The Dec. 27 obituary of former president Gerald R. Ford incorrectly said that he received the Congressional Medal of Honor. It was the Congressional Gold Medal.
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Gerald R. Ford, 93, Dies; Led in Watergate's Wake
In Kissinger's view, Ford was a leader in the heroic mold.
Born Leslie Lynch King Jr. on July 14, 1913, in Omaha, the future president was the offspring of a brief, failed marriage between Leslie King, a wealthy Wyoming wool merchant, and Dorothy Gardner King. The Kings divorced the following January, and she returned to her parents' home in Grand Rapids.
Soon thereafter, Dorothy King married Gerald R. Ford, a young paint salesman she had met at an Episcopal church social. He formally adopted her child, who was renamed Gerald R. Ford Jr. The Fords subsequently had three other boys.
Both Grand Rapids and Gerald Ford's paint-selling business prospered in the first years of the marriage. TerHorst, the former press secretary turned biographer, recounts that Gerald Ford Sr. "owned a touring car and there was enough money to take Mrs. Ford and young Jerry to Florida for vacations."
Ford was athletic, outgoing and happy in his youth. He became an adequate student, an outstanding football player and an Eagle Scout. Later, when his father's business declined during the Depression, he tried to help by taking a $2-a-week lunch counter job.
In the custom of those years, he had not been told that he was an adopted child. He found out abruptly when his well-to-do father, on the way to Detroit to pick up a new Lincoln, dropped by the lunch counter where his son worked and told him.
Leslie King invited his son to spend the summer with him in Wyoming after he graduated from high school. Ford turned him down, but he was shocked by the discovery of his adoption.
As terHorst recounted in "Gerald Ford and the Future of the Presidency": "Inside Jerry Ford, the hurt was deep." He quoted Ford as saying: "I thought, 'Here I was, earning $2 a week and trying to get through school, my stepfather was having difficult times. Yet here was my real father, obviously doing quite well if he could pick up a new Lincoln.' "
This incident occurred in 1930, the year Ford turned 17 and was a senior at South High School in Grand Rapids. He was an all-city center on the South High football team, which won the state championship that year.
Ford's football prowess opened a window to college, and his coach and some alumni from the University of Michigan provided him with a scholarship and a job waiting tables. He was a benchwarmer behind an all-American center for two years, while Michigan won back-to-back Big Ten football championships.
Not until 1934, in his senior year, did Gerald Ford win a starting place on Michigan's football team. Then he was voted the most valuable player on a team that lost seven of eight games and was offered professional football contracts with the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears. But Ford said in his autobiography that he thought the law would be a better career.
Ford graduated from the university in 1935 with a B average. He accepted a $2,400-a-year offer to serve as boxing coach and assistant football coach at Yale University, meanwhile applying to Yale Law School. The law school turned him down in the belief that he would not be able to do well in his studies while coaching.
Ford was accepted on a trial basis in 1938 and did well enough in a couple of courses to be allowed to enroll full time. He graduated in 1941 in the upper third of his class with his best work in a course on legal ethics.
Returning to Grand Rapids, he founded a law practice with Philip A. Buchen, a fellow Michigan graduate who had been partly crippled by polio in childhood.
Already Ford was drawn to politics. He had become active in Grand Rapids the previous summer in the campaign of Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie, who went down under Franklin Roosevelt's third-term candidacy, but who carried Michigan. Ford's interest in Willkie revealed a consistent internationalist bent that was evident in all of his succeeding political conflicts.
The Willkie campaign also drew Ford into local Republican affairs, where he sided with a reform group known as the Home Front, which was seeking to break the power of an entrenched Republican boss.
Ford's budding political interests were interrupted by World War II. He joined the Navy and spent 47 months on active duty, two years of this time on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Monterey, where he was once nearly swept over the side during a typhoon. He left the Navy in 1946 with the rank of lieutenant commander.
He resumed his legal career in Grand Rapids and became active in a variety of community projects, culminating in 1949 when the national Junior Chamber of Commerce selected him as one of the nation's "10 most outstanding young men."
The year of 1948, when President Harry S. Truman was confounding pollsters by winning an upset victory over Thomas Dewey, was a time of decision for Gerald Ford. He ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in what seemed to be a hopeless battle against the entrenched Republican conservative, Bartel J. Jonkman, of western Michigan's 5th congressional district.
Jonkman was of Dutch descent, and the Dutch were the largest single ethnic group in the district. He was considered an isolationist who opposed American involvement overseas in general and aid to Europe as proposed by President Truman under the European Recovery Plan in particular.
In retrospect, Ford seems to have been in tune with the changing times. American involvement in World War II had dissipated isolationist sentiment in the nation's heartland. The internationalist Willkie had done well in Michigan as early as 1940, and Sen. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had dramatically shifted from an isolationist to an internationalist position during the war.
Vandenberg was a political opponent of Jonkman, the senior Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and he encouraged Ford's seemingly hopeless candidacy. Jonkman also was considered by some local Republicans to be spending too little time in his home district. Ford waged a vigorous handshaking campaign, aided by members of the reform group he sided with before the war. He had the support of the largest daily newspaper in the district, the pro-Vandenberg and anti-isolationist Grand Rapids Press.
In the September primary, Ford defeated Jonkman, 23,632 votes to 14,341. He won the general election with more than 60 percent of the votes, a feat he repeated in each of the following 12 elections.
Ford had proposed marriage in February 1948, to Elizabeth Bloomer Warren, a dancer and former model, and she had accepted. But the couple kept their plans secret out of concern that her background as a dancer and a divorced woman would have an adverse effect in the Republican primary among Dutch Calvinist voters in the district.
They were married Oct. 15, 1948, in Grace Episcopal Church, which Ford attended. They had four children, Michael Gerald Ford, John Gardner Ford, Steven Meigs Ford and Susan Ford Vance.
In Washington, Ford occupied an office in what is now the Cannon House Office Building. Next door was a Democrat from Massachusetts named John F. Kennedy. Ford also formed a friendship with Richard Nixon, then a second-term House member from California.
Ford quickly established himself as a district-service congressman who answered every letter and made himself available to visitors from his state. He staffed a trailer with aides who traveled from town to town in his district. He won political points by taking stands that struck responsive chords among his constituents, such as a 1953 appeal that the United States admit 50,000 Dutch immigrants after disastrous floods in the Netherlands.
Constituent service also was the watchword of Vandenberg, whom Ford admired almost reverentially and who in turn considered the new congressman something of a protege. When Vandenberg died in 1952, Ford briefly considered running for his seat but decided to stay in the House.
Ford became as popular among his House colleagues as he had been in Grand Rapids. He found time to golf, swim and ski, and he was accepted into the Chowder and Marching Society, a group of House members that has always welcomed former athletes.
The new congressman was named to the assignment of his choice, the politically helpful House Public Works Committee, in his first term. In his second term, in 1951, he was appointed to the influential House Appropriations Committee.
On foreign policy, Ford remained true to the issues he had espoused in his first campaign. He supported President Truman's "Point Four" program for aiding underdeveloped countries, and he consistently favored foreign military aid. His internationalism displayed itself again in candidate preferences, and he supported the nomination of Dwight D. Eisenhower at a time when Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio was favored by most Midwestern Republicans in Congress.
On domestic issues, Ford was an orthodox Republican. He voted against public housing, against the minimum wage and against repeal of the "right-to-work law" provision of the Taft-Hartley Act.
On civil rights issues, he was considered a Republican moderate during most of his career. He voted against the poll tax, a device to keep the poor -- especially blacks -- from voting, and he voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. But he also opposed school busing to achieve racial integration, a position that disappointed members of the Congressional Black Caucus, all of them Democrats estranged from the policies of the Nixon administration. Only one member of the caucus, Rep. Andrew J. Young of Georgia, voted to confirm Ford as vice president.
Republican colleagues in the House considered him progressive on making the House a more responsive institution.
His first vote in Congress was in favor of changing House rules to make it easier to bring a bill up on the floor without clearance from the House Rules Committee.
During the two Eisenhower administrations, Ford gradually advanced toward House leadership. He held a senior position on the Appropriations Committee and played a growing role in GOP strategy councils. In a 1960 poll of Washington correspondents, Newsweek rated him second among the ablest members of Congress.
Ford's breakthrough into a major position of leadership occurred in 1963 when he was the candidate of a group of younger Republicans, slightly to their party's left of center, to challenge 67-year-old Charles B. Hoeven of Iowa for chairmanship of the House Republican Conference.
One of the public highlights of the Ford minority leadership was a weekly news conference with Sen. Everett M. Dirksen (R-Ill.), which quickly became know as the "Ev and Jerry Show." Ford lacked Dirksen's oratorical talents, and he sometimes found himself on the losing end of exchanges with the Illinois senator.
It was during this period of his career that Ford was on the receiving end of two well-publicized gibes from President Johnson. The president once suggested that Ford couldn't "chew gum and walk at the same time" and also commented that "there's nothing wrong with Gerald Ford except he played football too long without a helmet."
Ford incorporated the latter remark into some of his own speeches, correctly giving the original authorship to former Detroit Mayor Gerald Cavanaugh.
However, House colleagues on both sides of the aisle disputed the idea that Ford was less than bright. They pointed to his shrewd, effective leadership in the House and his mastery of such complexities as the defense budget.
Ford's accomplishments as a House leader were based not upon his public pronouncements but upon a talent for friendly persuasion attested to by many members on both sides of the aisle.
"It's the damnedest thing," said Rep. Joe Waggonner (D-La.). "Jerry just puts his arm around a colleague or looks him in the eye, says, 'I need your vote,' and gets it."
Most of Ford's public declarations in the mid-1960s were orthodox, oppositionist rhetoric, peppered with football expressions of "end runs" and "team play." He said the Johnson administration was taking the country into "frustration and failure, bafflement and boredom." Once he said, "If Lincoln were alive today, he'd be spinning in his grave."
Occasionally, however, Ford was capable of defining his own political moderation in words that set him apart from the Nixon administration, which he was soon to defend.
In a speech at Southern Methodist University on Nov. 8, 1968, he said: "The higher ground of moderation with unselfish unity is not only common horse sense for a political party, it is also representative of the people and in keeping with the underlying genius of the American political system."
In 1970, Ford was accused of abandoning the high ground of American politics when he launched an effort to impeach William O. Douglas, the liberal associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. In the course of the incident, he offered a definition -- much quoted during the Clinton years -- of what constitutes an impeachable offense.
Ostensibly, it was Ford's idea to impeach Douglas because of the appearance of excerpts of a book by the jurist in the Evergreen Review alongside material that Ford said was pornographic. However, after he became president, Ford admitted he had been helped by John N. Mitchell, the attorney general in the first Nixon administration, who was angry about Senate rejection of two of Nixon's Supreme Court nominees.
The charges presented by Ford were primarily political and made numerous references to Douglas's alleged "liberal" or "leftist" beliefs. Responding to congressional critics who said that these charges had nothing whatever to do with judicial misconduct, Ford said on April 15, 1970:
"What, then, is an impeachable offense? The only honest answer is that an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history."
The impeachment resolution was shunted to a House Judiciary subcommittee, which found no grounds for taking action.
Ford's consistent advocacy of military preparedness and his internationalism made him an early supporter of the Vietnam War. When President Johnson sent a half-million troops to Vietnam in 1965, Ford emerged as a partisan critic who said the United States should take sterner measures, such as the bombing of North Vietnam and a naval blockade, in an effort to end the conflict.
"It is President Johnson's war, because the president plays everything close to the vest," Ford said on June 18, 1966. "He has an unhealthy passion for secrecy."
The use of the phrase "Johnson's war" brought Ford a rebuke from some Republicans, among them his fellow minority leader, Sen. Dirksen.
Ford served as permanent chairman of the 1968 Republican Convention, which nominated Nixon for president. When Nixon became president, Ford loyally supported his Vietnam policy, including the incursions into Laos and Cambodia and the bombing of North Vietnam. He later gave Nixon full credit for withdrawing U.S. troops from the war.
The new Nixon administration changed Ford's role from leader of the usually loyal opposition to outspoken advocate of the Republican president.
Ford's loyalty was rewarded after Agnew's resignation when Nixon nominated him for the vice presidency. Ford was the second choice after former secretary of the treasury John B. Connally, but Nixon was persuaded by various Republicans that Congress would not confirm Connally, a former Democrat.
Ford's nomination was the first made under the 25th Amendment, and it touched off a detailed inquiry into Ford's background and financial affairs by the two congressional judiciary committees.
He was confirmed by a 92-to-3 vote in the Senate and by a 387-to-35 vote in the House. Ford spent the better part of the next 10 months trying to defend President Nixon on the Watergate issue, while at the same time condemning the practices of political espionage, lying and obstruction of justice uncovered in the Watergate scandal.
While he never criticized Nixon personally, he tried on several occasions to distance himself from the Nixon White House, most noticeably on March 31, 1974, when he told a Midwestern Republican conference in Chicago that the party must "learn the lessons of Watergate."
But it was not until the weekend before Nixon's resignation that Ford stopped proclaiming belief in Nixon's personal innocence. And it was not until the day before Nixon bade farewell to his high office in a nationally televised speech that Ford actually assembled a transition team.
In the aftermath of the pardon, Ford's political vulnerability was evident in his efforts to deal with Vietnam and its legacy.
He surprised many Americans by unveiling, in a speech to a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, a conditional-amnesty plan for Vietnam-era draft evaders and deserters. The proposal drew a swarm of critics. Veterans groups opposed any amnesty program at all, while organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union called for unconditional amnesty. Of the estimated 100,000 draft evaders, only about 20,000 took advantage of the program. Although U.S. combat troops had been withdrawn by the time Ford took office, the president proposed an increase in aid for the South Vietnamese government to help it resist what was expected to be a major effort by the North Vietnamese communists to drive it out of the country.
There was little support for this in the new Congress. Early in 1975, it rejected Ford's proposals, turning a deaf ear to arguments that Washington had to stand by its beleaguered ally to maintain its credibility in world affairs.
The communist offensive began in April 1975, and Ford ordered the small remaining contingent of U.S. embassy and security personnel to leave. The final evacuation produced painful pictures of Americans in retreat -- officials scrambling to get aboard helicopters while Marines held back crowds of Vietnamese who had loyally supported the United States.
On April 23, 1975, in a speech at Tulane University, Ford announced that the war in Vietnam was "finished as far as America is concerned."
A week later, Saigon fell to the communists and the long war was over.
Ford later came to the view that U.S. policy in Vietnam was mistaken. He blamed this on an unthinking inheritance of French colonial policy. "The French had the wrong policy, and we inherited it, and our State Department was not smart enough to realize that we should have been more objective about our policy in Vietnam," Ford said in the 2004 interview with The Post. Asked if the United States should have withdrawn sooner than it did, he said: "Absolutely, in retrospect. Now, I wasn't strong enough to make that decision while I was in the White House but in reflection, there is no question."
Ford continued the Nixon policy of using Kissinger as a mediator between Israel and the Arab states in the Middle East. An agreement signed in September 1975, halted fighting between Israel and Egypt.
In the previous month, Ford had traveled to Helsinki to sign an accord that recognized the existing frontiers between states, including the border between East and West Germany. This implicitly recognized Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. In return, Moscow agreed to respect basic human rights and to ease restrictions on the free exchange of information and on emigration and travel within the Soviet Union.
Ford was criticized for signing the Helsinki Accords at a time when the press was reporting numerous human rights violations in the Soviet Union. But the president said in his autobiography, "A Time to Heal" (1979), he regarded the agreement as "a real victory for our foreign policy" because the Soviets had conceded that national borders could be changed by peaceful means.
But it was the domestic economy that proved the touchstone of Ford's presidency. The problems included inflation, rising unemployment -- it passed 9 percent, the highest level since the Great Depression -- and skyrocketing energy costs.
Soon after taking office, Ford said inflation was "public enemy No. 1." To fight it, he vetoed more than 50 spending bills. He also announced a 32-point program for fighting it, which he called "WIN," an acronym for "Whip Inflation Now."
Congress declined to enact most of Ford's anti-inflation proposals, however, and the WIN program was overtaken by the events of deepening recession. In January 1975, the president all but declared a ceasefire in his war on inflation and turned his attention to growing unemployment and sinking productivity.
In one of the most candid State of the Union messages ever presented to Congress, Ford in 1975 said:
"I must say to you that the state of the union is not good. Millions of Americans are out of work. Recession and inflation are eroding the money of millions more. Prices are too high and sales are too slow."
Ford followed this message with a budget proposal that predicted long-term unemployment and massive deficits. His essential answer to what he conceived as the twin problems of the economy and the energy crisis was a quick tax rebate to stimulate the economy and oil tariff increases to lessen American dependence on foreign oil.
Despite the seriousness and the variety of the problems that confronted him, Ford maintained his even-tempered composure and his optimism. He met frequently with a wide range of legislators, businessmen, labor officials, heads of state, reporters and other visitors.
He knew that his chances of winning a full term in 1976 were not good, but he approached it in the spirit of Harry S. Truman, whose bust he placed next to his desk in the Oval Office.
Truman, Ford used to say, "had guts, he was plain-talking, he had no illusions about being a great intellectual, but he seemed to make the right decisions."
Many would say the same of Gerald Rudolph Ford.
J.Y. Smith, a former obituary editor of The Washington Post, died in January.