By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — In his brief, unelected tenure in the nation’s highest office, President Gerald R. Ford restored integrity and character to the White House and brought a measure of healing to a country badly wounded and divided by the Watergate scandal.
Ford, who had a bout with pneumonia last January and two heart treatments in August, died Dec. 26 at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. He was 93.
In a Dec. 27 statement, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called Ford “a great and good man who served his country with distinction.”
“As a healing presence for the nation at a time when it was much needed, President Ford earned his country’s lasting gratitude,” said Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, Wash. “We pray for the repose of the soul of our 38th president and express our heartfelt condolences to his wife and family.”
During his 30-month presidency, South Vietnam fell to the communist forces of the North, high Nixon administration officials were found guilty of Watergate crimes, a blue-ribbon commission found the CIA was engaged in illegal activities, the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, the United States took in more than 140,000 South Vietnamese refugees and the country celebrated its bicentennial.
He contributed to better relations between Israel and Egypt, increased U.S. food aid abroad and reached a new nuclear arms limitation agreement with the Soviet Union. With the nation facing energy shortages in the wake of the 1973 gas crisis, he negotiated a fine line between high inflation and recession.
He liked to describe himself as “a moderate in domestic affairs, a conservative in fiscal affairs and a dyed-in-the-wool internationalist in foreign affairs.”
In his 1979 autobiography, “A Time to Heal,” he said he regarded healing the country after Watergate as his greatest accomplishment.
The single most important act in that effort, taken a month after he was sworn in, was to pardon his disgraced predecessor, Richard M. Nixon, of any crimes he may have committed in the Watergate cover-up. It was an action that provoked far wider and deeper anger than he had expected, but it prevented a lengthy trial that almost surely would have mired the nation in deeper divisions and bitterness.
He said he pardoned Nixon for the nation’s sake, not Nixon’s.
The first president to take office after the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decisions requiring states to allow abortion virtually on demand, Ford favored a constitutional amendment that would restore to the states the right to regulate abortions. The U.S. Catholic bishops opposed his approach, arguing that an amendment prohibiting abortion on the federal level was needed so that all states would have to ban the practice.
Ford, who was Episcopalian, won some favor from Catholic officials because of his support of federal aid to parochial schools, his increase of U.S. food aid in the face of widespread famine in 1975, his welcoming of Vietnamese refugees, his support for immigration reform that made family reunification easier and his efforts at detente with the Soviet Union.
But the bishops opposed his domestic policies of reducing the food stamp program and other areas of social welfare. He was criticized by religious leaders for vetoing a public works program that would have created 600,000 new jobs and for supporting covert CIA operations that involved using missionaries as information sources — a policy seen as undermining missionary activity.
Against arguments from church leaders that in vetoing several social welfare bills he was not sensitive to the needs of the poor and unemployed, he said in a 1976 interview, “If I approved every bill that Congress enacted, we would impose the cruelest tax of all on all our people, which is inflation.”
In fact, he lowered the rate of inflation from about 9 percent at the start of his term to less than 6 percent by the end; under his successor, President Jimmy Carter, inflation zoomed into double digits, peaking at 13.5 percent in 1980 and contributing significantly to a long-term rise in conservative influence in U.S. politics.
In a speech at the 41st International Eucharistic Congress, held in Philadelphia in 1976, Ford expressed concern about the “growing irreverence for life” in the United States.
A month later, in a letter to a delegation of U.S. bishops that was released following an hourlong meeting with them in the White House, he spelled out his convictions on a number of issues of concern to the bishops, including abortion.
“Abortion on demand is wrong,” he said, adding that every state should have a constitutional right to control abortion and expressing his belief that such laws need to “recognize and provide for exceptional cases.”
After the Vietnam War ended, he established a Clemency Board that included two nationally known priests — the Notre Dame University president, Holy Cross Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, and the U.S. bishops’ secretary for social development and world peace, Msgr. Francis Lally — to deal on a case-by-case basis with Vietnam War opponents who had resisted the draft or deserted the military for reasons of conscience.
He met with Catholic leaders on several occasions to discuss issues the country faced, including abortion, domestic health and welfare policies, Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees, immigration law reform and issues of humanitarian aid and human rights in U.S. foreign policy.
In 1975 during a trip to Europe he met with Pope Paul VI.
In August 1975, as thousands of refugees from Indochina were pouring into the country, he visited the resettlement offices of the U.S. Catholic Conference (now U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops) at Fort Chaffee, Ark., to pay tribute to the contributions of the USCC, which was then resettling well over half the refugees.
He nearly doubled funding for the U.S. Food for Peace Program and in a 1975 speech at Notre Dame warned against letting inflation and economic problems at home lead to withdrawal from U.S. responsibilities toward poorer nations. “There is no safety for any nation in a hungry, ill-educated and desperate world,” he said.
Gerald Rudolph Ford was born July 14, 1913, in Omaha, Neb., and was named Leslie King Jr. When he was 2 his mother divorced her abusive husband and moved to Grand Rapids, Mich. There she met and married Gerald R. Ford, who adopted Leslie and gave him his own name. The future president did not learn until he was 17 that his stepfather was not his biological father.
Ford graduated from the University of Michigan in 1935 and Yale Law School in 1941. He served in the Navy,1942-46, and joined a law firm in Grand Rapids following his military service. In 1948 he was elected to the House of Representatives, where he served for the next 25 years, the last eight as Republican minority leader.
In October 1973, when Nixon’s vice president, Spiro T. Agnew, resigned after pleading no contest to tax fraud charges, Ford became the first U.S. vice president chosen under the 25th Amendment’s provisions for filling a vacancy in that post by presidential nomination and congressional confirmation. Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle had urged Nixon to nominate Ford because of his personal integrity and reputation for bipartisanship.
When Nixon resigned the following year, Ford became the first man to achieve the presidency without election to national office.
Carter narrowly beat Ford in the 1976 presidential race. In his inaugural address Carter paid tribute to his predecessor, thanking him “for all he has done to heal our land.”
Upon his return to private life, Ford and his wife, Betty, moved to Rancho Mirage. He is survived by her and their four children, Michael, Jack, Steven and Susan, and their families.