Former U.S. president Gerald Ford, who succeeded Richard Nixon in 1974 after he resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandal, has died, his wife Betty confirmed late Tuesday. 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,"Betty Ford said in a brief statement issued from her husband's office in Rancho Mirage.

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Gerald Ford granted Richard Nixon a pardon for all crimes he committed as president. ((Associated Press))

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

The statement did not say where Ford died orgive a cause of death.

Ford, the 38th and only unelected president in America's history, had battled pneumonia in Januaryand underwent two heart treatments— including an angioplasty— in August.

He was the longest living president, followed by Ronald Reagan, who also died at 93.

Ford was Nixon's vice-president, also an unelected position as he was chosen to replace Spiro Agnew, who was also forced from office by scandal.

Ford, who had a long congressional career and had risen to be House Republican leader, was one of four finalists to succeed Agnew.

After Nixon resigned and Ford was sworn in as president,he declared to the American public that"our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works. Our great republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule."

He also added:"I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your president by your ballots. So I ask you to confirm me with your prayers."

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Richard Nixon raises his arms in victory after accepting his party's nomination at the Republican Convention in Miami in August 1968. At left is Gerald Ford. ((Associated Press))

But his decision to pardonNixon a month later forcrimes he committed as president sparked controversy and is believed to have cost him theelection againstDemocrat Jimmy Carter in 1976.Carter won 297 electoral votes to his 240.

A grand jury had voted 19-0 to nameNixon an unindicted co-conspirator in the coverup of White House involvement in the 1972 break-in at Democratic headquarters in the Watergate office building.

Time to move on

Ford had said he pardoned Nixon so the nation could move on from the Watergate scandal. But he also acknowledgedin his 1979 memoir that he "had to get the monkey off my back."

In fact, his decision won praise in later years.

Ford also was left with the legacy of the Vietnam War, which ended during his presidency with the fall of Saigon in April 1975.

In a speech as the end of the warneared, Ford said: "Today, America can regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam. But it cannot be achieved by refighting a war that is finished as far as America is concerned."

Evoking Abraham Lincoln, he said it was time to "look forward to an agenda for the future, to unify, to bind up the nation's wounds."

Two attempts on life

During his brief tenure as president —he was in the office for 895 days — there were two attempts on his life.

In September 1975, Lynette (Squeaky) Fromme, a 26-year-old follower of Charles Manson, was arrested after she aimed a semi-automatic pistol at Ford in Sacramento, Calif. A Secret Service agent grabbed her and Ford was unhurt.

Seventeen days later, Sara Jane Moore, a 45-year-old political activist, was arrested in San Francisco after she fired a gun at the president. Ford was unhurt.

Both women are serving life terms in federal prison.

After leaving office, Ford spent much of his time living in the Palm Springs area of California, serving as an elder statesman.But he had been in declining health during the past two years

President George W. Bush referred to Ford as a "a great American" who 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," Bush said in a statement.

Bush haddrawn some of his top advisers from the ranks of the Ford presidency. Vice-President Dick Cheney was Ford's White House chief of staff, and former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld served in the same job for Ford.

"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.

"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," she said.

Long career

Fordwas born Leslie King on July 14, 1913, in Omaha, Neb. His parents were divorced when he was less than a year old, and his mother returned to her parents in Grand Rapids, Mich.,where she later married Gerald R. Ford Sr.

He adopted the boy and renamed him.

Ford played centre on the University of Michigan's 1932 and 1933 national champion football teams. He got professional offers from the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers, but chose to study law at Yale, working his way through as an assistant varsity football coach and freshman boxing coach.

Ford got his first exposure to national politics at Yale, working as a volunteer in Wendell Willkie's 1940 Republican campaign for president.

After Second World War service with the U.S. Navy in the Pacific, he went back to practising law in Grand Rapids and became active in Republican reform politics.

His stepfather was the local Republican chairman, and Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg was looking for a fresh young internationalist to replace the area's isolationist congressman.

Ford won by a 2-to-1 margin in the Republican primary and then went on to win the election with 60.5 per cent of the vote.

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

With files from the Associated Press