Thomas DeFrank's new book, "Write It When I'm Gone: Remarkable Off-the-Record Conversations with Gerald R. Ford," is filled with Gerald Ford's candid comments and thoughts about Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Dick Cheney and more.
Below is an excerpt.
Ironically, the interview that triggered a relationship with Gerald Ford lasting a third of a century, as well as a unique journalistic arrangement, wasn’t even supposed to be an interview. I was just being neurotic.
In today’s unappetizing environment of message discipline, control freaks, and endless political spin by phalanxes of cynical, robotic handlers, it’s hard to imagine there was ever a time when a reporter could ask to see the vice president of the United States without it being a major production.
But it was a different age, and a different vice president.
Ford had set off on an uncharacteristically long nine-day trip in April 1974 that included a few days of Easter R&R in Palm Springs, sandwiched between political events in Missouri and California. But my first son had just been born, and since I’d missed most of the pregnancy barnstorming with Ford, I pulled myself off the trail to be with mother and child for a couple of weeks.
By the time I was able to catch up with the entourage, I would have missed the first five days of the trip. That was a long time to be out of the Ford loop, so before leaving for the coast I asked Paul Miltich, his press secretary, for some time with the veep once I arrived in the desert. He ran it by Ford, who agreed readily, which was his usual reaction when dealing with his media regulars. Since he and we were flying to Monterey for a full day of events early on the morning of April 18, Ford penciled me in for face time in the late afternoon of Wednesday, April 17, not long after my flight arrived in Palm Springs.
I didn’t have much of a reporting agenda in mind; it was little more than a courtesy call, a routine catch-up after being away from the cocoon. I simply wanted to see what I’d missed and to get a fix on what was on his mind. I told Miltich I wasn’t looking for a story, just some background.
En route to Palm Springs via Chicago, I leafed through a reading file of Ford clips I’d missed during my paternity leave. One was an April 10 column by William Safire in the New York Times headlined “Et Tu, Gerry?” (That was a common error when writing about Ford; it was Gerald with a G, but Jerry with a J.)
A former Nixon speechwriter and lifelong loyalist, Safire had taken Ford to task for perhaps the most boneheaded move of his vice presidency: in a late-night, highball-lubricated Air Force Two interview with The New Republic’s courtly John Osborne, Ford had openly speculated about which Nixon cabinet members and White House staffers he’d keep (like Henry Kissinger), and which he’d cashier (like Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger and White House press secretary Ron Ziegler), if by chance he became president.
“A few diehards might consider it unseemly for the vice president to be confiding his plans for the assumption of power while the body of the sitting president is still warm,” Safire drily observed.
Osborne hadn’t written that Ford was his source, but it was so transparently obvious that Ford telephoned Safire to admit his culpability and try, unsuccessfully, to explain away his lapse in judgment.
“Mr. Ford betrays a lack of understanding of the uniqueness of his role,” Safire lectured. “He is the first vice president in American history whose own actions could help make him president. He must be at once loyal and independent; both his own man and the president’s man; a defender uncorrupted by the defense. This duality requires more political
skill than we have recently seen in Mr. Ford; he will miss the brass ring if he grabs at it.”
The other item that caught my attention was the transcript of a mid-March public television interview with Bill Moyers by Patrick Buchanan, another rabid Nixon partisan.
In a passage clearly trying to shore up Nixon’s shaky political standing by touting his geopolitical strengths, Buchanan had damned Ford with faint praise: “I think Gerald Ford would make a conscientious effort to continue the policies of the President. I like the Vice President. I admire him . . . but I do not think he has the knowledge or range or capacity that the President currently has to conduct American foreign policy.”
In other words, the veep was indeed a Ford, not a Lincoln, as he himself regularly observed—and certainly not a Nixon.
His aides liked to stress that as a Yale Law School graduate, Ford knew he had above-average intelligence, so he didn’t bristle when detractors poked fun at his candlepower. Maybe so, maybe not; these days we’d call that political spin. But by then I’d been around him enough to know that questioning his loyalty to Nixon was an enormous hot button for him. I already knew he’d been furious after hearing about Buchanan’s shot. I had no idea he might still be simmering about those barbs a month later.
Ford was staying at Sunnylands, the lush, secluded private estate of Walter Annenberg, the megamillionaire communications magnate.But because Annenberg didn’t want Ford aides and particularly reporters trampling around his home and private nine-hole golf course, Ford also had an office at the low-rise International House Hotel in Palm Springs, where his staff and traveling press were head-quartered. That’s where I caught up with him an hour or so after arriving in the desert.
The vice president had just come in from the golf links, where, he forlornly admitted, “My handicap took a beating.” He was wearing a sky-blue Munsingwear golf shirt with the ubiquitous penguin insignia, khaki slacks, and tan Hush Puppies with white socks.
He greeted me warmly and immediately asked about my family, wanting to know all about the new arrival and saying he and the rest of the traveling crew had missed me and were glad I was back on the tour.
He knew all about the difficult delivery but wanted more details. “I worried about them,” he said.
I hadn’t planned it to be an interview, but as we got to talking, it inevitably developed into one.
Alternating between puffing on his pipe (Edgeworth was his brand) and sipping ice water from a plastic cup, Ford fretted that nobody believed him when he said he absolutely wasn’t running for president in 1976.
“I understand why they don’t believe me,” he remarked. “They’ve seen so many alleged noncandidates become candidates that they just don’t think anybody is sincere in not wanting to be president.
“I just don’t have that terrible drive to be president. And besides, I’ve taken the blood oath for Betty.” He’d promised his spouse he was retiring to Grand Rapids in January 1977, and that was that.
Curiously, however, Ford stuck by his refusal in our February interview to make a Shermanesque statement unequivocally taking himself out of a 1976 run.
“I just don’t think a person ought to tie himself down too much,” he said. “Circumstances beyond my control could always have some impact.”
Like being a sitting president by 1976, I thought to myself. Ford didn’t like contemplating that doomsday scenario and hated having the subject brought up, and reporters did bring it up constantly. He claimed he hadn’t done any contingency planning, even in his head, and was annoyed about press reports to the contrary.
Even so, he admitted, “You have to be pragmatic even about things you don’t want to happen, and the truth is I don’t want it to happen. But I don’t think about what I might do as president, because it only leads to difficulties. The truth is, I don’t sit around making plans, because I don’t want it to happen and I don’t think it is going to happen” (emphasis added).
If it did, though, Ford was absolutely confident he could handle the rigors of the Oval Office.
“I think I’ve always been qualified for any job I’ve undertaken, and everything I’ve done in government over twenty-five years would certainly give me the background, the knowledge, and the friends to do a good job. If lightning should strike, I certainly wouldn’t sit there fearful of being incapable of handling the situation.”
I reminded him that not all Americans, much less his Democratic critics, agreed with his rosy self-assessment of his talents. Contrary to his staff ’s disclaimers, talk like that always irked him, and he especially seethed at the notion he was a foreign policy lightweight.
“Most of the people who say that don’t know the opportunities I had in the Congress to be fully exposed to international matters,” he argued, citing his dozen years on the Defense and Foreign Aid Appropriations subcommittees. He also reminded me that he was one of only five House members on a secret CIA subcommittee that received highly classified intelligence briefings.
“Most of those people who make that comment,” he added, “weren’t around when I was going through this educational process, and they’ve become instant foreign policy experts.”
He also made clear his annoyance at the frequent political shorthand that he was a low-voltage plodder.
“In my growth in government, I never planned on moving from one spot to another, but I always felt what I was doing would prepare me for the next opportunity. You have to have the confidence that you’re available and competent if lightning strikes, and if that’s plodding, it seems to have worked. What counts in this world is what works, not
what some outsider thinks is a better way.”
This zigzag dissertation was very familiar to that tiny band of media regulars who traveled with him. On any given day, Ford could either be Nixon’s staunchest defender, or say something that suggested growing distance between the two. Sometimes it was just his sloppy rhetoric, and sometimes it was deliberate. Usually, we never knew which.
Even so, his “if lightning should strike” remark struck me at the time as more than a little pregnant.
I stood to leave, and so did he. But he wasn’t finished. He asked me to put away my notebook.
“Before you go, I want to show you something. What do you make of this?”
Under ordinary circumstances, this unscheduled postscript to our conversation would never have happened. But about ten minutes earlier, Miltich had gone into another room to take a phone call, then fallen asleep on a sofa. So it was just the two of us. A reporter’s dream, a flack’s nightmare: no minders.
Ford handed me a copy of Bill Safire’s withering appraisal of his behavior, the very same damning column I’d read on the plane only a couple of hours before.
His tone was more perplexed than angry, but there was no doubt he was annoyed with the pounding he’d been getting from Nixon’s men. Clearly, he’d been doing a slow burn for weeks.
“Why would Bill say something like that?” Ford wanted to know. “He knows I’ve been damn loyal to Dick Nixon. Dick Nixon knows I’ve been loyal. Why do they do this?”
If this conversation were occurring today, I doubt I’d say what I said then. Chalk my answer up to the impetuosity of youth.
I told him that Safire, Buchanan, press secretary Ron Ziegler, and their fellow White House partisans were kicking the dog because despite their fierce loyalty to Nixon, most of them were pragmatic enough to realize where this Greek tragedy was heading.
“They’re angry and they’re bitter because they know Nixon is finished,” I replied. “It’s over. He can’t survive, and you’re gonna be president.”
Before I had time to reflect on my own audacity, Ford floored me with his totally unanticipated answer.
“You’re right,” he said. “But when the pages of history are written, nobody can say I contributed to it.”
I was thunderstruck: Moments before, he’d assured me Nixon would ride out the firestorm. Now, impulsively, he’d blurted out the truth. Four months before it actually happened, three months before the Supreme Court ordered Nixon to turn over the tape recordings that would doom him, Ford had just admitted he knew in his gut that Nixon was a goner and he would soon become America’s 38th, and first unelected, president.
Ford was thunderstruck as well—at himself. In a millisecond, he realized the enormity of his mistake, and like many a politician before and since burned by his own loose tongue, he tried to take it back.
“You didn’t hear that,” he said in an even but urgent tone.
“But I did,” I stupidly replied, without thinking.
“Tom, you did not hear that.”
I was speechless—literally. That wasn’t what he wanted to hear.
Ford walked around his desk and confronted me directly, face-to-face. I got an unobstructed view of his blue eyes; they weren’t friendly.
Towering above his quarry, he gently grabbed my tie and said in a firm tone of voice, “Tom, you are not leaving this room until we have an understanding.”
I said nothing. I couldn’t; I was utterly petrified, literally scared beyond words. I was twenty-eight years old, having the time of my life, and the vice president had just dropped a giant Hobson’s Choice on my head: agree to forget what I’d just heard and give up an unbelievable scoop, or risk terminally alienating the next leader of the free world, whom I’d been cultivating for the last four months.
We stood there for perhaps fifteen seconds, but the old cliché about something seeming like an eternity is the only accurate way to describe the moment. Out of sheer panic, I was unable to speak.
Then he said, “Write it when I’m dead.”
I was too frightened and witless to negotiate, and surrendered my journalistic sword with enormous relief.
Ford let loose of my tie and stuck out his hand; I took it. Our deal was struck.
In an instant, the conversation was expunged from the record. “Nice to see you, Tom,” he boomed. He asked me to tell my wife hello, and walked me to the door. “See you tomorrow,” he chirped, as if Armageddon hadn’t just been averted.
The next morning, the travel corps assembled at the Palm Springs airport for his one-day trip up to Monterey. He greeted me warmly, asked about my wife and son, and said once again he’d worried about them. It was as though our relationship-altering exchange the previous day had never occurred.
It would be seventeen years before we spoke about that seminal moment again.
I never told my superiors at Newsweek what I’d heard. But part of me felt unbelievably guilty about that. So after he became president, I tried to salve my conscience somewhat by filing the second clause of what he’d said in April for the issue of the magazine published the Monday after he was sworn in: “When the pages of history are written,”
Newsweek reported him privately saying months earlier, “nobody can say I contributed to it.”
As I’d promised him, however, I kept Ford’s operative first two words to myself (and my wife, Melanie)—until now.
Admittedly, this astounding display of indiscretion will be seen by most experts and historians as totally out of character for Jerry Ford. For the most part, that’s true. Not always, however. He was an extraordinarily nice guy, but the truth is that Ford had one hell of a temper. He usually kept it in check, but every once in a while, he could suddenly erupt with incendiary force—and sometimes blurt out an ill-advised remark before recapturing his composure.
Such an outburst occurred, in remarkably similar circumstances, a couple of weeks after our fateful encounter in Palm Springs, while Ford was on a two-day swing through the South.
Inside the White House, it was common knowledge in the spring of 1974 that the Air Force chief of staff, General George Brown, was about to be elevated to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Several senior Air Force officers were being considered to succeed Brown. Ford had his own candidate: General John C. Meyer, the commander in chief of the Strategic Air Command. They were old friends, dating from the days when Meyer was an Air Force liaison officer on Capitol Hill. In fact, the Brooklyn-born officer had been posted as head of the Air Force lobbying operation for the House of Representatives in 1948, the same year Ford was elected to Congress.
Meyer had invited the new vice president to visit SAC headquarter sat Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, in February, and Ford eagerly accepted. It was a twofer for the veep: a chance to see a friend, and also visit the site of the Woolworth Avenue home in Omaha where he’d been born in 1913.
In early May, Ford knew the White House was close to a decision on the chief of staff job, so he pressed his Air Force aide, Lieutenant Colonel Bob Blake, for a status report.
On May 3, Ford began a two-day swing that included stops in Columbia and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Afterward he flew to Hilton Head for a round of golf, memorable only because his tee shot on the first hole beaned a woman spectator.
Shortly after Air Force Two landed, Ford’s naval aide, Commander Howard Kerr, called Washington and was informed by Blake that Meyer had lost out to General David Jones. The announcement would be made public in about ten days.
After his golf round, Ford was sorting through some paperwork at a desk in his hotel suite when Kerr knocked on the door, walked in, and delivered a message he knew the boss wouldn’t like.
That was an understatement. Ford was so enraged that he leaped to his feet and blurted out, “Goddammit, Howard, when I’m president this—”
Abruptly, he caught himself in mid-sentence.
“You didn’t hear me say that,” he barked at his nonplussed naval assistant,
who, like me, just had. Unlike me, however, Kerr had the presence of mind and common sense to salute smartly, and excuse himself. Ford sat back down and resumed his reading, still boiling.
He was his usual jovial self by dinnertime. But Ford had been so furious,
so momentarily out of control, that Kerr assumed there must have been more to the story. Thirty-three years later, he speculated that Ford may have been led to believe that Meyer would get the job and felt double-crossed by his enemies in the White House. That’s a plausible theory; there are always winners and losers in the appointment sweepstakes, and Ford was a big boy about that. It’s not likely he would have reacted so viscerally unless there was some perfidy involved in the selection. But Ford never mentioned the matter again to Kerr, and Jones’s new job was announced a few days later, on May 14.
In subsequent years, I had several dozen interviews with Ford, including at least thirty during his retirement. But I didn’t resurrect our 1974 conversation for seventeen years, and even then it was by accident.
In August 1991, during the first of our write-it-when-I’m-gone interviews, I’d asked him to reminisce about Watergate. At one point in the conversation, he repeated his standard refrain about not really knowing he’d be president until Nixon chief of staff Major General Alexander Haig came to his office in early August to alert him that Nixon’s position was imploding rapidly and Ford should prepare for the worst—or best, I suppose, depending on one’s view of Nixon and Ford.
“After that meeting, the odds were overwhelming that I would be president,” he said. “Of course, even then, Haig was saying, ‘One minute he’s going to resign, the next minute he’s going to fight it through.’”
I felt I had to challenge that sanitized version of history, so I reminded him of our Easter 1974 exchange, when he’d asked me why Nixon’s men were trashing him, and I’d replied it was because they knew Nixon was toast and Ford would soon be president. I resurrected our conversation essentially verbatim, ending with his insistence to me that history would conclude he’d never greased the skids for Nixon.
“Well, I felt very strongly about that,” he ducked, pointedly not challenging my reminder that he had agreed with me that he’d be president before long.
I tried again by raising a heavily camouflaged version of his Hilton Head exchange with Howard Kerr, whom I didn’t name. But I repeated what I’d been told Ford said then: Goddammit, when I’m president . . .
He paused for a moment before answering.
“If it happened,” he said, “I don’t recall it. I can honestly say it might have happened, but I don’t recall it. And it would be out of character [from] the role I was playing.” That was certainly true.
It was significant, of course, that Ford didn’t deny our encounter had happened. He couldn’t, because it had.
Excerpt from Write it When I’m Gone: Remarkable Off-the-Record Conversations with Gerald R. Ford by Thomas M. DeFrank, by arrangement with G. P. Putnam’s Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright (c) 2007 by Thomas M. DeFrank. In stores October 30th.