Watch CBSN Live

Gerald Ford Dead At 93

Former President Gerald R. Ford, the 38th president of the United States who replaced Richard Nixon and inherited a White House shattered by the Watergate scandal, died Tuesday night. He was 93.

"My family joins me in sharing the difficult news that Gerald Ford, our beloved husband, father, grandfather and great grandfather has passed away at 93 years of age," Ford's wife, Betty, said in a statement. "His life was filled with love of God, his family and his country."

Ford's office said the former president died at 6:45 p.m. PST Tuesday at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. No cause of death was released. Official funeral arrangements were to be announced Wednesday.

Ford is expected to lie in state at the Capitol Rotunda this weekend and the funeral service will take place at the National Cathedral, reports CBS News Early Show national correspondent Hattie Kauffman.

Ford had battled pneumonia in January 2006 and underwent two heart treatments — including an angioplasty — in August at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

He was the longest living president, followed by Ronald Reagan, who also died at 93. Ford had been living at his desert home, about 130 miles east of Los Angeles.

"I was deeply saddened this evening when I heard of Jerry Ford's death," former first lady Nancy Reagan said in a statement. "Ronnie and I always considered him a dear friend and close political ally."

Said President Bush: "The American people will always admire Gerald Ford's devotion to duty, his personal character and the honorable conduct of his administration."

Spanning 10 decades, Gerald Rudolph Ford Jr.'s life was one of remarkable achievement. Yet his widely respected career would ultimately be tainted by political scandal, assassination attempts and national turmoil.

Ford's successes came early. As a young Boy Scout, he attained the highest rank of Eagle Scout. In college, he starred in football, playing on two national championship teams at the University of Michigan. After graduating Yale Law School, Ford emerged as an esteemed politician who rose through the ranks of the Republican Party on Capitol Hill.

Yet the 38th President of the United States holds the dubious distinction as being the nation's first and only commander in chief to reach office without being elected. The very reason Ford reached the White House — Richard Nixon's resignation — would also play a huge role in ending Ford's presidency.

Despite his impressive credentials, Ford's ascension to national prominence was fueled by the missteps of others. When Spiro Agnew resigned as Vice President in 1973 after pleading no contest to tax evasion, President Nixon needed an uncontroversial and respected replacement who could withstand close scrutiny of both his political and private life. He tapped Ford, who was then the House Minority Leader.

Just nine months later, after the Watergate scandal and ensuing cover-up, Nixon himself resigned, becoming the first president in U.S. history to do so. Vice President Ford took over. Taking the oath of office on Aug. 9, 1974, Ford declared: "Our long national nightmare is over."

But in some ways, the nightmare was just beginning for the new president. A month after attaining the White House, Ford gave Nixon a full pardon for any crimes he committed as president. He defended the decision as being in the best interest of the country but critics derided the pardon as a "corrupt bargain" between Ford and the disgraced ex-president.

Since a large part of the electorate associated Ford with the Nixon conspiracy, the pardon proved to be a decision that would cement his downfall.

Ford also faced turbulence in his foreign policy. In 1975, he ordered Marines to rescue the crew up the SS Mayaguez, an American merchant ship that had been seized by Cambodians in international waters. The rescue effort was a debacle: Marines landed on the wrong island and 41 service men were killed, including three believed to have been left behind alive and executed.

The domestic picture was not much better. Rising inflation, energy shortages and a recession plagued the economy. Ford tackled the problems with tax and spending cuts, deregulating industries and reducing the reach of the federal government. One of Ford's favorite speech lines was: "A government big enough to give us everything we want is a government big enough to take from us everything we have."

But, Ford and a Democratic Congress clashed repeatedly over numerous issues from presidential war powers to military aid. Meanwhile, chaos reigned in Vietnam and in 1975, America withdrew completely from Saigon, leaving the old noncommunist capital to fall to the North Vietnamese.

Amid that year's turmoil, Ford was the target of two assassination attempts — both by women in California. In Sacramento, Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, a follower of notorious cult leader Charles Manson, pointed a handgun at Ford's stomach but no shots were fired. Less than three weeks later, a woman named Sara Jane Moore fired shots at Ford in San Francisco. Her attempt, however, was thwarted by a bystander who struck her arm and deflected the shot.

Ford would survive but his presidency would not. During the 1976 campaign, he withstood a strong challenge by Ronald Reagan to gain the Republican nomination and managed to whittle Democrat Jimmy Carter's large lead in the polls. He could not, however, overcome his controversial pardon of Nixon and the weak economy.

The public's perception of Ford seemed to be crumbling as well. When the president refused to back an aid package for New York's impending bankruptcy in 1975, the New York Daily News responded with the headline: "Ford to City: Drop Dead."

Ford was born Leslie Lynch King Jr., on July 14, 1913, in Omaha, Neb. His parents separated just two weeks later and his mother, Dorothy, took him to Grand Rapids, Mich. to live with her parents. In 1916, she married Gerald R. Ford, a paint salesman, and began calling her son Gerald R. Ford Jr.

As a child, he became an Eagle Scout — something Ford regarded as one of his crowning achievements. After claiming the White House, he said, "I am the first Eagle Scout President!"

Ford went on to attend the University of Michigan, where he played center on the national champion Wolverine football teams of 1932 and 1933. He was voted the team's most valuable player in 1934.

The Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers both offered him professional contracts but Ford declined, opting instead to take a job as a coach at Yale, where he ultimately attended law school. In the summer of 1940, he got his first taste of politics, working for Wendell Willkie's presidential campaign, and the following year, he earned his law degree.

After practicing law in Grand Rapids and joining a reform-oriented group of Republicans called the Home Front, Ford joined the Navy. Serving on the USS Monterey, Ford narrowly escaped death when a typhoon nearly swept him off the aircraft carrier in 1944.

In 1946, Ford was discharged and returned to Grand Rapids. On Oct. 15, 1948, he married Elizabeth Bloomer, who is known better known as Betty Ford. They eventually had four children: Michael, John, Steven and Susan.

Because of his war experience, he shed his isolationist outlook and adopted an internationalist approach to his politics. Prodded by his politically active stepfather, Ford challenged the incumbent isolationist for the Republican nomination for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1948. He won by a landslide.

"I had just taken the oath of office along with all the other freshmen," Ford recalled, "and this man walked up to me and he said, 'I'm Dick Nixon from California. I welcome you here in the House Chamber.' That was January of '49."

For the next 25 years, Ford served in the House of Representatives, where he would forge a close relationship with Nixon. In 1965, he became Minority Leader, a position that earned him national recognition. Ford led Republican opposition to many of President Johnson's programs, opposing his social welfare legislation and his policy of gradual escalation in Vietnam.

A decade later, however, Ford himself would be the target of widespread opposition as his presidency unraveled. Still, the almost insurmountable situation that Ford inherited was not lost on his successor. During his 1977 inaugural address, Jimmy Carter praised Ford, saying: "For myself and for our nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land."

According to historian Douglas Brinkley, Ford and Nixon remained close friends during and after Ford's presidency. Nixon wrote Ford frequently with advice, including ways to defeat Reagan and Carter in 1976, Brinkley told The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith.

"He was the last of the Nixon believers," Brinkley said.

View CBS News In