After taking the oath of office as President on Aug. 9, 1974, Gerald Ford told a shaken nation, “I have not sought this enormous responsibility, but I will not shirk it.” With those humble words, the former Republican congressman from Michigan reassured scandal-weary Americans that he would be nothing like Richard Nixon, whose Presidency had just unraveled in the Watergate scandal, paving the way for Ford, his Vice President, to ascend to the highest office. On Dec. 26, after battling heart disease and pneumonia in recent years, Ford died at 93 in California.
Widely perceived as an ordinary guy of modest intellectual talents, Ford, a former college football star, was nevertheless a deft and amiable politician who steadily climbed the Republican ranks during 12 terms in Congress. “Ford listened to people in a way that was exceptional,” says Stephen Hess, a public affairs professor at George Washington University who was appointed by Ford to the U.N. General Assembly in 1976. “He truly had an open mind.”
Once Ford was in the White House, his reputation for integrity helped restore dignity to the battered executive branch, although his 895 days as the nation’s 38th President were hardly calm. “Our long national nightmare is over,” he declared during his inaugural address. Then, just 30 days on the job, he pardoned Nixon, a gesture he insisted was essential in order to lay the Watergate ordeal to rest. “It was the right decision for the American people,” says retired Gen. Alexander Haig, Ford’s chief of staff. “History will remember him as the great healer who did what he had to do to repair the wounds of Watergate.”
At the time, though, the pardon for Nixon ignited charges that Ford had agreed to let his former boss off the hook even before taking office. Some pundits believe the uproar may have cost Ford the election of 1976, when he narrowly lost to Georgia governor Jimmy Carter. Years later, while promoting his autobiography A Time to Heal, Ford admitted, “I should have said that acceptance of a pardon by Mr. Nixon was an admission of [his] guilt.”
Born in Omaha, Ford was originally named Leslie Lynch King Jr., after the father his mother divorced before Ford’s first birthday. Two years later, when his mother remarried, Ford took his stepfather’s name. After starring on the University of Michigan football squad, he earned a degree at the Yale Law School and enlisted in the Navy during World War II, serving in the Pacific, where he was nearly washed off a warship during a typhoon. Ford narrowly escaped death again during his Presidency: Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a follower of Charles Manson, attempted to shoot him in Sacramento in 1975 and, just 17 days later, political radical Sara Jane Moore fired at him in San Francisco. He wasn’t harmed in either attempt.
After losing the White House, Ford gracefully bowed out of active political life. With Betty, his popular First Lady and mother of the couple’s four grown children, he moved to California’s Coachella Valley, where they settled into a comfortable retirement, enhanced by the income he earned from speaking engagements and investments. Rarely lending his voice to the public-policy debate, the former President at times stood in the shadow of Betty, 88, whose decision to take her battle with alcohol and drugs public made her a hero of the recovery movement. Ford himself remained athletic almost to the end, skiing in Colorado well into his 80s, although in recent years he was hospitalized repeatedly for heart disease. In 1999 President Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “He guided our nation toward reconciliation,” Clinton said at the time, “and a reestablished confidence in our government.”