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A Regular Guy Who Showed a Devotion to Local Causes

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.

Ford grew fond of the desert in the 1960s during vacations when he was a congressman. Parma, then chief of staff for Rep. Bob Wilson of San Diego, invited him for golf outings near San Diego. Ford also hit the links in nearby Rancho Mirage, known as the "Playground of the Presidents," frequented by Nixon and Ronald Reagan and entertainers Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope.

When Ford retired in 1976, Leonard K. Firestone, president of the eponymous tire company, persuaded him to move to Rancho Mirage. Ford bought a one-story ranch house just off the fairway at the Thunderbird Country Club, a private oasis in a land of desert scrub.

Ford's office was next door to the home he shared with his wife. There Ford answered mail, kept up with his duties on several corporate boards, managed investments, planned speaking engagements around the country and set up foursomes for his favorite game.

"He was a very good golfer, actually. He was maligned by the comics, though," said Parma, now 79. "Bob Hope used to say, 'You're never sure which golf course he's going to play until he teed off.' Well, even Tiger Woods hits some out of bounds."

William Whyte, 91, a former lobbyist for U.S. Steel and a member of Ford's "kitchen cabinet," used to book Ford's golf games. Whyte recalled there was intense competition for a chance to play with the ex-president.

"He'd call me at about 11 in the morning and say, 'Line up a foursome,' " Whyte recalled. "In the opinion of some people, since I didn't book them, I was an SOB."

Ford helped raise money for the local Boys and Girls Club and waived his hefty speaking fee for groups of students or the Boy Scouts. He participated in the first Desert AIDS Walk in 1987, supported charities to protect the bighorn sheep and helped fund a children's museum in the desert.

The Fords later spent summers and occasional winter skiing holidays at two homes near Vail, Colo.

Tom Audley was general manager of a Polo Ralph Lauren store in Vail, near where Ford had bought a home. He recalled meeting the ex-president on five occasions. Each time, Ford came in with a present from a friend -- a size-large shirt that Ford would exchange for an extra-large. "He never wanted to tell his friend he needed an XL," Audley wrote in an e-mail reminiscing about the ex-president.

Ford's favorite restaurant in Vail was the Left Bank, a gourmet French restaurant. It was open only for dinner and it did not have an answering machine. Ford would call Audley and ask him to walk next door to the restaurant to make a reservation for him, often for a party of nine.

"I could give you a list of famous folks I've met and helped over the years, and not a single one ever gave me the respect and time that Pres. Ford gave me and my staff," Audley wrote. "Say what you want about him as a president. As a human, I never met a nicer guy (well maybe my dad)."

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