Skip to main content
Search
Services


 

Return to Transcripts main page

CNN BREAKING NEWS

Gerald Ford Dies At Age 93

Aired December 27, 2006 - 00:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN ANALYST (on phone): And it was something that people really wanted after Watergate, but it probably also was something that didn't make people treat him as the president.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Now that it is the top of the hour, it is 12:00 midnight on the East Coast, just to our viewers who are joining us, if you are just joining us, former President Gerald Ford has died and that word coming from the Associated Press

Former First Lady Betty Ford releasing a statement just moments ago. Gerald Ford was 93 years old, the oldest living U.S. president. He succeeded Richard Nixon, of course. He pardoned Mr. Nixon and Mr. Ford was front and center at one of America's lowest moments. He saw the country through it and in the days ahead in a very carefully mapped out set of ceremonies the country will say thanks.

Joining us on the phone we have Jeff Greenfield, a CNN senior analyst and also Tom DeFrank the bureau chief of the New York "Daily News," a man who covered Gerald Ford for many years and stayed in touch with him. Tom, your thoughts upon hearing the passing of Gerald Ford.

TOM DEFRANK, "THE DAILY NEWS" (on phone): Well, Anderson, I am not surprised. I saw him a little over a month ago and he was faltering. It was a very poignant time. I had been out to see him every year for the last 20 years pretty without fail but it was fairly clear to me that he was failing and so I am not shocked but of course I am sad.

Ninety-three and a half years old and I have been covering him since December of '73. I made my first trip with him 33 years ago this month to Vail, Colorado.

COOPER: We have just gotten word, Tom, that we are expecting President Bush to issue a statement, a paper statement sometime very soon about the passing of President Gerald Ford. We'll of course bring it to our viewers live.

Tom, how do you think - obviously the question everybody asks is how will he be remembered but do you think he was viewed differently in the years after he left office than in those turbulent days when he was in office?

DEFRANK: Well, I think he left office with the American people and with the political -- the body politic really believing he had not been president long enough to make a true judgment about his relative strengths or demerits. I think he left office bitter at having lost to Jimmy Carter and I think the feeling was when he left office that the pardon had basically cost him reelection in 1976. I think in the intervening years people have -- people and politicians have taken a kinder view towards him and the pardon I think has begun to be seen in a larger context of a principled decision as opposed to a political decision and one that I think history has treated him better on.

He told me once not many years ago one of the greatest honors of his life was to get the "Profiles in Courage" Award from the John F. Kennedy School at Boston and a feeling that for the Kennedys, for the Democratic rivals like the Kennedys to acknowledge his pardon meant an awful lot to him and so I think history has become a little mellower in its view of President Ford and I suspect that will continue.

COOPER: CNN has now confirmed that President Ford has passed.

We're also joined by senior legal analyst Jeff Greenfield who is joining us on the phone, as well. Was President Ford treated fairly while he was president? I mean, I remember the jokes about, you know, him being a klutz. Yet, this was a guy who, you know, had offers from professional football teams.

GREENFIELD: No. That was the single most unfair aspect of Ford's press coverage. He was probably the most athletically gifted of any president. The man was a college football star and was a victim of the fact every moment a president is anywhere in public, cameras are turned on him.

A couple of stumbles turned into Chevy Chase's, you know, leitmotif on "Saturday Night Live" and people thought of the president as a klutz.

In fact, a very respected political journalist, Richard Reeves once did a story for "New York" magazine, I believe, in which the cover was "Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States" and it was a clown and Reeves later said -- apologized saying that this was -- this was just a kind of easy, cheap shot that he regretted.

COOPER: And yet what Richard Reeves was arguing in that article, because I was just reading a summary of that article which got a lot of attention at the time, he was arguing that the press corps was sort of treating President Ford with kid gloves and I know a lot of people in the press corps at the time kind of raised their eyebrows about what Richard Reeves arguing. Tom, I mean, you were covering him throughout this time. Was the press fair to him?

DEFRANK: I think the press was fair to him but I certainly don't think they treated him with kid gloves. He didn't feel that way, as well.

But Anderson, Ford was a grown up about the press, unlike some presidents I have covered. And I have covered every president since Nixon. Ford really understood that the press had a job to do and that the press every once in a while would bite the hand that fed them and he didn't take it personally.

But he felt like the whole business of his alleged klutziness was really overblown and I have to say I was in Salzburg, Austria the day that he fell down the steps of Air Force One in a little bit of a rain and had a tendency to hit his head on helicopter doors coming off of Army One and Marine One in those days but the fact is he was a very good athlete. He was a graceful skier. He skied well into his 70s until his knees gave out and had to have both knees replaced with artificial sockets.

He played tennis, he played golf. He was playing golf as recently as a couple of years ago. So the notion that he was clumsy, I think, was a little overdone.

COOPER: Just getting a statement crossing the wires right now. This is a statement from Betty Ford. It is literally just crossing.

She says, "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. His life was filled with love of God, his family and his country."

This was a couple who, I mean, they have had a remarkable relationship since they first got married back in 1948. I mean, this is a couple with its extraordinary history with the -- produced four children. Grandchildren as she states.

And, certainly, that they have been together all this time is just a wonderful part of his story.

DEFRANK: Well, you know, Anderson, he -- he was very proud of the fact that he and Mrs. Ford had been married as long as they had and I can remember once I was interviewing him and it was in the middle of some of the controversy swirling around President Clinton and he said to me, turn off your tape recorder. And I turned off my tape recorder.

And he said, I don't want this to sound like I'm bragging, that's why I asked you to turn off my tape recorder. But he said, I'm very proud of the fact that Betty and I have been married whatever it was at the time, 58 years or something like that. And, you know, I've never fooled around. Well, you know, he didn't need to -- all you had to do is know Gerald Ford to know he was not going to be fooling around but he was very proud of the fact that he had a very strong and very loving marriage. And the two of them were quite a couple. Quite a pair.

And I think Betty Ford's trials with drug addiction and alcohol problems I think really was -- she was a model, a role model for the country and a lot of people don't know this but he gave up drinking after she gave up drinking, after she had to give up drinking. He gave up drinking as a way to show moral support for her.

COOPER: Go ahead, Jeff.

GREENFIELD: Betty Ford was quite a visible figure in her own right. She gave some interviews where she was pretty outspoken. She once was kin sod asked by Barbara Walters, I think it was, she once said, they have asked me every but how often I sleep with my husband. And Barbara Walters said, well, what would you say? And she said, as often as I can.

She was not a shrinking violet. The contrast between Pat Nixon and Betty Ford could not have been more dramatic. I think we should also remember how many people who started or who became very well- known in the Ford administration, people like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. You know, 30 years after Ford left office, still became major players in American politics. It's astonishing that ...

COOPER: President Bush -- President Bush 41 was ambassador to China.

GREENFIELD: Exactly.

COOPER: And CIA director.

GREENFIELD: Right. So that these people, you know, became some of the major players in the first years of the 21st century.

But I guess the other -- for me the over thing that I keep coming back to is where would Jerry Ford be today in the Republican Party? Maybe Tom would like to take a crack at that or you, Anderson.

He certainly would in terms of his politics I think would now be considered almost one of the most liberal members of the Republican Party.

COOPER: Tom, it is an interesting question to ask and it is also interesting to look back at how politics were different then. We heard in the past Gerald Ford talking about - there were arguments between Democrats and Republicans back then but he used to go out for beers with Tip O'Neill after all was said and done.

DEFRANK: Well, Gerald Ford always liked to say, I am a politician who believes you can disagree without being disagreeable. Some of his best friends were Democrats and much like Reagan and Tip O'Neill, the former Democratic speaker of the House but Ford got along were well.

A former member of the Congress from Michigan, the late Martha Griffiths who once said our politics were not the same but I never heard Mr. Ford ever speak an unkind word about anybody. And that's just the way he was.

Even in my private interviews with him, where he was remarkably candid, he very seldom stuck it to anybody. It just wasn't his style. I mean, he was an ordinary guy in the noblest sense of the phrase "ordinary," I think.

COOPER: Just for the viewers who are joining us, and we anticipate people will be coming in throughout President Gerald Ford has died at the age of 93, he was the longest living U.S. president. He surpassed Ronald Reagan in that on November 13th of this year, of 2006.

And upon passing that milestone, he said, he said this, to the Associated Press, he said, "I thank God for the gift of every sun rise and even more for all the years he has blessed me with Betty and the children, with our extended family and the friends of a lifetime.

Tom, what was his life like in these last few years?

DEFRANK: Well, Anderson, over the last three or four years, he had begun to falter. Emotion -- Physically falter, I should say. I had a long interview with him in May. And I was struck at how lucid he was then. I mean, he was physically weak but he was -- there was nothing wrong with his brain.

We talked about current events. He was very up on what was going on in the country. He had just had a visit by President Bush a couple of weeks before and we talked about that. But he has really started to decline over the last three years, I would say.

Every year in June, President Ford would come in to town for a reunion, an alumni dinner and it was usually at the Capitol Hill Club and every once in a while, it would be in the Capitol itself. But usually the Capitol Hill Club and you would always have 150 or so former members of Congress, old Ford pals and former administration officials and even God help us, a handful of the members of the press, who President Ford would always invite back and you have an outpouring of affection for him.

And you and Jeff were talking about the Ford alumni. Don Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney. I would add to that list Alan Greenspan who was President Ford's chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. Brent Scowcroft. All these people, all these Washington icons worked for President Ford between 1974 and 1976.

COOPER: Also Paul O'Neill is another name I am just thinking of.

DEFRANK: Right, Paul O'Neill was Ford's deputy budget director, later became secretary of the treasury under President Bush 43.

But a couple of years ago, President Ford stopped coming to Washington for this dinner because it was too hard for him to travel by air. I know in 2005, we all went out to Palm Springs. And we had the dinner there. And this year he was not able to come to Washington. He did a video message and many people who had not seen him were shocked at how frail he looked. So over the last I would say three years, there's been a real physical decline.

COOPER: That's sad to hear because ...

GREENFIELD: Anderson, if I may make a point about where Jerry Ford was in the times, he came in to the presidency at a time when because of Watergate, the president had a uniquely weak position, vis- a-vis the Congress. It was not just that the Congress was solidly controlled by Democrats, it was that the pushback, the backlash against the people regarded as the excesses of executive power, both in Watergate, the impoundment of federal money, how president Nixon had undertaken the Vietnam War, the incursion into Cambodia meant that the Congress was pushing, pushing back against presidential power. I think that the hearings into what the CIA had been doing, as well.

So for instance in 1975, the Vietnam War ended in large measure because the Congress basically refused to fund it any longer. That's an extraordinary action on the part of the Congress taken when there's still a war going on even if American troops would come back, the Congress refused to put up anymore money for the support of the South Vietnamese government and so one of the things that Jerry Ford was struggling with is not just being appointed to the vice presidency, has been an un-elected vice president and president, faced a solidly Democratic Congress but did so as a time when there was such a feeling of let's take back power that he had for a president, relatively -- a relatively weak hand.

In fact, one of the reasons why Vice President Cheney, I think, has been so adamant about pushing executive power to its limits is because he was around in the Ford administration and saw from his point of view the Congress had taken too much power from the executive.

So, Jerry Ford, while he had a tremendous amount of public approval in the -- at least until the pardon of Nixon, from an institutional point of view became president at a time when the president had fewer levers to use that maybe any president before or since.

COOPER: We are talking, just for our viewers who are just joining us, we are talking with CNN's Jeff Greenfield, also with Tom DeFrank, the bureau chief of the New York "Daily News" who is on the phone from Austin, Texas tonight, man who covered President Ford for many years and had seen him in most -- in recent years.

As well, we are also joined on the phone right now by CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider. He is in Los Angeles tonight and before, Bill, I ask you a question, I'm just getting an e-mail from John King who's saying that the president will speak in the morning and that according to a senior White House official, the Ford family will not make a statement on service plans until tomorrow. Your thoughts, Bill, on this sad passing?

BILL SCHNEIDER, CNN ANALYST: Well, of course, Gerald Ford as president was, as Jeff indicated, president at a difficult time. 1974 was a huge Democratic sweep. Ford as president faced with a very aggressive Congress. A very weak presidency. Congress passed a number of bills. He I think issued a record I think the record still stands, the number of vetoes that he issued when he was president of the United States.

He was initially very popular but that didn't last much more than a month until the pardon. When Americans think of Gerald Ford today, they, of course, think of the pardon and the famous statement, "Our long national nightmare is over."

He intended his presidency to be a time of healing and some Americans continue to look back on it that way although there was a huge amount of anger at the time of that he issued the pardon but he thought of himself as sparing the country an even longer nightmare of the criminal trial of a former president and he took that very serious risk which in the end was a major factor contributing the defeat when he ran in 1976.

Republicans today think of Gerald Ford as a kind of, well, shall I say, a prehistoric presidency. When you talk to Republicans today, they date the beginning of the modern era as 1980. The conservative takeover of the Republican Party with Ronald Reagan

Ford, of course, accomplished something significant in 1976. I covered that campaign. He defeated Ronald Reagan in the Republican Party. Now, he was the incumbent president, the incumbent president has a lot of power. But not too many people ever can say that they defeated Ronald Reagan.

But Jeff was quite right. When Republicans look back on Gerald Ford, they think of him as a moderate, someone who is not in sync, wasn't in sync with the modern Republican Party.

He wasn't a terribly aggressive partisan figure. And I would suspect that Ford was probably as proud of his years as minority leader in the House of Representatives, a long period of time when he had the confidence of his colleagues, he always valued his service in the Congress. He always had -- he was really a man of the Congress much more than a man of the White House.

COOPER: We're also joined now by Ed Henry, White House correspondent on the phone. Ed, what are you hearing?

ED HENRY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the president has just put out a written statement, as you heard from John King, the potential for the president to address the country as Bill Clinton did to officially let the nation know and do that verbally. Bill Clinton did that for Richard Nixon back in the late '90s.

Mr. Bush may do that as well but for now and he has put out a written statement saying, quote, "Laura and I are greatly saddened by the passing of former President Gerald R. Ford. The American people always admired Gerald Ford's devotion to duty, his personal character and the honorable conduct of is administration.

"We mourn the loss of such a leader and our 38th president will always have a special place in our nation's memory.

"On behalf of all Americans, Laura and I offer our deepest sympathies to Betty Ford and all of President Ford family. Our thoughts and prayers will be with them in the hours and days ahead."

That's the full statement from President Bush, a written statement coming from Crawford, Texas. As you know, the president is there on vacation, Christmas holiday, but and also preparing for speech on Iraq in the early part of January but this for now is a written statement, Anderson.

COOPER: Ed, do we know anything -- I saw a note from John King, one White House official saying that the family is not releasing a statement of services. Do we know anything about the protocol for where -- I assume it would be in Washington as with President Reagan. Some sort of funeral in California as well as in Washington. But have we heard anything on that?

HENRY: That would be the expectation. The early word is probably multiple legs of funerals. Of course, an official state funeral would be expected in Washington. But since he maintained homes in California and Colorado, there's the possibility of separate funerals or at least services there and then there's an expectation of burial in Michigan where he is from.

As you have been talking about with Jeff Greenfield and others so nothing is official yet and I suspect nothing would be official for some time and as you know, all former presidents have specific plans put into place with the military officials in Washington. To basically get these plans in place so nobody is caught off guard.

But then it's up to the family, that is done with the Military District of Washington. And those officials actually put together the state funeral but it is obviously in the interest of the family and ultimately up to the family how it plays out, whether they do it in California first and then head to Washington, etc.

COOPER: And do we have a sense of the time line on this? I'm trying to think back from covering President Reagan's funeral, I can't remember how long it was from his death to ...

HENRY: My recollection is Ronald Reagan passed away on a Saturday. There was, you know, day of mourning on Sunday and Monday preparations in Washington. I seem to remember within a few days, it was sort of the middle of the following week where there was a state funeral. I recall covering it.

And again, that will vary in part on the family, what the family wants to do. It will depend -- in Ronald Reagan's case, I recall the first parts being in Washington and then of course heading out to California for the burial.

Now, there could be longer services and again, that's all up to the Ford family. There are very specific written instructions put in place by former presidents and if family, kept by the Military District of Washington and so all of that is kept under wraps, if you will, by the family. And so, we'll learn that over the next few days. With Ronald Reagan, it was relatively quick. It may not be as quick this time.

COOPER: We are also joined on the phone by Jeff Greenfield, CNN's Bill Schneider as well as Tom DeFrank the bureau chief of the New York "Daily News" who covered President Ford for many years.

Tom, the presidential library for President Ford is if I'm not mistaken is in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Correct?

DEFRANK: No. Actually, that's a trivia question, Anderson. I don't mean to be trivializing a very solemn and sad moment here but President Ford's library is at Ann Arbor, Michigan. His alma mater at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

But his museum is in Grand Rapids, Michigan. If I can follow up on something that Ed Henry said there. The plan is for President Ford to be buried in the courtyard of the museum. In Grand Rapids. His adopted home.

There will be a ceremony at Washington National Cathedral at some point in the next few days and he is -- his body is also expected the lie in state as you might expect in the Capitol Rotunda. I agree with what Bill and Jeff have already said, he was a man of the House and I think it's very appropriate that he will lie in state in the Capitol. And normally, these state funerals play out over a period of about six days or so.

COOPER: And spent a quarter century in the house, the house to which he will return. There is a statement now by Mrs. Ronald Reagan on the death of President Gerald R. Ford.

She writes, "I was deeply this evening when I heard of Jerry Ford's death. Ronnie and I always considered him a dear friend and close political ally. His accomplishments and devotion to the country are vast and even long after he left the presidency, he made it a point to speak out on issues important to us all. I know that the early support of stem cell research has been important in getting the U.S. Congress to debate the potential life-saving cures and treatments that may result.

"I know the days ahead will be very difficult for Betty and my love and deepest sympathy to her and the entire Ford family."

Jeff Greenfield, the relationship between Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford, as you were talking about earlier -- go ahead.

GREENFIELD: It's fascinating in two ways. Ronald Reagan challenged Gerald Ford for the nomination as I mentioned earlier. Ford used all the power of the incumbency as any president would. Knocked Reagan back on the heels in New Hampshire and on the early primaries, Reagan was on the verge of dropping out. Reagan won the North Carolina primary with the help of Senator Jesse Helms and the issue of the Panama Canal. Ran through most of the late primaries. Came within a few dozen votes of unseating Ford at the '76 convention and it was said it was said campaigned for Ford more dutifully than enthusiastically and remember that Ford started that election about 25 points behind Jimmy Carter, closed very quickly were not it for that one gaffe in the debate might well have won.

I think a lot of Republicans blamed Reagan's lack of enthusiasm as one of the reasons Ford was then four years later in one of the most extraordinary events of any convention in modern days, there was a real, honest to God flirtation with the idea that Reagan would pick Jerry Ford as vice president and there were serious negotiations about that.

Reagan was less than overwhelmed with George Bush who was kind of the logical choice as the runner up. But they could never come to an agreement. Right until the last minute that what kind of power of vice president would have and basically I just for some odd reason was reading about this just about a week ago.

Both the Reagan and Ford people kind of concluded that it wouldn't work. That there was no way for a president to bargain away control over, say, foreign policy, would you back Henry Kissinger? Would you give Ford as vice president certain departmental powers and they just basically decided it wouldn't work and in a dramatic moment, maybe the last we'll ever see at a convention, Reagan went to the floor of the convention the night he was nominated and said, you know, we have had conversations that didn't work and I'm picking George Bush.

So by four years later, whatever bitterness if there was any that Jerry Ford had that Reagan tried to beat him and maybe wasn't as enthusiastic as he might have been, that was replaced by at least a serious willingness that this former president would become vice president you should the man that tried to defeat him for the nomination. It is really a remarkable political story.

COOPER: Jeff, we're joined on the phone by Alexander Haig who was a former, President Ford's former chief of staff. Secretary Haig, thank you very much for being with us. Your thoughts on this difficult night?

ALEXANDER HAIG, FORMER FORD CHIEF OF STAFF (on phone): Yes.

Well, my thoughts are, of course with -- the country has lost a very, very fine man. A very fine president. The human characteristics of President Ford were impeccable. And I think unusually suited for the presidency.

He had to bring our country back and make it whole again and he did it with dignity and with a great, great skill and sensitivity.

He also alone, individually, on his own, chose to pardon president -- former President Nixon. I think that was the right decision. Made at the right time. And it was very costly to President Ford. Some think it was really the cause of his failure to be reelected.

I don't think that was necessarily the case. Because I think most people felt he did the right thing.

COOPER: How difficult was it of a decision was that for President Ford? At that time. And you said it was a decision he made on his own.

HAIG: Very much on his own. His own close staff, his closest associates, they brought over from the hill with him, that he added to the presidential staff were all unanimously opposed to the action and I sat in on a meeting with that comment on my part when they expressed their views in opposition to his decision.

But he went ahead because he felt it was right for the country and I think it was one of the most courageous acts that a president ever took, a sitting president.

COOPER: Well, wait, you have worked with so many presidents, what was he like personally? You know, in that role.

HAIG: He was a man of great thoughtfulness. Great sensitivity. You know, I served seven presidents. And one of the things least understood by presidents the importance of loyalty. And it goes down as well as up. He is a man that understood it was a two way street and was always thoughtful and considerate of those that worked for him.

I think it was a strange irony that he never really aspired to be president of the United States. And after he lost the election, he said to me, privately, I mean asked me to come back from NATO to talk to him about this experience.

And he said, you know, Al, he said, it was a job I never really aspired for. But once I realized I could do it, it was perhaps too late for me to succeed in the election. And there were many ironies associated with that loss and many ironies associated with the fact he did not have an opportunity to continue to serve.

COOPER: And why do you think he didn't aspire to that? As you know, a lot of politicians say I don't aspire to be president when they secretly do. You are saying he really did not aspire to it?

HAIG: Well, I know that. As a matter of fact, it was my job as White House chief of staff for President Nixon to inform President Ford that he was going to be the vice president for a very troubled and sitting president who was in great political difficulty.

I think somewhat in exaggerated form, frankly, as I look back on history and looked at the President Nixon's own talents which were probably as good as any president I have served and I have served seven. If not better.

COOPER: What was Ford's reaction when you told him - when you brought him that message, that he was going to be vice president?

HAIG: Well, I think at that point he realized that it was a possibility because it would have been very difficult to pick anyone that was not a son of the legislature. And President Ford was that. And therefore, his confirmation could be anticipated.

That is the body of the legislature had to confirm that appointment. And so, it was -- it was a series of circumstances rather than a series of ambitious acts on the part of President Ford that resulted in his becoming president.

And I think he knew that and he also realized that it was a job that when he got in it, he could do and he did very well. He was especially effective in dealing with an economy that was sorely damaged by the oil crisis that occurred after the Middle East conflict. Which many in the press thought was a phony conflict. Certainly it wasn't. It was probably the most serious crisis that I've observed having served seven presidents. It was a very serious one and it was handled with skill.

COOPER: We've just been looking at pictures of him with the former first lady, with Betty Ford. Talk if you can about their relationship. I mean, this couple, they met back in 1948. Married some 58 years. Truly an extraordinary partnership.

HAIG: Well, she was more than that. She was a symbol of courage for all American women.

You will recall her experience with breast cancer was a wake-up call for American women. On this very, very difficult disease which today has been increasingly combated with greater effectiveness and I think Betty Ford was the individual who made the biggest difference in the research that has been associated with breast cancer and I think she also became a model for curing those that were afflicted with drug addiction and alcoholism and she worked on the Betty Ford Center in -- in the desert and continued to make a great difference with a number of humans who were plagued with this terrible excess of alcoholism and drug addiction.

COOPER: Secretary Haig, we appreciate you calling in on this difficult night and appreciate your perspective. Fascinating stories. Alexander Haig joining us on the phone.

Also now joining us on the phone, Wolf Blitzer from Phoenix, Arizona. We also have Tom DeFrank, the bureau chief of New York "Daily News" and CNN's senior political analyst Bill Schneider. We will get to all of them.

First, let's go to Wolf in Phoenix. Wolf, I guess not unexpected but nevertheless a shock.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: You know, he was such a nice man. And he was always so friendly. I remember one of the last interviews I did with him at the Republican convention in 2000, you know, he just wanted to speak. He was speaking very, very lucidly, I thought, only to discover shortly thereafter he had a mild stroke and I sort of felt guilty. I said to myself, did I ask him questions that were inappropriate? Did I ask him some tough questions and I certainly didn't -- it was a very friendly, nice, warm, interview but he was slurring his words just a little bit and a few hours later, we all got the bad news.

He recovered from that and did well over these past six years. Clearly -- almost seven years and, you know, he certainly had that -- that friendly nature, that always came through and all of us who lived through that very tumultuous period after Richard Nixon was forced to step down will remember how he took the country and brought back a sense of normality and all of us that covered him in those years and the years that followed will be always grateful to him for a job well done.

COOPER: Tom DeFrank, bureau chief of the New York "Daily News," a lot of people probably don't realize that he was born Leslie King Jr. Talk a little bit about his early years, his mother remarried and he was essentially adopted by his stepfather and spoke about adoption really throughout his life.

DEFRANK: You know, Anderson, I've had several conversations with President Ford about that. And, even at the age of 93, he was still talking about his real father who he thought was a very bad person. And his adopted father, he talked about how fond he was of his adopted father. So much so that Leslie King of Omaha, Nebraska, took the name of his father, Gerald R. Ford. And he loved his parents. He loved his dad. And he has talked with me many times with great affection, with great fondness about his mother and his father.

He said to me not long ago that one of the great regrets of his life was that his mother did not long live long enough to be able to come to the White House and see her son Jerry Ford be president of the United States. That always -- he wished he could have done that for his mom and his dad.

COOPER: And they had had, I know, some tough times during the Depression. Once they had moved into the Ford house, they had to move to a smaller house I guess because Mr. Ford's business kind of suffered but they made a point of - the president made a point of pointing that his adopted father, even at the height of the Depression, even though they were suffering financially, never let go of any of his workers, that it was important to try to keep the family firm going, the family business going to help employ people in Michigan and Michigan was always very important to him.

DEFRANK: Anderson, one of my strongest memories of President Ford came on that fateful Election Day of November 1976 where Ford had come roaring back from this huge deficit to narrow the gap right at the end and it was a horse race right over the last couple of days of that campaign and he as you would have expected flew into Grand Rapids, his hometown, late on the night of election eve so he could vote in Grand Rapids the next morning and he voted in Grand Rapids and then he flew back to Washington to wait for the returns.

But at the airport, before he left Grand Rapids, he had a couple of things to say because there was a mural dedicated, the mural was his life but he was standing in front of this mural that depict important points of Gerald Ford's life and at one point, he pointed to the painting of his mother and his father and he broke down and he could barely continue.

And, I mean, some would say it was a metaphor for what happened to him the next day, his loss to Jimmy Carter but I think he was just overcome with emotion and affection at the memory of -- two of the most important people in his life. His mother and his adopted father.

COOPER: Hmm. Ed Henry, White House correspondent joins us also on the phone. Ed, you're hearing some information about how President Bush heard the news?

HENRY: That's right. In fact, we are now learning that in fact the White House chief of staff Josh Bolten called the president to inform him directly. That came after Josh Bolten had gotten the call from former President Ford's office about 10:25 Eastern Time and the Josh Bolten, just before 11:00 Eastern Time, called the president who's obviously in Texas.

Josh Bolten is not traveling right now with the president, so he then informed the president. We're told that President Bush spoke to Betty Ford after he received that call so at some point this evening shortly after 11:00 p.m., the president directly expressing his condolences to Betty Ford and then the written statement we read a short while ago expressing his respect and condolences for Gerald Ford.

We are also told we can report officially now that tomorrow at 8:00 a.m. Eastern Time the president will in fact make a public statement. President Bush will make a public statement expressing condolences. He will do that as his ranch in Texas. Obviously, expected to be a very brief statement. But this is protocol.

You will remember that former President Bill Clinton did this in the late '90s, mid to late '90s when Richard Nixon passed away to sort of officially let the nation know about it, officially have the current president talk about it and he'll do that tomorrow. 8:00 a.m. Eastern Time, President Bush will make those public comments, Anderson.

COOPER: And Ed, just for our viewers who are joining us now, we still do not know and will not know probably until tomorrow, until the family announces it, what the protocol is, what the full - what the next couple of days will hold.

HENRY: Absolutely. All the White House spokesman Scott Standel, (ph) who's on duty right now, will say officially is that, of course, President Bush will attend the funeral when it is in Washington, DC.

In terms of all the details what the White House is saying is beyond the president's attendance at the funeral, all the final arrangements will be made by the Ford family. They do not want to step on that, they do not want to interfere with that. So all these official arrangements will now be announced by the White House, they will be announced through the Ford family and you are right, at the very earliest hearing about it tomorrow but it could take a couple of days as they put all of this together to hammer out all the details but for tonight, no details on the actual funeral arrangements, Anderson.

COOPER: Tom DeFrank, the bureau chief of the New York "Daily News" who has spoken to President Ford over these last several years as he did when he was in the White House.

Tom, you were saying, though, that President Ford had made it clear already though that ultimately he will be buried in the courtyard of his museum which is in Grand Rapids.

DEFRANK: That's right. He told me that a couple of years ago. And actually, he says come on out to Grand Rapids and I'll give you a tour and I'll show you the place. He was very upfront about the funeral plans. He wasn't always that way, Anderson. I can remember one of my favorite stories was as your colleagues have already told your listeners, these are state funerals and they're run by the Military District of Washington with military precision and there are operation plans for these funerals that run into the hundreds of pages. And they always have to be updated. And soon after a president leaves office, the former president is visited by military officials and told basically that you have got to start telling us about what you'd like to do. And sometimes this is a little jarring.

And I know one point, the military went to the Ford family and said we have got to talk to former President Ford about this. And there was a discussion about how they would break the news to him and so, Mrs. Ford and Bob Barrett who was his chief of staff at the time decided to take President Ford out to dinner. Former President Ford out to dinner and Bob Barrett said to him, you know, Mr. President, we need to talk to you about this event that is -- not that you're really going to like.

Hundreds of thousands of people are going to turn out to see you. Of course, you won't know about it since it will be your funeral. And they tried to make it very light and it kind of threw him for a little bit but after a week or so, as you would expect, President Ford really got into it and he understood that he needed to express his wishes about things like locations of the events. Pallbearers. Who he would like to speak. And he got into that with a gusto.

And every two or three months or so, these plans are gone over again. And so, the plans have been plans for President Ford's funeral have been ready to go for quite sometime. They have to be refined every once in a while. A pallbearer will die or something like that and they have got to be refined.

But the Military District of Washington is well prepared for this funeral. They're just awaiting for the Ford family to decide what they want to do.

COOPER: CNN's Ed Henry covering the situation from Washington, the White House correspondent.

We've just been talking with Tom DeFrank, the bureau chief of the New York "Daily News" and also on the phone we have Wolf Blitzer in Phoenix and CNN's Bill Schneider who is in Los Angeles with us tonight.

Bill, I want to get to you a moment. First I want to read this statement by the president that was released a short time ago.

"Laura and I are greatly saddened by the passing of former president Gerald R. Ford," the statement reads. "President Ford was a great American who gave many years of dedicated service to our country. On August 9th, 1974, after a long career in the House of Representatives and service as vice president, he assumed the presidency in an hour of national turmoil and division.

"With his quiet integrity, common sense and kind instincts, President Ford helped heal our land and restore public confidence in the presidency. The American people will always admire Gerald Ford's devotion to duty, his personal character and the honorable conduct of his administration.

"We mourn the loss of such a leader and our 38th president will always have a special place in our nation's memory.

"On behalf of all Americans, Laura and I offer our deepest sympathies to Betty Ford and all of President Ford's family. Our thoughts and prayers will be with them in the hours and days ahead."

Bill, I was just reading a quote of President Ford saying upon taking the mantle as president, as the 38th president, he said to the nation, "This is an hour of history that troubles our minds and hurts our hearts. I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your president by your ballot and so I ask you to confirm me as your president with your prayers."

SCHNEIDER: That was a very dramatic moment and a turning point in American history but I also think of 1980, Jeff Greenfield talked about this earlier, as a turning point historically. That was when Ronald Reagan offered him the vice presidency. After mutual negotiations they decided it wouldn't work and think of this. If Gerald Ford had gone on the ticket with Reagan as vice president, the whole history of the country, the Republican Party, the history of the world would have been different.

George Bush ultimately became the vice president out United States and then president and that produced George Bush the current president of the United States. If Ford had worked out the deal and had gone on the ticket are Ronald Reagan, the whole history of the country would have been entirely different.

COOPER: Why do you think it was that he did not want that?

SCHNEIDER: Well, it was a very unusual and ungainly relationship. He was a former president. Clearly Ronald Reagan was very nervous in 1980 because people saw Ronald Reagan as too old, too extreme. People were worried he was going to start a war.

Ford was a very reassuring figure but it was just an impossible arrangement. A former president with people loyal to him with his own priorities and agenda. The idea would be somehow they would be co- presidents and that -- everyone could -- I remember being at that convention and everyone asking how could it possibly work? It couldn't possibly work and he demanded certain powers and prerogatives as vice president which people just didn't think belonged in that office.

So in the end, it didn't work and remember the one thing Ronald Reagan needed to do was reassure the country that he, Reagan, was not a dangerous man. There was never a more reassuring and comfortable figure for Americans than Gerald r. Ford. He came from another era. Less divided. Less harsh partisanship. That's why Nixon named him. He was a reassuring figure. That's why Ronald Reagan wanted him on the ticket.

COOPER: Tom DeFrank, do you think President Ford regretted not being the vice president under Ronald Reagan?

DEFRANK: Oh, not only did he not regret it, Anderson, he didn't want it. I don't think Reagan wanted it. I've always thought that intermediaries for both Reagan and Ford were the prime movers in this. But I don't believe Reagan really wanted it to happen and I can tell you with absolute certainty President Ford did not want it to happen. He thought it was a terrible idea and I think not -- I shouldn't say that.

I know that President Ford raised the bar about what he needed in terms of assurances. He raised the bar sufficiently so that it could never happen and I think that was his way of making sure it didn't happen. He didn't want it to happen. Others did, but he was not among them.

COOPER: Tom, what was it about Southern California, about the Palm Springs area, Rancho Mirage that the Fords love? Is it just the golfing or was it ...

DEFRANK: They had been going to the desert since the 1970s.

COOPER: Since the 1970s?

DEFRANK: I'm sorry, Anderson. I lost you there. They loved the desert because they just liked the lifestyle out there. He had -- he had a condo in Palm Springs. For many, many years before he became president.

One of my very first trips with President Ford was to Palm Springs in Easter of 1974. He loved the desert. He loved being able to play golf. He loved the climate.

He was a social animal until the last few years and he really just liked the desert. He had lots of friends there and as you know, he liked to spend part of the year in Rancho Mirage near Palm Springs. He had a house off the Thunderbird Country Club Golf Course and he had a wonderful house that he really loved in Beaver Creek, Colorado, just down the road from Vail. A beautiful home. He paid cash for it. And he had a wonderful view of the ski slopes and he loved the mountains and he loved the desert.

COOPER: We are getting a first image of the gates outside President Ford's home in Rancho Mirage. There's a really nothing going on there. This news obviously just breaking across the country and around the world. Do we know, Tom, where the Ford family is right now?

DEFRANK: I don't -- I don't know the answer to that. Anderson, I know that Mrs. Ford is there in Rancho Mirage. The family usually gathers for the holidays but I don't know for a fact that they were there at -- in full force at this point. But they may well have been but I must say I don't know the answer to that.

COOPER: That's fine. They did issue a statement. I just want to read that statement to our viewers joining us. This statement from Betty Ford.

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

A lot of people probably don't know much about his family life in recent years. He has four children. And I keep coming back to this, Tom, to this relationship between him and the first lady, Betty Ford. Just an extraordinary partnership, some 58 years they were together.

DEFRANK: It really was a remarkable partnership. They were just crazy about each other.

As a matter of fact, when I saw the president for a very brief visit in November, I was talking with him in his study. He was in a hospital bed at the time. And it was a very poignant moment but halfway through this conversation, Mrs. Ford showed up. And when Betty Ford walked into the room, he lit up.

As frail as he was, as sick as he was, as difficult a time as he had conversing, you could just see him, you could see the sparkle in his eyes when his beloved Betty Ford walked into the room and said, "Hi, Jerry."

It was an inspiring thing to watch over the years.

COOPER: A statement by Mrs. Ronald Reagan. Another extraordinary couple. She released a statement short time ago and I am going to read that out.

She says, "I was deeply saddened this evening when I heard of Jerry Ford's death. Ronnie and I always considered him a dear friend and close political ally. His accomplishments and devotion to our country are vast and even long after he left the presidency he made it a point to speak out on issues important to us all. I know that his early support of stem cell research has been important in getting the U.S. Congress to debate the potentially life-saving cures and treatments that may result.

"I know the days ahead will be difficult for Betty and my love and deepest sympathy go out to her and the entire Ford family."

Tom, do you think a lot will be said in these next days and weeks, how do you think history will judge President Ford?

DEFRANK: Well, I think -- I think history will probably decide that the best summation of Jerry Ford was the title of his memoir. The title of his memoir was "A Time to Heal." And I think that's what President Ford did.

I think in retrospect he feels even more strongly that the real value he gave to the nation was the beginning of the healing process after Watergate.

You know, you had to live through Watergate. And I was a young reporter, almost a rookie here in Watergate.

The poison in Washington, Anderson, was just pervasive. I can remember, those were the days, of course, when Pennsylvania Avenue was open to traffic. It's closed now. But you'd over to the White House for a briefing. And there were people standing across the street from Pennsylvania Avenue and they'd come with signs and they would say, "Honk if you think he's guilty. Honk if you think he's guilty," meaning Richard Nixon.

And all day long, cars would be coming east and west on Pennsylvania Avenue, and you'd hear the cars honking their horns. There was just a poison, it was just a very, very bad time. And I think when Jerry Ford became president the poison began to leach out.

I remember he was sworn in in the East Room and one of the very few times a president's been introduced without "Hail to the Chief" and that was his idea. He thought that the situation, the resignation of a president, was so traumatic and so somber and solemn, didn't want to have any kind of frills at all.

So he ordered no music. No "Hail to the Chief" which of course he was entitled to have played for him. He didn't want to do that.

And that is the speech where he uttered the memorable line, "Our long national nightmare is over," but I can remember standing in the East Room watching that speech and when he uttered that line, which is the line that history decided is the most famous line from that speech, I was remembering my favorite line of the speeches that he didn't use but he always used to do it when he was traveling, he always used to say to his audiences, "Just remember, I'm a Ford. Not a Lincoln."

And I think that's the way he viewed himself. A simple man, an ordinary man, as I said earlier, in the noblest sense of the term "ordinary."

And I think history will conclude that was his real contribution, to beginning the healing process after an extremely extraordinary time in this country.

COOPER: Well said. Wolf Blitzer also joining us tonight from Phoenix. Wolf, your thoughts?

BLITZER: Yeah, well, I agree with Tom and Tom knows - knew Jerry Ford very well and clearly that comes through what he is saying, that "long national nightmare" phrase he said. I was a very young reporter at the time, just getting started in Washington myself and then I remember that that bitterness, that tension that existed in the nation's capital and indeed, beyond, as a result of Watergate and when Jerry Ford came in and uttered those words, it was so memorable to all of us because it was a hope that he was right that the "long, national nightmare" was over. Not only because of Watergate, but because of the Vietnam War which had so bitterly divided our country at the time.

It was hoped that Jerry Ford, given his nature in the House of Representatives, his ability as someone who could work both sides of the aisle, that he would help in that process and end that bitterness, that tension, and he certainly made gigantic steps forward.

COOPER: And Tom, based on what Wolf said, I mean, a lot of people did come around even those who were opposed to President Ford pardoning President Nixon subsequently in the years later, seemed to look back and say, you know what? I think it was the right thing to do. I think Senator Ted Kennedy has stated that publicly.

DEFRANK: Well, the night that Ted Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy awarded the "Profile in Courage" Award to former President Ford, Ted Kennedy, Senator Kennedy said, "At the time I thought the pardon of Richard Nixon was an outrageous politically motivated even and I was wrong," Ted Kennedy said.

He said, "In retrospect and hindsight I have come to believe that it was a decision of principle and it was the right decision for the country."

And as I said earlier, Anderson, that was one of the things that Jerry Ford was proudest of in his life, getting that award from the Kennedys. I was say I would put that right up there, he would put that right up there with the day he became an Eagle Scout. I mean, that was one of the proudest days of his life, as well. Those two.

COOPER: Tom DeFrank, bureau chief of the New York "Daily News." It's been a pleasure to talk to you. I'm sorry it's under these circumstances, but thank you for joining us tonight.

Wolf Blitzer as well and Bill Schneider, Ed Henry, all the others who have joined us, Jeff Greenfield.

Just to briefly recap, Gerald R. Ford, the 38th president of the United States, the 40th vice president, has died. He was 93 years old and he had struggled with the health in recent years. The funeral details are pending. President Ford was the only American to serve in the country's two highest offices without being elected to either one. He was swept into the presidency by the Watergate scandal.

And he will be remembered for pardoning Richard Nixon as we have been talking about and forever linked to that phrase that Tom DeFrank and Wolf were just talking about, "Our long national nightmare is over."

Now some say that he paid for it with his presidency, losing the White House to Jimmy Carter in 1976. The White House tonight released a written statement from President Bush in part it reads, "President Ford was a great American that gave many years of dedicated service to our country. On August 9th, 1974, after a long career in the House of Representatives and service as vice president, he assumed the presidency in an hour of national turmoil and division.

"With his quiet integrity, common sense and kind instincts, President Ford helped heal our land and restore public confidence in the presidency."

Gerald Ford was by all accounts a modest man. And before we go to a special edition of LARRY KING LIVE, here is what he said after the death of Ronald Reagan, the time he became the oldest living president."

He said, "I thank God for the gift of every sunrise and even more, for all the years he has blessed me with Betty and the children, with our extended family and the friends of a lifetime.

"That includes countless Americans who, in recent months, have remembered me in their prayers. Your kindness touches me deeply. May God bless you all and may God bless America."

LARRY KING is next.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.voxant.com

Search
© 2007 Cable News Network.
A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines. Contact us. Site Map.
Offsite Icon External sites open in new window; not endorsed by CNN.com
Pipeline Icon Pay service with live and archived video. Learn more
Radio News Icon Download audio news  |  RSS Feed Add RSS headlines