Post-Presidential Years

A Regular Guy Who Showed a Devotion to Local Causes

In 1974, President Gerald R. Ford was surrounded by champion golfers  --  from left, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player  --  as he waited to tee off at Pinehurst (N.C.) Country Club.
In 1974, President Gerald R. Ford was surrounded by champion golfers -- from left, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player -- as he waited to tee off at Pinehurst (N.C.) Country Club. (By Frank Johnston -- The Washington Post)

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By John Pomfret and Sonya Geis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 29, 2006

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. -- Gerald R. Ford thought globally as a president, but in a salubrious 30-year retirement spent on ski slopes and putting greens, he acted locally, serving on charities, donning sneakers for the first Desert AIDS Walk, speaking to the Boys and Girls Club and leading the annual Fourth of July parade.

Ford's regular-guy lifestyle distinguished him from other former presidents. Richard M. Nixon, who handed the presidency to Ford, wrote books to buff up his reputation. Ford's former adversary, Jimmy Carter, has built homes for the indigent and crisscrossed the globe brokering cease-fires and monitoring elections. Bill Clinton globe-trots as well, promoting AIDS awareness and, with George H.W. Bush, raising money for victims of the 2004 tsunami and Hurricane Katrina.

In comparison, Ford's biggest achievement -- helping his wife found the Betty Ford Center, the internationally known substance-abuse rehabilitation facility -- could be said to pale in comparison. But in his quiet unhurried way, friends and others said, the ex-president, who died here Tuesday, was a model citizen, known for the courtesy with which he treated people and the sincerity with which he lent his time and money.

In the years after losing to Carter in 1976, Ford's relationship with his wife dominated his life, said Mark K. Updegrove, author of "Second Acts: Presidential Lives and Legacies After the White House."

"His wife had a much more difficult time transitioning from the White House to private life than did her husband," Updegrove said, "leading to an addiction to painkillers and alcohol."

Betty Ford underwent rehabilitation "in full partnership with her husband," Updegrove said. Statistically, nine of 10 marriages collapse when a wife runs afoul of drugs, Updegrove said, but in the Fords' case it strengthened the family bond -- bringing the marriage together, in Betty Ford's words, "like a magnet."

A former congressional staffer and friend, Leon Parma, called the 58 years that the Fords were married "the greatest love story of our time." Because of his wife's well-known struggle with alcohol, Ford also stopped drinking.

Parma and his wife often vacationed with the Fords. When Parma traveled alone with Ford, "there was always a call home in the morning and evening. He was in constant contact."

Another friend, Wayne Hoffman, noted that Ford was rare for a politician in that he seemed to lack malice. Hoffman, 83, recalled speaking to him on the phone the day after he lost the 1976 presidential election, when Ford called him to make a golf date.

"He didn't show any bitterness" about losing the election, said Hoffman, former chairman of Tiger International and Flying Tiger Line, the largest air cargo carrier in the nation before it was sold to FedEx. "And he didn't afterward, though his heart was broken."

Updegrove said Ford's friendship with Carter, formed during a shared airplane ride to and from the funeral for assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981, showed the "fundamental decency of the man."

The pair wrote occasional pieces for newspapers, including one, during the Reagan administration, that advocated dealing with the Palestine Liberation Organization as a political entity -- a policy that was adopted years later.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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