Gerald R. Ford, who at 93 was America’s oldest living President, has died.
In a statement released by his wife Betty, no cause, place or time of death was named. Ford had been in and out of the hospital the past several months, and was most recently treated for pneumonia.
“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,” Betty Ford said in the statement, issued from her husband’s office in Rancho Mirage, Calif. “His life was filled with love of God, his family and his country.”
President Bush called the former leader a “great American” in a statement issued by the White House, and offered sympathy, along with First Lady Laura Bush, to Ford’s wife and surviving family.
“During his time in office, the American people came to know President Ford as a man of complete integrity who led our country with common sense and kind instincts,” President Bush said in his statement.
Former First Lady Nancy Reagan also issued a statement of sympathy, saying she felt that Ford’s early support of stem cell research “has been important in getting the U.S. Congress to debate the potential lifesaving cures and treatments that may result.”
Vice President Dick Cheney, who served as Ford’s chief of staff, said in a statement, “He was a dear friend and mentor to me until this very day. I feel a great sense of loss at his passing.”
The Ford family will announce memorial arrangements, a White House spokesperson said Wednesday.
Among Ford’s chief distinctions is that he was never elected to the highest office in the land. When President Richard M. Nixon shocked the world in 1974 with his resignation as his administration was collapsing under the pressure of the Watergate scandal, Ford – who had replaced Spiro T. Agnew as Nixon’s Vice President – took office.
“He assumed the presidency in an hour of national turmoil and division,” President Bush said. “With his quiet integrity, common sense and kind instincts, President Ford helped heal our land and restore public confidence in the presidency.”
As one of his first acts in office Ford pardoned Nixon, which effectively brought an end to the investigation of Nixon and his advisors’ involvement in the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington’s Watergate Hotel complex.
When he ran for election in 1976 against Democrat Jimmy Carter, Ford failed to win – in part because of his party’s continued taint of Watergate.
Born in Omaha, Neb., on July 14, 1913, to Leslie Lynch King and Dorothy Ayer Gardner King, Ford’s given name had been Leslie Lynch King, Jr. – though his parents separated only two weeks after his birth. Two years later his mother remarried, to Gerald R. Ford, a Grand Rapids paint salesman, and the family was comprised of Gerry, who was called Junior, as well as three younger half-brothers.
A strong athlete, Ford played football at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where he graduated in 1935 with a major in economics and political science. Despite receiving two offers to play pro for either the Detroit Lions or the Green Bay Packers, Ford chose instead to work as boxing coach and assistant football coach at Yale in order to attend its law school. He graduated in 1941 – one year after he had been introduced to politics by campaigning for Republican candidate Wendell Willkie, who put up a noble fight against incumbent Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Joining the U.S. Naval Reserve during World War II, Ford was nearly killed by a vicious typhoon in the Philippine Sea in December 1944. Eventually he was discharged as a lieutenant commander in February 1946.
He returned to Michigan, where he became a partner in a Grand Rapids law firm and successfully ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1948 election. More important, during the campaign he met and married Elizabeth Ann “Betty” Bloomer Warren, a department store fashion consultant, and eventually they had four children: Michael Gerald, John Gardner, Steven Meigs, and Susan Elizabeth.
Ford was re-elected 12 times, serving in the House from 1949 to 1973.
When Spiro Agnew resigned late in 1973 after pleading no contest to a charge of income tax evasion, President Nixon appointed his old ally, Ford, to the position. He was sworn in on Dec. 6, 1973. Nine months later, on Aug. 9, 1974, Ford gave his first address to the country as President, stating “the long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works.”
Still, besides Watergate, the nation was also facing the war in Vietnam and financial inflation. During his time in office, Ford also built the reputation of something of a bumbler, by tripping at official events – a trait lampooned by Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live.
After leaving the White House, the Fords remained in the public eye. In 1982, Betty, having bravely battled breast cancer and owned up to a drinking problem, opened the Betty Ford Clinic in Rancho Mirage, where patients dealing with substance problems are treated.
Ford, meanwhile, published two books: a 1979 memoir, A Time to Heal: The Autobiography of Gerald R. Ford, and 1987’s Humor and the Presidency.