Letter From American History – February 2008

Jerry’s P.S.: “Now, here’s what I really think.”

It’s been nearly a year since his death at age 93, but Gerald Ford is still making news and rewriting some pages of history. In 1973 the affable Michigan congressman was center stage, playing a leading role in one of America’s greatest political and constitutional dramas. In the first act, he is tapped to be vice president after Spiro Agnew resigns in disgrace, taking on the role of staunchly loyal defender of his president even as the tidal wave of Watergate overtakes the Oval Office. The heart-pounding second act climaxes in August 1974 when, cornered and on the verge of impeachment, President Richard Nixon leaves office and an anxiety-ridden nation collectively exhales as Ford proclaims the end of our “long national nightmare.” This most non-imperial president calms his troubled people and glides on a thermal of good feeling—until act three’s dark plot twist when he issues a permanent pass to Nixon, casting doubt on his own integrity. And then, in act four, a badly beat up President Ford gets up off the canvas to whip a pumped-up Ronald Reagan. In spite of withering odds, he tenaciously claws his way back to into the fight for the White House, only to be barely outdistanced by Jimmy Carter.

Gerald Ford went on to live a very long and relatively quite life in retirement. Or, as it turns out, not so quiet after all. Back in 1974, when young Newsweek reporter Tom DeFrank had a chance private conversation with then Vice President Ford—months before the end of Nixon’s reign was in sight—Ford brought up White House complaints that he hadn’t been supportive enough of the embattled president. When the reporter opined that Nixon’s men were simply angry because they knew Nixon was finished and Ford would become president, Ford, according to DeFrank, vociferously agreed: “You’re right! But when the pages of history are written, nobody can say I contributed to it.” The too-honest Ford knew a firestorm would ensue if his admission went public and quickly told DeFrank, “You didn’t hear that.” The reporter, grasping the stakes involved, made a vow of silence that would last 33 years when Ford offered, “Write it when I’m dead.” DeFrank covered the Ford presidency and continued a relationship with Ford long after, conducting a series of revealing interviews. In DeFrank’s Write It When I’m Gone: Remarkable Off-The-Record Conversations with Gerald R. Ford, Ford speaks his mind, knowing he’ll be long gone before the comments see the light of day.

As our story in this issue on the election of 1976 by Yanek Mieczkowski shows, Ford couldn’t pull free of drag from the Nixon pardon and lost the presidency. At Ford’s side during the campaign was his 35-year-old chief of staff, Dick Cheney, and in an exclusive interview with American History, the now 67-year-old Vice President Cheney recalls Ford’s resilience during the 1976 struggle to hold the White House and how he nearly pulled off one of the greatest political comebacks in American history. Ironically, among the many revelations in DeFrank’s book is Ford’s belief that Cheney, his good friend and loyal chief of staff, should have been dumped from the 2004 presidential ticket. Ford’s honesty and loyalty are routinely cited as among his greatest qualities. As the record continues to unfold, it will be interesting to see how those perceptions are affected.

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