In 25 years of interviews with his hometown paper that could only be released upon his death, former President Ford once called Jimmy Carter a "disaster" who ranked alongside Warren Harding, and said Ronald Reagan received far too much credit for ending the Cold War.
"It makes me very irritated when Reagan's people pound their chests and say that because we had this big military buildup, the Kremlin collapsed," Ford told The Grand Rapids Press.
Ford contended his own negotiation of the Helsinki accords on human rights did more to win the Cold War than Reagan's military buildup.
The best president of his lifetime, Ford said, was a more moderate Republican: Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Harry Truman "would get very high marks" for his handling of foreign crises, Ford said. He also praised Richard Nixon as a foreign policy master, despite the Watergate scandal that drove him from office.
Ford considered John F. Kennedy overrated and Bill Clinton average. He admired George H.W. Bush's handling of the Persian Gulf War and had mixed opinions of Carter, who defeated Ford in 1976.
In 1981, Ford said: "I think Jimmy Carter would be very close to Warren G. Harding. I feel very strongly that Jimmy Carter was a disaster, particularly domestically and economically. I have said more than once that he was certainly the poorest president in my lifetime."
But two years later, he praised Carter's performance on the Panama Canal treaty, China and the Middle East. And in 1998, he said Carter "will be looked on as a better president than some comments we hear today."
"He was a very decent, fine individual," Ford told the paper. "There were no major mistakes. There just weren't a lot of exciting results."
Ford's gave the interviews on the condition that his remarks be withheld until after his death.
According to the newspaper, Ford declined to rate George W. Bush, saying he did not know him well enough.
Ford said Reagan, who challenged him unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination in 1976, was "a great spokesman for attractive political objectives" such as a balanced budget and defeating communism, "but when it came to implementation, his record never matched his words."
Reagan was "probably the least well-informed on the details of running the government of any president I knew," Ford said. In a separate interview, he said Reagan "was just a poor manager, and you can't be president and do a good job unless you manage."
Under the 1975 Helsinki accords signed by Ford, the United States recognized borders in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe in exchange for the Soviets' pledge to respect basic human rights.
Ford said other key factors that won the Cold War were the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe after World War II and the establishment of NATO.
"When you put peace, prosperity and human rights against poverty, a massive unsuccessful military program and a lack of human rights, communism was bound to collapse," he said. "No president, no Democrat or Republican, can claim credit for those programs. I'll tell you who deserves the credit — the American people."