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Last Updated: Wednesday, 27 December 2006, 07:41 GMT
Obituary: Gerald Ford

Gerald Ford
Ford: The unexpected president (image: Gerald R Ford Library)

Gerald Ford was the first - and so far only - US president never to win a national election of any kind.

A hugely experienced Congressman, he became President Richard Nixon's vice-president in 1973, when Spiro Agnew resigned amid corruption charges

Ten months later, Nixon himself stood down over the Watergate scandal, and on 9 August 1974, Ford became the 38th president.

It was a difficult period for him to take over, in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal and with the country in a severe recession.

When he left office two and a half years later, after a narrow election defeat, he said he was proud to be handing over the country to President Carter in better shape than he had found it.

The new president, in turn, thanked him for all he had done to heal the wounds of Watergate.

Gerald Ford playing football at Yale
Ford was a college football star (image: Gerald R Ford Library)
Gerald Rudolph Ford was born in Omaha, Nebraska. His name then was Leslie Lynch King Jr, but his parents divorced when he was a toddler, and his mother married a Gerald Ford. The boy took his name.

He grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and became something of a football hero, playing centre in the University of Michigan's undefeated national teams of 1932 and 1933.

He turned down a number of professional contracts, deciding instead to go to Yale Law School, where he helped to pay his way by coaching fellow students in boxing and football.

Ford was adopted as the Republican candidate for a safe seat in southern Michigan, and was elected to Congress in 1948.

The same year he married Elizabeth Ann Bloomer, a former model and a divorcee, later to become famous in her own right as a reformed alcoholic and founder of the Betty Ford Center, which helped pioneer the treatment of drink and drug addiction.

Possibility of power

In 1965 Gerald Ford was elected Republican leader in the House.

He was a member of the Warren Commission which investigated the assassination of President Kennedy - concluding that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone - and co-author of a book, Portrait of an Assassin.

Gerald and Betty Ford
Ford supported his wife Betty through her battle with alcoholism
Outside Congress, Ford was little known but, in 1973, Spiro Agnew resigned.

President Nixon, an old friend, nominated Ford as vice-president. He was then 60 and had been in Congress for a quarter of a century.

With President Nixon's own position in growing danger, there was soon speculation about the possibility of Ford succeeding him.

After Nixon's admission of guilt early in August 1974, Ford announced he intended to bow out of the impeachment "debate", while standing by his belief that President Nixon was innocent.

Pardon for Nixon

On 9 August, Nixon resigned and Ford was sworn in as president. His first address to the two Houses of Congress was something of a triumph for him and he made an excellent impression at a televised news conference.

But the honeymoon came to an abrupt end when, a month to the day after he had taken office, he granted Nixon a full pardon for all offences against the United States which he might have committed while in office.

US helicopters in Vietnam
Vietnam: Ford ended the only war America ever lost
This provoked a political and moral storm, and the ruling was bitterly opposed in many quarters, but the president appeared unmoved.

Shortly afterwards, he offered an amnesty to thousands of young Americans who had either evaded conscription or deserted during the Vietnam war.

The Republicans had a severe setback in the mid-term elections in November 1974 and the president, in his efforts to overcome inflation, unemployment and a serious energy shortage, had to deal with a Congress in which many of his proposals were stalled by the Democrats.

Struggles with Congress

Before long, however, it became clear that despite his problems, the man who once admitted "I'm a Ford, not a Lincoln" enjoyed being president and intended to seek the Republican nomination in the 1976 election.

Jimmy Carter
Ford lost the 1976 presidential contest to Jimmy Carter
In foreign policy, Ford and his Secretary of State, Dr Henry Kissinger, continued the Nixon policies of detente with the Soviet Union and a search for a Middle East settlement. Ford went to the Soviet Union, South Korea and Japan, becoming the first US president to visit Tokyo.

He returned to a worsening economic situation and a continuing running fight with Congress. During his first year in office he had to use his veto 36 times.

In September, there were two attempts on the president's life, one in Sacramento, the other in San Francisco.

After a neck-and-neck race with Ronald Reagan, Ford narrowly won the party presidential nomination in 1976.

The contest against the Democratic party nominee, Jimmy Carter, turned out to be surprisingly dull. Ford, representing continuity and safety, started well behind in the public opinion polls but caught up steadily.

Narrow defeat

In one of his three television appearances with Carter, he made a slip of the tongue by asserting that Eastern Europe was independent of Soviet domination, and brought a good deal of ridicule upon himself.

In the end, Carter won narrowly, by 1.8 million votes, courtesy of a twin-track approach which saw him portrayed as a favourite son in the South and as a champion of marginalised voters, most notably farmers and Christians, in the North.

Ford, in his farewell State of the Union report to Congress, spoke of his pride that America was at peace and warned the nation to keep up its defences in the face of a steady build-up of Soviet military forces.

Gerald Ford wearing the Medal of Freedom
Gerald Ford was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 1999
Out of office, Gerald Ford remained an active, if marginal, political voice. In 1980, he came within an ace of being nominated as Ronald Reagan's vice-presidential running mate, before his demand for wider powers and responsibilities ruled him out.

Despite his Republican beliefs, he championed affirmative action, arguing that it was consistent with "the notion of America as a work in progress".

And his belief in the importance of research into therapeutic cloning, a pro-choice stance on reproductive rights and his endorsement of civil unions for gay people, placed Ford at odds with much of his party.

In 1999, Bill Clinton presented Ford with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the US's highest awards. More recently health problems, including a series of strokes, had limited his public appearances.

Gerald Ford's reputation was always that of a decent, friendly man, calm, patient and fair-minded, although somewhat lacking in flair and imagination. A self-confessed "man of the House," he kept a keen eye on the workings of Congress, even after leaving the Oval Office.

Above all, he showed consistent dedication in endeavouring to fulfil his pledge that he would do his best for America.

A look back at the life of Gerald Ford

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