"On Aug. 9, 1974, he stepped into the presidency without ever having sought the office," Mr. Bush said. "He assumed power in a period of great division and turmoil. 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."
Ford died at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Tuesday..
The president, who personally expressed his condolences in a phone call late Tuesday night with former first lady Betty Ford, called the former president a "man of integrity" who devoted the best years of his life to the nation. Mr. Bush said Ford commanded the Oval Office for 2 ½ years with commonsense and kindness.
Ford "reflected the best in America's character," Mr. Bush said.
Ford helped restore Americans' confidence in the White House after President Richard Nixon's downfall in 1974 through the "honorable conduct" of his administration, Mr. Bush said.
Mr. Bush, who is spending the week at his Texas ranch, made his statement before sunrise inside a hangar at a helipad outlined in blue-green landing lights. Dawn was breaking over the ranch after he finished expressing his sadness over Ford's death.
"Our 38th president will always have a special place in our nation's history," he said.
Mr. Bush's father, former President George H.W. Bush, served in the Ford administration as a diplomat and CIA director. The president borrowed from the troupe of Ford advisers in making up his own presidential team more than a quarter century later.
Vice President Dick Cheney served as Ford's chief of staff, while just departed Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld served Ford in the same job.
Cheney called Ford a "dear friend and mentor" and hailed his former boss' role in bringing the nation out of what the vice president called the "greatest constitutional crisis since the Civil War."
"In that troubled era, America needed strength, wisdom, and good judgment, and those qualities came to us in the person of Gerald R. Ford," Cheney said in a statement. "When he left office, he had restored public trust in the presidency, and the nation once again looked to the future with confidence and faith."
Democrats and Republicans alike recalled Ford's willingness to work across party lines.
"Gerald Ford brought Americans together during a difficult chapter in our history with strength, integrity, and humility. All Americans should be grateful for his life of service; he served our nation well. To his great credit, he was the same hard-working, down-to-earth person the day he left the White House as he was when he first entered Congress almost 30 years earlier," former President Bill Clinton and his wife, Sen. Hillary Clinton, said in a statement.
And former President Jimmy Carter, who defeated Ford in the 1976 presidential election called Ford, "One of the most admirable public servants and human beings I have ever known."
"He 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," Carter said.
"President Ford was one of the kindest, most sincere elected officials whom I have known and with whom I have worked," said longtime Sen. Robert Byrd, a Democrat. "Although he and I were from different political parties, we often were able to find common ground and work together for our country."
Rep. John Dingell, a Democrat who served with Ford in the House of Representatives, praised the former president for his commitment to his wife Betty and family.
"Jerry was warm gentle, friendly, pleasant courteous individual. He never used bad language, he loved his family, his kids and above all else he loved Betty," Dingell said.
Nancy Reagan, whose late husband mounted an intraparty challenge to Ford in 1976, praised Ford for his service to the nation during and after his time in office.
"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," the former first lady said.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger praised Ford for his leadership after Watergate. "He made the most difficult of choices based entirely on what he believed to be in the best interest of his country and its people, the mark of history's greatest leader," Schwarzenegger said.
White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten notified Mr. Bush about Ford's death after getting the news from Ford's chief of staff. Deputy White House press secretary Scott Stanzel said Mr. Bush, who is scheduled to return to Washington on Jan. 1, will.