Americans are bidding farewell to former President Gerald Ford over the next few days in funeral services in Washington and in his native Michigan. The 38th president died Tuesday at the age of 93. Mr. Ford only served 29 months in the White House, after the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974. But, as VOA national affairs correspondent Jim Malone reports, historians salute Mr. Ford's efforts to heal the political divisions in the country in the wake of the Watergate scandal that drove Mr. Nixon from power.
Gerald Ford was not considered a great orator, but his first words as president in August, 1974, set a tone of healing and reassurance for a nation anxious to move beyond Watergate and the political demise of Richard Nixon.
"My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over," said President Ford. "Our Constitution works. Our great republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here, the people rule."
In the wake of his death, politicians from both political parties are recalling Gerald Ford's basic decency and the important change in tone he brought to the White House when he succeeded Richard Nixon.
President Bush was among those recalling Mr. Ford's contribution to national reconciliation in the wake of Mr. Nixon's resignation. "For a nation that needed healing, and for an office that needed a calm and steady hand, Gerald Ford came along when we needed him most," he said.
Mr. Ford was known as the accidental president. After a 25-year career in Congress, he was chosen to replace Spiro Agnew as vice president in 1973, after Agnew resigned in disgrace over corruption charges.
Republicans and Democrats alike wanted Mr. Nixon to choose Gerald Ford as vice president, because they knew President Nixon might not be able to remain in office because of his role in covering up White House involvement in the 1972 break-in at Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington.
Looking back, historians and political scholars say the manner in which Gerald Ford assumed the presidency was one of his greatest achievements. "Ford looks better and better in history. He really was a president who brought us together at a very difficult time," noted Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
"He succeeded Richard Nixon. The presidency was at a low point. The country was at a low point," continued Sabato. "And, just through his sheer decency, and the fact that he was so well liked by [both parties], he actually did bring the country together, even though people disagreed about his pardon of President Nixon, and disagreeing about the end of the Vietnam War and all kinds of other things."
Years later, Mr. Ford reflected on the challenges he faced in the wake of President Nixon's resignation. "I inherited a wounded nation, where many of our fellow Americans were disillusioned with government, unhappy with people in public office and torn apart by the Vietnam War," he said.
Historian John Robert Greene has written three books about Gerald Ford. He told VOA's Talk to America program that Mr. Ford's modest, unassuming style was a refreshing change from what some historians have described as the imperial presidency of Richard Nixon.
"Gerald Ford was the least affecting, the least image-controlled president," said Greene, "the most genuine president, I think, of the 20th century. What you saw was what you got."
Mr. Ford's most controversial decision may have cost him the 1976 presidential election.
One month after taking office in 1974, he pardoned Richard Nixon of any crimes associated with the Watergate scandal, preventing any criminal prosecution of the former president as a private citizen.
"The nation could not have stood the battering that a court trial would have produced for months, if not years," said Stephen Hess, a political scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "Had he not pardoned Nixon, given how close the election ultimately turned out to be, he was likely to have defeated Jimmy Carter."
Public reaction to the Nixon pardon was overwhelmingly negative. In fact, President Ford took the unusual step of defending the pardon before a congressional committee in 1975. "He is the only president in the history of this country who has resigned in shame and disgrace," said President Ford of his predecessor. "I think that, in and of itself, can be understood, can be explained, to, uh, students or to others."
Mr. Ford narrowly lost the 1976 election to Democrat Jimmy Carter.
Stephen Hess says Gerald Ford will be remembered for putting principle above politics. "His legacy was important in allowing the nation to get over a very rough period of time, and move forward with some dispatch and some real civility," said Hess. "He was a decent man, an honorable man when the nation really did need a person like that."
Mr. Ford often said the Nixon pardon was a necessary step in unifying the country, but Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward says Mr. Ford told him in a 2005 interview that his close friendship with Richard Nixon also played a role in his decision to protect the disgraced former president from criminal prosecution and a lengthy trial.