GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - In 25 years of interviews with his hometown paper that could be released only upon his death, former President Gerald R. Ford once called Jimmy Carter a "disaster" who ranked alongside Warren G. 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 said the best president of his lifetime was a more moderate Republican: Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Harry Truman "would get very high marks" for his handling of foreign crises, Ford said. Ford also praised his predecessor, 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 1991 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."

Two years later, he praised Carter's performance on the Panama Canal treaty, China and the Middle East. And in 1998, he said Carter, with whom he became close in the years after they left office, "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.

Ford gave the interviews on the condition that his remarks be withheld until after his death. He died Dec. 26 at 93.

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."

Ford contended that his own negotiation of the Helsinki accords on human rights did more to win the Cold War than Reagan's military buildup. Other key factors, he said, were the Marshall Plan, which 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."

Read more of Ford's views and other special reports from his hometown paper via http://go.philly.com/gford EndText