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President Gerald Ford dead at 93

RANCHO MIRAGE, California (CNN) -- Democrats and Republicans on Wednesday remembered the late former President Gerald R. Ford as a man who led the nation out of the dark days of the Watergate scandal.

Ford, 93, "died peacefully" Tuesday evening at his home in Rancho Mirage, California, his widow, Betty Ford said in a statement. An official cause of death was not announced.

"His life was filled with love of God, his family and his country," she said.

Although funeral arrangements have not been announced, U.S. Capitol Police officers said they were told to prepare for Ford's casket to come to Washington's Capitol Rotunda on Saturday, according to The Associated Press, and a service at the city's National Cathedral was expected Tuesday.

In a brief address to the nation, President Bush called Ford a "great man" who was a "true gentleman."

Ford replaced President Richard Nixon who resigned in 1974 during a scandal surrounding the burglary of Democratic party offices at the Watergate Hotel.

"He assumed power in a period of great division and turmoil," Bush said. "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."

In Ford's honor, Bush ordered U.S. flags at all government buildings to fly at half-staff for 30 days.

Bush's remarks followed those of the man who defeated Ford in the 1976 presidential race, Jimmy Carter, who said Ford "frequently rose above politics by emphasizing the need for bipartisanship and seeking common ground on issues critical to our nation."

"I will always cherish the personal friendship we shared," said the former Georgia governor.

Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said Ford "assumed office during one of the greatest times of challenge for our nation and provided Americans with the steady leadership and optimism that was his signature."

Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, the incoming Senate majority leader, said Ford "was a devoted public servant who led our nation out of one of its darkest hours with grace and bipartisanship."

The nation's major stock markets observed moments of silence Wednesday to honor the former president.

Gerald Ford was the unlikeliest of presidents, a man brought to power by unprecedented circumstances without seeking the office, at a time when Americans -- reeling from the Watergate scandal -- were disillusioned and weary.

During his famous address to the nation after he assumed office in 1974, he tried to set a tone of reconciliation and renewal, telling his countrymen that "our long national nightmare is over."

He announced his decision to pardon Nixon, saying he hoped his act would "shut and seal this book" on Watergate.

His enormously controversial decision to pardon Nixon is widely blamed for costing him his own presidential election victory in the 1976 race, which was one of the closest presidential elections in U.S. history.

At 93, Ford was the nation's oldest surviving former president and the only president and vice president never to be elected to office. 

His death leaves three surviving former presidents: Bill Clinton, 60, George H. W. Bush, 82, and Carter, 82.

The nation's 38th president spent several days in the fall of 2006 at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage for medical tests. In August, he entered the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, for an angioplasty procedure to reduce or eliminate blockages in his coronary arteries. Doctors also implanted a pacemaker to improve his heart performance.

Ford is survived by his widow, Betty, 88; three sons, Michael, Jack and Steven; and a daughter, Susan.

Funeral plans are expected to involve a small private ceremony in Palm Desert, California, and an opportunity for the public to pay respects there before the body is flown to Washington for a period of public mourning in the capital, according to AP.

Born in Nebraska with a different name

Ford was born Leslie Lynch King on July 14, 1913, in Omaha, Nebraska. When he was just 2 years old, his parents divorced, and his mother moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he grew up. His mother remarried, and he was adopted and renamed after his stepfather, Gerald Rudolph Ford.

Ford was a high school senior when he met his biological father, AP reported. He was working in a Greek restaurant, he recalled, when a man came in and stood watching.

"Finally, he walked over and said, 'I'm your father,' " Ford said, according to AP. "Well, that was quite a shock." But he wrote in his memoir that he broke down and cried that night and was left with the image of "a carefree, well-to-do man who didn't really give a damn about the hopes and dreams of his firstborn son," AP reported.

After playing football at the University of Michigan and serving on an aircraft carrier in the Navy during World War II, Ford was elected to the U.S. House in 1948 as a Republican, representing a district that included his hometown of Grand Rapids. He spent 25 years in Congress, working his way up to minority leader in 1965.

In October 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned after pleading no contest to tax evasion. President Nixon, ensnared in the rising Watergate scandal, asked the well-respected Ford to leave Congress to replace Agnew, and he accepted.

Pardoned President Nixon

In September 1974, Ford granted Nixon a pardon, sparing the former president the prospect of going to prison. The public and political backlash was angry and bitter, with Ford accused of making a tawdry deal with Nixon to secure the White House for himself.

Ford always denied that any deal had been struck. But the pardon colored the rest of his presidency.

"It was a tough decision," Ford told USA Today in an interview in 2000. "We needed to get the matter off my desk. ... so I could concentrate on the problems of 260 million Americans and not have to worry about the problems of one man."

Even though he hadn't sought the presidency, Ford decided he wanted to stay in the White House and sought a full term in 1976. It was an uphill battle from the start.

Ford carried 27 states and coming to within a whisker of beating Carter in the Electoral College. A shift of just 23,000 votes in two states, Ohio and Wisconsin, would have given Ford the win.

After leaving the White House, Ford kept a generally low profile, limiting his appearances largely to golf tournaments and splitting his time between homes in Rancho Mirage and Beaver Creek, Colorado. He built a presidential library and museum in Michigan.

According to AP, Ford was the last surviving member of the Warren Commission, which investigated the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 and concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin.

  Christina Ghimenti
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