Gerald R. Ford Jr., the 38th president of the United States — whose legacy included the controversial decision to pardon his predecessor, Richard Nixon — died at his California home on Tuesday at the age of 93. Ford, who had suffered through a bout of pneumonia in January and underwent two heart treatments earlier this year, was the longest living president in U.S. history.
"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," wife of 50-plus years, Betty Ford, said in a statement issued from Ford's office in Rancho Mirage, California. "His life was filled with love of God, his family and his country." No cause of death was given.
President Bush honored fellow Republican Ford by praising his "quiet integrity, common sense, and kind instincts," qualities Bush said Ford used to help "heal our land and restore public confidence in the Presidency." There will be public viewings and services in California and Washington, D.C., before Ford's burial on January 3.
Ford took office at one of the most critical times in U.S. history, one during which the faith in the office of president had been severely shaken due to the Watergate scandal of the troubled Nixon Presidency — which resulted in Nixon resigning from office during his second term after investigations found that he had tried to cover up burglaries at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee that were tied to a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage related to his re-election campaign committee.
Ford became the only man in history to assume the presidency without being elected, as he was appointed Vice President in 1973 following the resignation of Nixon's V.P., Spiro Agnew, then president after Nixon's resignation on August 9, 1974.
The former Republican congressman from Grand Rapids, Michigan, was known for his plainspoken, unassuming personality, but his legacy as president was cemented early on by his most controversial decision, to grant Nixon a full pardon on September 8, 1974. In trying to heal the nation after the Nixon years, Ford famously stated in his inaugural address, "My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. ... I believe that truth is the glue that holds government together, not only our government, but civilization itself. That bond, though strained, is unbroken at home and abroad."
He was born Leslie Lynch King Jr. on July 14, 1913, in Omaha, Nebraska, and renamed Gerald R. Ford, Jr. a short time later after his mother remarried and he was adopted by his new father. An outstanding football player and average student, Ford's athleticism earned him a scholarship to the University of Michigan, where he was a benchwarmer until his senior year, when he was voted MVP and offered contracts to play with the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears. Instead, the B-average student accepted a job as the boxing coach and assistant football coach at Yale University and applied to Yale Law School.
He became interested in politics and after serving in the Navy during World War II and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1948, the same year he married former model Elizabeth Bloomer Warren, with whom he had four children.
Despite a strong legacy of minority leadership in the House, serving undefeated through 13 elections in the House and rising to the level of Republican leader, Ford's lack of polish in public speaking during weekly news conferences he held in the mid-1960s earned him some unkind words from then-President Lyndon Johnson. Famously cracking that Ford couldn't "chew gum and walk at the same time," Johnson also quipped that "there's nothing wrong with Gerald Ford except he played football too long without a helmet." Credited with his attempts to give the White House less of an imperial air and his folksy, down-to-earth demeanor, Ford was sometimes awkward in public, once referring to the noble American "work ethnic" and on another occasion misidentifying the disease of "sickle-cell Armenia," according to The New York Times.
Though considered among the most athletic presidents in U.S. history, these characterizations of Ford as bumbling and somewhat dim-witted would famously be exploited by Chevy Chase during the early years of "Saturday Night Live," after an incident in 1975 when Ford stumbled down the steps of Air Force One while visiting Salzburg, Austria. Chase repeatedly played the fall for laughs, portraying Ford as a bumbler who was constantly tripping over himself.
During his brief two-and-a-half year period as president — he was narrowly defeated by Jimmy Carter in 1976 after just 896 days in office — Ford ended U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam, helped oversee a cease-fire between Israel and Egypt and signed an arms-limitation agreement with Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev, all while dealing with one of the worst economic crises in decades. His presidency coincided with an inflation rate of nearly 12 percent and chronic oil shortages that resulted in long lines at gas stations around the country.
Ford's initially high approval ratings in the mid-70s plummeted soon after the Nixon pardon, and by January of 1975 they were at 36 percent — not even budging after two assassination attempts that year in California. After trailing Carter by as many as 30 points during the run-up to the 1976 election, Ford closed the gap near the end, but was ultimately undone when he stated during a debate that Poland was not under Soviet rule, a mistake he stubbornly refused to correct for several days.
After leaving the White House, Ford wrote his memoirs, established a presidential library at the University of Michigan, gave speeches and served on the boards of various corporations, according to The Washington Post. And though the majority of Americans disapproved of the Nixon pardon, Ford didn't appear to have regrets about his decisions while in office. "Once I determine to move, I seldom, if ever, fret," he wrote in his memoirs. Senator Edward Kennedy presented Ford with the John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage award in 2001, saying of the pardon, "Now we see that President Ford was right."
Ford was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in 1999 by President Bill Clinton.