President Ford Seen as a Steady Political Hand The country's 38th president has died. Gerald Ford was 93. Ford was initially seen as a caretaker for the presidency -- the bridge between a disgraced Richard Nixon and the next man elected to the White House, Jimmy Carter.
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President Ford Seen as a Steady Political Hand

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President Ford Seen as a Steady Political Hand

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Former President Gerald Ford has died at the age of 93. He was the 38th president and the only one not actually elected to that office or to the vice presidency in American history. Gerald Ford is best remembered for pardoning his predecessor, Richard Nixon.

In this remembrance, NPR's Pam Fessler looks back at how he also successfully led the country through a difficult period.

PAM FESSLER: Gerald Ford was initially seen as a caretaker for the presidency -the bridge between a disgraced Richard Nixon and the next man elected to the White House, Jimmy Carter. But time cast a more favorable light on Ford's two and a half years in office. He won praise as a man whose calm and straightforward demeanor helped steer the nation through some turbulent times.

Nothing symbolized those times more than the events of August 9th, 1974, the day Richard Nixon resigned. Shortly after the president waved goodbye and boarded a helicopter on the White House lawn, Vice President Ford and his wife Betty joined Chief Justice Warren Burger in the East Room.

There, the man whose only election was to the U.S. House was sworn in as the nation's 38th president. Ford's words that day reflected the collective relief of the American people that the Watergate scandal was coming to a close.

President GERALD FORD: Our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works. Our great republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule.

FESSLER: The new president said it was time for an embattled nation to pull itself together and to do so without recrimination. It was a tone he would try to set throughout his administration.

Pres. FORD: As we bind up the internal wounds of Watergate, more painful and more poisonous than those of foreign wars, let us restore the golden rule to our political process, and let brotherly love purge our hearts of suspicion and of hate.

FESSLER: Ford reached the White House more by happenstance than design. He'd been a popular congressman who rose through the ranks over the 25 years he represented the Grand Rapids area of Michigan. His colleagues chose him in 1965 to be House minority leader. He aspired someday to be the speaker, but events intervened.

Ford was a friend and loyal supporter of President Nixon. When Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in the face of bribery charges, Nixon chose Ford to take his place. At the time, Ford promised Congress he'd bring to the job a down-to-earth style and dependability that many welcomed.

Pres. FORD: I'm a Ford, not a Lincoln.

(Soundbite of applause)

FESSLER: Ford had to deal with more than just the scars of Watergate. The Vietnam War had yet to end and protests continued; unemployment and inflation were high and getting higher, and the economy was still shuddering from the Arab oil embargo the previous year.

Ford decided to dispose of one issue right away.

Pres. FORD: I, Gerald R. Ford, president of the United States, pursuant to the pardon power conferred upon me by Article 2, Section 2 of the Constitution.

FESSLER: Only one month after taking office, he gave President Nixon a full pardon, avoiding a potentially divisive and lengthy trial. It was a move that would mar Ford's presidency, and some say, doom any chance he had of being elected to the office in his own right.

But Ford said it was important that he be able to spend his time dealing with the future, not with the past. He quickly turned to the economy. He called on Congress to hold down spending and to impose a surtax on business. He also had another plan.

Pres. FORD: A very simple enlistment form will appear in many of tomorrow's newspapers along with a symbol of this new mobilization, which I'm wearing on my lapel. It bears the single word, WIN.

FESSLER: Or, Whip Inflation Now. That was the name of a volunteer program calling on citizens and businesses to take small steps, like limiting waste to keep prices down.

Millions of WIN buttons were produced, but the campaign was soon ridiculed as little more than a gimmick. It didn't help that the Democrats who dominated Congress disagreed with Ford over what to do about inflation. He soon found himself at odds with the institution he'd once called home, and he made frequent use of the veto pen.

Foreign crises dogged him as well. In April, 1975, Americans watched in horror as helicopters plucked people from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon as they fled the invading communist forces. A month later, Ford attempted to restore some of a wounded nation's honor by taking aggressive action in a confrontation on the high seas.

Pres. FORD: At my direction, the United States forces boarded the American merchant ship SS Mayaguez and landed at the island of Khotang for the purpose of rescuing the crew and the ship which had been illegally seized by Cambodian forces.

FESSLER: The crew was rescued but at the cost of 41 American lives. Nevertheless, Ford was praised for taking quick military action. He also continued to pursue Nixon's policy of detente with the Soviet Union. He helped craft the Helsinki accords, which sought human rights concessions from the Soviets in exchange for western recognition of communist borders in Eastern Europe. The agreement drew strong criticism from the increasingly vocal right wing of the Republican Party, led at that time by Ronald Reagan.

President Ford was also the target of physical attacks, including two assassination attempts in 1975. Less dangerous, but perhaps more damaging politically, was his slip one day on a rain soaked airplane ramp. After the incident, every bump and blunder by the president, who in fact had been an outstanding college athlete, was chronicled in the news and ridiculed on television comedy shows such as NBC's “Saturday Night Live.”

(Soundbite of TV Show, “Saturday Night Live”)

Unidentified Man #1: Let's take a look at the recent popularity polls, shall we?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #1: Ouch, no problem.

FESSLER: But President Ford wanted very much to be taken seriously. He decided to seek election to the White House in 1976. And after barely defeating Reagan in the primaries, he faced Democrat Jimmy Carter. As the election approached, Ford closed a wide gap in the polls. But once again, he would fumble - this time during the presidential debate.

Pres. FORD: There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.

Unidentified Man #2: I'm sorry. Could I just follow? Did I understand you just said sir that the Russians are not using Eastern Europe as their own sphere of influence in occupying -

FESSLER: Ford tried unsuccessfully to clarify his remarks to an incredulous moderator. And the error cost him political momentum. On Election Day, the margin was close, but the memory of the Nixon pardon, and a bad economy proved too much to overcome. Ford flirted with running again in 1980, but his party was veering to the right. And it was clear that his time as a Republican leader had passed. The 38th president didn't appear all that unhappy though to be retired.

He split his time between the ski slopes of Vail and the golf courses of Palm Springs. His wife, Betty, perhaps more than he, made a mark during this time. After admitting her alcoholism and dependency on pills, she opened the Betty Ford clinic to treat others with similar addictions. Mrs. Ford stood by her husband throughout his career. She was next to him at the Republican Party convention in 2000, as they watched a video tribute to his presidency.

(Soundbite of video tribute for President Ford)

Unidentified Man #3: Many of today's voters were too young to understand the urgency of those times. Yet every American, young and old, owes a heartfelt thanks to the unassuming man form Michigan who shouldered our nation's burdens and put America back together in his quiet steady way.

FESSLER: Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: Again, Former President Gerald Ford has died last night at the age of 93. You can read about his place in history, view a photo gallery and here him during key moments in his presidency at our Web site NPR.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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