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President Ford Led Nation After Watergate, Vietnam

December 27, 2006 at 6:05 PM EST
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GERALD FORD, Former President of the United States: My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.

SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent: Gerald Ford holds the unique distinction of being the only U.S. president never elected as president or vice president. He assumed the office on August 9, 1974, following the resignation of Richard Nixon.

One month later, Ford granted Nixon a full, free and absolute pardon for any crimes he may have committed in the Watergate scandal, asserting the nation would be torn apart if Nixon were brought to trial.

GERALD FORD: My conscience tells me clearly and certainly that I cannot prolong the bad dreams that continue to reopen a chapter that is closed. My conscious tells me that only I as president have the constitutional power to firmly shut and seal this book.

SPENCER MICHELS: Ford’s decision caused widespread protest. His popularity plummeted, and he was called before Congress to explain his act.

GERALD FORD: I want to assure you, the members of this subcommittee, members of the Congress, and the American people, there was no deal, period.

Ford's life and service

SPENCER MICHELS: Born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1913, Gerald Rudolph Ford was the quintessential Midwesterner. He grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and later became a star football player at the University of Michigan.

He turned down offers to play professionally. Instead, he coached the football team at Yale to put himself through law school there.

During World War II, Mr. Ford served as a lieutenant commander with the Navy and, after the war, returned to Grand Rapids to practice law. There, he married Elizabeth Ann Bloomer -- Betty, as she was known -- in 1948, and together raised four children, Susan, John, Michael and Steven.

It was in November of 1948 that Gerald Ford first was elected to Congress and went on to serve 25 years, nearly nine as the House Republican leader. But in the fall of 1973, President Richard Nixon chose Ford to replace Vice President Spiro Agnew, who had resigned amid charges of tax evasion and bribery.

Nixon hoped Ford's reputation as a moderate consensus-builder would help unite a nation split by Vietnam and social upheaval. Vice President Ford addressed the United Nations General Assembly shortly after taking office.

GERALD FORD: In my 25 years as a member of the Congress of the United States, I learned two basic, practical lessons: First, men of differing political persuasions can find common ground for cooperation. We need not agree on all issues in order to agree on most.

Differences of principle, of purpose, of perspective will not disappear, but neither will our mutual problems disappear unless we are determined to find mutually helpful solutions.

SPENCER MICHELS: During his two-and-a-half years as president, Mr. Ford fought to rebuild public faith in the presidency and the Republican Party. He also focused on maintaining U.S. power and prestige abroad, after the U.S. failure in Vietnam.

The end of the Vietnam War came on his watch, in April 1975. President Ford oversaw the resettlement of tens of thousands of Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees in the United States.

On the economic front, Mr. Ford faced high inflation rates. He tried to enlist the help of Americans, urging them to wear "WIN" buttons, "Whip Inflation Now."

CHEVY CHASE, Comedian Imitating Gerald Ford: Can you ask Betty to come in and help me trim the tree, please?

SPENCER MICHELS: As president, Mr. Ford was sometimes parodied for his occasional missteps.

CHEVY CHASE: No problem.

NEWS ANNOUNCER: ... just coming out. Chuck Hastings was across the street, and suddenly there was a shot.

SPENCER MICHELS: During separate trips to California in September 1975, President Ford was the target of assassination attempts. Both attackers were women -- Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme and Sara Jane Moore.

President Carter reflects on Ford

SPENCER MICHELS: In 1976, Gerald Ford won the Republican presidential primary battle against Ronald Reagan, but lost the general election to Jimmy Carter. In a recent NewsHour interview, President Carter spoke of his admiration for Gerald Ford.

JIMMY CARTER, Former President of the United States: Well, let me say first of all that I consider Gerald Ford to be one of the finest public servants that I have ever met. And even when I was running against him for president, I never referred to him as anything other than my distinguished opponent.

SPENCER MICHELS: President Carter talked about how he and President Ford overcame the adverse effects of the 1976 election to become friends after both had left office.

JIMMY CARTER: When I made my inaugural address, having defeated him, the first thing I said was I wanted to pay tribute to Gerald Ford, my predecessor, who has brought peace to this country.

For myself and for our nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land.

Gerald Ford, I think, is about the only guy that I remember, certainly in recent years, that I would ride with in the car just talking to one another as friends, and we both hated to reach our destination because we still had a lot to say to each another.

And I still believe that, of all the public servants I've met in my life, I've never known a finer one dedicated to integrity and honesty and fairness and openness than my friend, Gerald Ford.

SPENCER MICHELS: Gerald Ford stayed active after leaving office. He loved golf and often was joined on the course by celebrities, but Ford remained active in politics, as well, and continued to make appearances at events of historical and ceremonial importance. In 2000, the Republicans paid tribute to Mr. Ford at their national convention.

In recent years, the former president's health deteriorated. In August of this year, he received an implantable pacemaker to regulate his heartbeat. He had an angioplasty procedure to increase blood flow to his coronary arteries.

President Gerald Ford was 93 years old.