Gerald Ford is dead at 93

President brought calm after Watergate storm

December 27, 2006|By Jules Witcover and Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Jules Witcover and Julie Hirschfeld Davis,Sun reporters

WASHINGTON -- Gerald R. Ford, the nation's first unelected vice president and then its first unelected president, has died, his wife, Betty, said late yesterday. He was 93.

No cause of death was immediately announced.

Mr. Ford, who was the nation's oldest living former president, had been hospitalized at least four times this year - in January for treatment of pneumonia; in July because of shortness of breath; in August, when he received a cardiac pacemaker and had angioplasty to increase blood flow; and in October, for more testing.

President Bush, in a statement issued from his ranch in Crawford, Texas, said: "President Ford was a great American who gave many years of dedicated service to our country. ... 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.

Mr. Bush spoke with Betty Ford "to express his personal condolences," said Scott Stanzel, a White House spokesman.

In his 29 months in the White House in the mid-1970s, Mr. Ford provided a much-welcomed transition to relative normality after what he called the "national nightmare" of Watergate.

Yet Mr. Ford's presidential tenure, from Aug. 9, 1974, through Jan. 20, 1977, was colored in critical ways by the scandal that unexpectedly thrust him into office. He will likely be remembered more for the manner in which he attained the White House than for anything he achieved in the brief time he occupied it.

Mr. Ford's rise to national leadership marked the first applications of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, which provides for filling vacancies in the country's two highest elective offices. It came at a time of trauma over, first, the resignation in 1973 of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew on charges of income tax evasion, and then the Watergate scandal, which drove President Richard M. Nixon from the Oval Office in 1974.

In proclaiming in the wake of that scandal that "our long national nightmare is over," the affable Mr. Ford brought a calming presence to the national scene as the 38th president of the United States. But less than a month after assuming the presidency, the calm was shattered when Mr. Ford abruptly pardoned Mr. Nixon - a move that many later said was a major factor in his defeat in 1976 by Democrat Jimmy Carter.

Until political lightning struck him twice within nine months, the highest office to which Mr. Ford had aspired throughout his political career was speaker of the House, where he had served for a quarter-century. But when he became the House Republican leader in 1965, and for the rest of his tenure, his party was in the minority.

A man of outgoing good will who often boasted that he had "many adversaries but not enemies" in politics, Mr. Ford was popular in Congress among both Democrats and Republicans. That quality was a key factor in his sudden rise to the presidency.

In October 1973, when Mr. Agnew was forced from the vice presidency in a plea bargain that enabled him to escape prison on charges of income tax evasion, Mr. Nixon chose Mr. Ford to replace him. Mr. Ford was seen as a man who would easily be confirmed by his congressional colleagues, as the 25th Amendment required.

At the time, Mr. Nixon was under scrutiny concerning his role in the Watergate affair. Many critics speculated later that he had selected Mr. Ford as a sort of insurance policy against impeachment, on the theory that Congress did not have a high enough opinion of Mr. Ford's intellect to take an action that would put him in the Oval Office. If so, the strategy failed.

As vice president, Mr. Ford remained a loyal defender of Mr. Nixon to the last, insisting until the surfacing of irrefutable evidence of the president's complicity in the Watergate cover-up - the "smoking gun" tape - that Mr. Nixon had done nothing to warrant his removal from office.

The manner in which Mr. Ford took over the presidency provided a sharp and popular contrast to the imperial manner in which Mr. Nixon had conducted himself in the White House. The new president and his wife, Betty, remained with their four children in their modest house in suburban Alexandria, Va., until the Nixons' belongings had been packed and removed from the executive mansion, and it was made ready for the new first family.

The Fords exuded a domestic ease that had never been conspicuous during the Nixons' occupancy, and the new president helped the impression along by reporting that he made his own breakfast of English muffins every morning before beginning work.

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