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5:35am — Gerald Ford, R.I.P.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Former president kept a dismal decade from getting worse.

A younger generation knows former President Gerald R. Ford Jr. , if they know him at all, as the amiable klutz who sat behind his desk wearing a football helmet (played by Saturday Night Live's Chevy Chase).

But Ford, who died peacefully at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., at the age of 93, during his brief presidency in the 1970s, put a stake in the heart of the two most troubling and divisive crises facing America at the time — the Watergate scandals and the War in Vietnam. (See The Associated Press story here .)

He has been called the accidental president — named to succeed the disgraced Vice President Spiro Agnew by the soon-to-be-disgraced President Richard M. Nixon (who, legend has it, picked the 13-term congressman from Michigan as "insurance" from being ever booted from office).

But in many ways he was the providential president — the right man at a very bad time, a stolid, decent and honest presence when everything seemed to be falling apart.

Though Chevy Chase likes to claim his SNL mockery helped cost Ford the election in 1976 that put Jimmy Carter in office, it was probably Ford's pardon of Nixon that did the trick. It may have been a deal worked out in the Oval Office with Nixon and Alexander Haig, as the ubiquitous Bob Woodward reported, but it cost Ford dearly.

And there was that little matter of his assertion, during his second televised debate with Carter, that "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration" — a statement that defied common sense and probably cost him the conservative Republican support that would later flock to Ronald Reagan.

He also presided over the humiliating fall of Vietnam, the comic-opera Mayaguez incident and a deteriorating economy that would come to full catastrophe under Carter.

(UPDATE: Bad terminology. There's nothing "comic" about the death of 15 U.S. servicemen and wounding of 50 others in what became known as the Mayaguez Incident . It just seemed like a pathetically small response to the seizure of the U.S. cargo ship by Khmer Rouge forces out of Cambodia in May 1975, compared to the massive commitment that had just petered out in Indo-China. But the rescue of the crewmen was a heroic effort, and it really signaled in the immediate wake of Vietnam that the U.S. wasn't going to lie down and take everything some tinpot dictatorship or two-bit pirate wanted to dish out.)

And for better or worse, he propelled the political careers of George H.W. Bush, naming him U.S. ambassador to China, then head of the Central Intelligence Agency, and fellow congressmen Donald Rumsfeld (who was Ford's second secretary of defense) and Dick Cheney (Ford's chief of staff).

He even survived two assassination attempts.

But with all the turbulence swirling about him, he remained a solid, unshakeable person of integrity, whose "calm and steady hand" (in the words President George W. Bush is speaking right now from Crawford, Texas) kept the country from falling apart.

The normally uneloquent Ford said on taking office "Our long national nightmare is over." In the long run, it may just be beginning, but for a time — a mere 2 1/2 years — he kept it from deepening.

One long-term benefit of Ford's brief time in office is the lasting influence of his wife, first lady Betty Ford's struggle with addiction, and her role in creating the Betty Ford Center , which in itself and through its countless imitators has helped countless thousands of people overcome alcoholism and substance abuse.

The Fords even have a longtime Albuquerque area connection — a library named in their honor at the Bosque Preparatory School, a granddaughter who was among the school's first 10 graduates, and Corrales has been the longtime home of their youngest daughter, Susan Ford Bales, according to this morning's Albuquerque Journal .

In addition to being the longest-living ex-president, Ford also was the last surviving member of the Warren Commission, which concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin when President John F. Kennedy was killed on Nov. 22, 1963 — a finding that continues to be debated to this day.

He also died 34 years to the day after the death of former President Harry S Truman, another unpretentious Midwesterner who became president in the midst of chaos.