By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 28, 2006
A nation deeply polarized by war and partisanship came together yesterday to mourn Gerald Rudolph Ford as a healer during a previous era of division, while Washington began preparing an elaborate farewell for the most modest of presidents.
Ford, who died at his California home Tuesday night at age 93, will lie in state at the U.S. Capitol for two days starting Saturday and will be memorialized at a service at Washington National Cathedral on Tuesday, following the pattern set by Ronald Reagan's death two years ago.
With presidents and lawmakers of both parties assembling in the nation's capital for the occasion, the ceremonies marking Ford's passage promise to set a bipartisan tone to begin a week in which power will change hands in Washington. Two days after the service at the cathedral, Democrats will assume control of Congress for the first time in a dozen years, opening a period of divided government for the remainder of President Bush's time in office.
Ford's legacy as a bridge builder before, during and after his short presidency dominated the discussion in Washington and across the country yesterday, standing in contrast to a time when leaders in both parties often seem unable to join hands on the big issues of the day. During his final years, mostly privately but sometimes publicly, Ford often expressed regret at what he saw as a coarsening political environment that personalizes policy differences and undermines national unity.
Bush has stocked his administration with veterans of the Ford White House, and he paid tribute yesterday to the 38th president's ability to work across the aisle. "He assumed power in a period of great division and turmoil," Bush told reporters at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., where he is spending the week. "For a nation that needed healing and for an office that needed a calm and steady hand, Gerald Ford came along when we needed him most."
Jimmy Carter, who ousted Ford in 1976 but became friends with him after leaving office, called him "one of the most admirable public servants and human beings I have ever known." In a statement, he said Ford "wisely chose the path of healing during a deeply divisive time in our nation's history" and "frequently rose above politics by emphasizing the need for bipartisanship and seeking common ground on issues critical to our nation."
Ford had been in declining health for months and underwent heart procedures in August. Still, in November, he surpassed Reagan to become the longest-living president. He died at 9:45 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday at his Rancho Mirage home, according to a statement issued on behalf of the family. It did not give a cause of death. White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten notified Bush, who then called Betty Ford about 11 p.m. to offer condolences.
Under plans announced last night, Ford's funeral will mirror Reagan's June 2004 services. A service will be held in California tomorrow, and his body will be flown to Washington on Saturday, where it will be brought to the Capitol for a formal ceremony that evening. His casket will lie in state in the Rotunda and will be open to the public through Monday. After the service at the Washington National Cathedral, Ford's remains will be taken to Grand Rapids, Mich., where he will be interred Wednesday in a hillside tomb on the grounds of his presidential museum.
Ford was the accidental president, the only one never elected on a national ticket, yet he served as an important transitional figure in a time of profound cynicism. An Eagle Scout, football player, lawyer, Navy officer and congressman, he never aspired to the White House but had it thrust upon him when he was chosen to succeed first Spiro T. Agnew, driven from the vice presidency by corruption charges, and then Richard M. Nixon, who resigned amid the Watergate scandal on Aug. 9, 1974.
Ford's first major act in office probably guaranteed that he would not keep it, as his decision to pardon Nixon triggered a political backlash and widespread suspicion that he had cut a deal to take over the presidency. He denied the allegation and insisted that the pardon was the only way to move the country beyond Watergate.
It took many years, even decades, but even some of his fiercest critics came to agree. Roger Wilkins, then a New York Times editorial writer who repeatedly condemned Ford over the pardon, wrote a letter to the former president just last month to say he had changed his mind. Then Wilkins delivered a speech at the Ford museum earlier this month saying the same thing.
"Ford was right," Wilkins said in an interview. "The country really needed to move on. The picture of a president in the dock with these motley Democrats hounding him, it would have made the country -- we'd gone through some ugly times, but it would have been uglier. . . . If Ford hadn't done a thing else in his presidency, that would have been a great service to the country."
Other Democrats have come around to the same conclusion. At the time, Rep. David Obey (Wis.) said yesterday, he thought the pardon was "the absolutely wrong thing to do." But now, Obey said, he realizes Ford "served as a healing agent for the country."
Gracious if not always graceful, Ford by the time he died had achieved stature and respect that eluded him in office. The amiable klutz lampooned on "Saturday Night Live" had become transformed into a symbol of decency and moderation, a throwback to a time when Republicans and Democrats would fight by day and share cocktails and war stories by night.
"He was a man who was willing to work with Democrats when and where and how he could," said Rep. John D. Dingell, a Democrat who served in the Michigan delegation with Ford. "He played golf with Tip O'Neill. After he was elevated to the presidency, we worked very closely together on energy matters -- we had huge fights, but worked together. He was a man who was very careful in his personal conduct and so his fights lent respect to him."
Ford never forgot his humble roots, famously presenting himself as "a Ford, not a Lincoln." He was not even born a Ford. His original name was Leslie Lynch King Jr., but his parents divorced and he was renamed Gerald R. Ford Jr. for his mother's second husband. After attending the University of Michigan and starring on its football team, he turned down offers from the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears and eventually graduated from Yale Law School. Ford served nearly four years in the Navy during World War II before returning to Michigan to run for the House.
Ford worked his way up to House minority leader, making him an easily confirmable choice as the first vice president appointed under the 25th Amendment, which set rules for filling vacancies.
Upon taking over the Oval Office, he declared, "Our long national nightmare is over." But Watergate was not the only crisis awaiting him.
"When Nixon resigned, Congress was in session, the fighting was going on in Vietnam. He had to form a government with no transition time," said Robert A. Goldwin, who worked for Ford as a special consultant and is now an American Enterprise Institute scholar. "So it wasn't a situation where you could be thinking of long-term plans with so many urgent matters not under your control."
Ford ended U.S. involvement in Vietnam, brokered a cease-fire between Israel and Egypt, signed the Helsinki human rights convention and an arms-control treaty with the Soviet Union, and dispatched Marines to free the crew of a merchant vessel captured by Cambodian communists. He survived two assassination attempts. But he could never pull the country out of the economic troubles he inherited.
"He left a fine example of a president who did what he felt was right whatever the political consequences," said James Cannon, his biographer and former aide. "What he inherited was a series of problems. He inherited a recession, the worst since the Great Depression. He inherited Vietnam, which four presidents had been unable to end, and he ended it -- raggedly, but he ended it. Most of all, he restored the integrity of the presidency."
At a time of high inflation and rising unemployment, Ford saw the economy as "job one," said John Robert Greene, a historian at Cazenovia College in Upstate New York who has written five books on Ford. "It defined his domestic agenda." By his first winter in office, Ford had proposed an end to Nixon-era price controls, combined with tax cuts, a policy of no new spending and caps on federal salaries.
In dealing with an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress, Ford relied on his veto pen as a legislative strategy, rejecting an astonishing number of bills -- 66 in all -- many of which were economic and tax measures he viewed as fiscally irresponsible. "He was the most prolific vetoer in our history," said Rebecca Deen, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Arlington.
The energy crisis of the 1970s also consumed his attention. Ford's energy policy was part of his broad faith in the deregulation that was coming into fashion in conservative circles. And he was a believer in states' rights, Greene said, ordering federal officials not to intervene in Boston's crisis over school desegregation or New York City's fiscal emergency.
Ford, who always said his greatest ambition was to be speaker of the House, waged a vigorous campaign in 1976 to hold on to the White House, barely beating back a nomination challenge from the right in the form of Reagan. But he could not overcome the travails of his tenure to beat Carter in the fall.
Reagan briefly explored the idea of making Ford his vice presidential running mate in 1980. Ford settled into a long post-presidency serving on corporate boards, playing in charity golf tournaments and occasionally teaming up with onetime rival Carter for bipartisan statements.
The tributes poured in yesterday. Vice President Cheney, who served as his chief of staff, saluted Ford's "strength, wisdom, and good judgment" and said, "He was a dear friend and mentor to me until this very day."
Former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who served Ford in the same capacity, hailed his "great decency and towering integrity." Former president George H.W. Bush, who served as Ford's CIA director and envoy to China, called him "one of the most decent and capable men I ever met."
But the words Ford might have appreciated most came from former senator Robert J. Dole, his 1976 running mate. "He was a friend to everyone who met him," Dole said. "He had no enemies."
Staff writers Amy Goldstein and Lyndsey Layton in Washington, John Pomfret in California, and Michael Abramowitz in Crawford, Tex., contributed to this report.