service, and what is best about America."
In 2001, the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation validated with a "Profiles in Courage Award" Ford’s most controversial and self-damaging political act, the pardon of Richard Nixon. By then, most Americans already recognized Ford’s ultimate contribution: Called on to serve at the highest level, Gerald Ford bestowed on the American people the precious gifts of personal decency, political normalcy, and, as his 1979 autobiography suggests, A Time to Heal.
The former president is survived by his wife; three sons, Michael, Jack and Steven; and a daughter, Susan; as well as grandchildren and greatgrandchildren.
The full text of President Bush’s statement is available on the White House Web site.
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)
By Michael Jay Friedman
USINFO Staff Writer