“Not since Harry Truman succeeded Franklin D. Roosevelt twenty-nine years earlier had the American people known so little about a man who had stepped forward from obscurity to take the oath of office as President of the United States.”
—from Chapter 4
This is a comprehensive narrative account of the life of Gerald Ford written by one of his closest advisers, James Cannon. Written with unique insight and benefiting from personal interviews with President Ford in his last years, Gerald R. Ford: An Honorable Lifeis James Cannon’s final look at the simple and honest man from the Midwest.
|Publisher:||University of Michigan Press|
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Gerald R. Ford
An Honorable Life
By James Cannon
The University of Michigan PressCopyright © 2013 estate of James Cannon
All rights reserved.
A Crisis of the Regime
The day: Thursday, August 8, 1974. The hour: 11:10 a.m. With one fateful question dominating his thoughts, Gerald Ford waited in the sunny and deceptively calm reception room next to the Office of the President of the United States. The question: would Richard Nixon resign, or would he fight on and put himself, and all three branches of the Federal government, and the American people through the agony of a President's impeachment, trial, conviction, and dismissal from that high and once-honored office?
Vice President Ford was there to hear the answer. Minutes earlier, Chief of Staff Alexander Haig had telephoned: "The President wants to see you now." In that instant, Ford knew the months of crisis and anticipation had reached a turning point. Deep in his soul, Ford knew that this encounter, whatever the outcome, would live in history. Responding to the call, he left the Vice President's suite in the Old Executive Office Building and walked quickly across West Executive Avenue, wondering along the way, "Will he go, or will he continue to fight?"
Up the stairs of the West Wing, Ford paused at Haig's imposing corner office for last-minute guidance. Haig, haggard and grave, walked with Ford to the door of the reception room. "The President wants to see you alone, Mr. Vice President."
Poised, intent, Ford sat by himself on a small couch, "waiting to hear, waiting to get the word," he said later. "I knew the odds, that Nixon would resign and I would take over. But I had been cautioned, repeatedly, by Haig that Nixon kept changing his mind, and I should believe no decision had been made until I heard it from Nixon himself. So it all depended on what Nixon would finally decide to do. I expected, I strongly expected that he would leave, yet I couldn't be positive. I was certain of one thing: If it happened, I was confident that I could handle the job. So I just sat there and waited."
As Ford waited, so also did all America await a resolution of this "crisis of the regime." For more than two years, the infamy of Watergate had paralyzed President Nixon, occupied both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, dominated the national press, and implanted in the public mind doubt and distrust of Richard Nixon, and everything he and his White House had done and stood for.
Watergate: code word for the most improbable White House scandal in history. It was not a case of Presidential appointees taking bribes, as with Grant and Harding; it was instead an intentional criminal act by a President in the Oval Office. By deliberately breaking laws he had taken an oath to uphold, Nixon provoked the most serious Constitutional crisis since the Civil War.
The scandal began in the summer of 1972 when managers for Nixon's reelection campaign concocted, inexplicably, a plan to burglarize Democratic headquarters in the Watergate office building in downtown Washington. Five CIA-trained operatives hired by the Nixon campaign broke into the Democratic Chairman's office, and were rifling his files when police caught them in the act. All five were jailed and indicted.
President Nixon, also inexplicably, did not distance himself from the break-in by campaign hirelings. He could have dismissed his political managers responsible for the crime and that might have ended the incident. Instead, Nixon tried to cover up the crime by telling his Chief of Staff, Bob Haldeman, and White House Counsel, John Dean, to bribe the burglars to keep silent; but, the men caught in the break-in talked. Bit by bit they gave evidence marking a trail that led to Nixon's campaign staff, then to hush money in a White House safe, on to Nixon's most trusted aides, and, in time, to Nixon himself.
A fool's errand, followed by Nixon's monstrous misjudgment, turned into catastrophe. The President's close friend and most able mentor, former Attorney General John Mitchell, and four senior White House aides were indicted, forced to resign, and faced trial for perjury — or worse. For his part in the attempt to cover up the Watergate crime, President Nixon faced impeachment in the House, conviction in the Senate, and prosecution in the courts.
As Ford sat in suspense, waiting to see the President that August morning, there was no question in his mind about what Nixon should do. White House tape recordings, made public by court order just four days earlier, revealed astonishing evidence: President Nixon, in his own voice, conspiring to obstruct justice. Consequently, it was certain that Nixon would be impeached, convicted, and removed from office. No President — indeed, no man — had ever faced such a formidable array of legal power: the Senate Watergate Committee, the House Judiciary Committee, a Special Prosecutor, a tenacious Federal Judge, and the Supreme Court of the United States.
Grim though his legal predicament was, Nixon's standing with the American people was even worse. He had lied to them — not once, but repeatedly; not inadvertently, but intentionally. He had defiled the Presidency. He was a crook. Angry crowds gathered in historic Lafayette Park across from the White House shouting: "Jail to the Chief! Jail to the Chief!"
By any measure, Richard Nixon had lost the legitimacy of authority essential to any President. As a consequence, he could no longer govern. Ford knew that, as did Congress, the Federal bureaucracy, the press, and all the other diverse powers in Washington. But Ford did not know whether Nixon was yet ready to accept the reality that as President, he was finished.
Such a sad time, Ford thought as he sat waiting — such a tragedy for his good friend and political ally for a quarter century. Now that friend was ruined — ruined in his time, and in the verdict of history. Nixon's accomplishments as President would be diminished, perhaps forgotten.
At that moment, Ford's reflections were interrupted. The door into the Oval Office was opening. "Mr. President," a Nixon aide announced with terse formality, "the Vice President is here to see you."
Nixon stood as Ford entered and reached forward to shake hands. Strain and despair evident on his face, he gestured for his Vice President to sit in the chair at his right. Nixon then turned to White House photographer Oliver Atkins, standing near the wall in the Oval Office.
"Ollie," Nixon said, "take this photograph for history."
As soon as the photographer left the room, Nixon turned and looked Ford in the eye. In a voice calm and matter of fact, he spoke slowly and deliberately. "I have made the decision to resign. It is in the best interest of the country. I won't go into the arguments, pro and con. I have made my decision."
The answer at last: Nixon will go. It is over. At that moment, Ford felt a sense of liberation, of deliverance; but he did his best to contain his emotions and mask his relief that the government and the people could soon move past Watergate to a better time.
Still looking Ford in the eye, Nixon said: "Jerry, you will become President. I know you'll do a good job. You have the background, the training. You are capable. You have the experience of political management, all the other things that go with the job. So I feel certain the country will be in good hands."
Speaking from the heart, Ford said: "Mr. President, you know I am saddened by this. You know I would have wanted it to be otherwise. I was hoping you could continue. Under the circumstances I think your decision is the right one, but I'm sorry about it."
Ford had more to say. He wanted Nixon to know that he had no hesitation about becoming President himself. "I am ready to do the job," he said in a firm voice, "and I think I am fully qualified to do it."
"I know you are too," Nixon said.
The moment always remained vivid in Ford's mind. "Dick's face was solemn, taut, drawn, obviously under great strain. His shoulders sagged. But he was such a proud person that he would not collapse, or even show distress. I could see it was very, very hard for him to say he had decided to resign; but once he did, it was like a burden had been lifted from him."
After their solemn exchange, Nixon's manner and comportment quickly changed. Rolling back in his chair, propping his feet on his desk, and in a voice sure and confident, Nixon began a tutorial to his successor on the state of the world. Continent by continent, country by country, he identified critical problems, evaluated leaders, and calculated U.S. interests. He talked about the necessity for nuclear-arms limitation, and the obligation to continue supporting South Vietnam, characterized Leonid Brezhnev ("tough but flexible") and Mao Zedong ("pragmatic, patient"), identified the strengths and weaknesses of NATO, and discussed the prospects for peace in the Middle East. "He showed his mastery at surveying the world on a global basis," Ford said. "I listened. I learned."
"Keep Kissinger," Nixon said. "Henry is not the easiest person to work with, but he is an outstanding foreign policy strategist and conceptualizer."
Turning to domestic affairs, Nixon spoke bluntly and in detail about the state of the economy — increasing inflation, rising unemployment rates, the possibilities of a recession — and urged Ford to work closely with Federal Reserve Chairman Arthur Burns.
"Who will be your Vice President?" Nixon asked. Ford had made no decision; had not yet even given it a thought. "You will want someone who will add stature to your Administration, someone who will generate international as well as national confidence," Nixon said. Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York, he suggested, would be a wise choice. Nixon also urged Ford to keep Haig as Chief of Staff, for the transition, if not longer; he would be "an invaluable source of advice and experience."
After an hour of passing along lessons from his years in office, Nixon turned to the practical business of executing an orderly transition. He would address the nation that evening and announce his intention to resign as President. On the next morning, his last in office, he would say farewell to his Cabinet and White House staff in the East Room. From there, he and his family would go to the Diplomatic Reception Room. He asked that Ford and his wife Betty meet him and Pat Nixon there, and walk with them to the presidential helicopter. After this last ride to Andrews Air Force Base, he would depart for California aboard Air Force One.
President Nixon's letter of resignation would be delivered to Secretary of State Kissinger shortly before noon. At that hour, Nixon expected to be high in the air over Missouri or Kansas; at that moment, he would no longer be President.
Where, he asked, would Ford take the oath of office? He had not decided, Ford replied. Nixon suggested that Ford hold a small ceremony in the Oval Office, "as Truman did."
With that, Nixon rose and put his arm around Ford as they walked out the east door that leads to the Rose Garden. For a moment, the two stood in silence on the covered porch outside the Oval Office. Their eyes met. They shook hands. "No historic words were spoken," Ford said. "There was just the recognition on the part of both of us that the time had come. His choice had been made, and my fate decided."
Their meeting had taken seventy minutes.
From the President's porch, Ford walked quickly across the South Lawn — not looking right or left, nor at the Secret Service agent holding open the door to the Vice Presidential limousine. "I wanted to get out of this terribly dramatic circumstance and in the car," Ford said. "I really just wanted to be alone."CHAPTER 2
On the two-minute ride out the southwest gate and onto West Executive Avenue, Ford regained full control over his emotions. His earlier anxiety about what Nixon might do quickly turned into resolution about what he, the new President-to-be, must do.
Time was precious. This was Thursday: he had less than twenty-four hours before his swearing-in. He must get to work.
Ford's first concern, as it is with every new President, was national security. Striding to his desk in the Vice President's office, he telephoned Secretary of State Kissinger. The exchange reflects Ford's modesty and Kissinger's diplomacy.
"I have just finished talking with the President, and he gave me his decision," Ford said. "I want you to stay, Henry. I need you. The country needs you. I'll do everything I can to work with you."
"Mr. Vice President," Kissinger replied, "it is my job to get along with you and not yours to get along with me."
"I would hope we could get together sometime this afternoon at your convenience," Ford said.
"Would 3:00 p.m. suit you, Mr. Vice President?"
"Fine, Henry. I would appreciate it very much."
"I have prepared some tentative suggestions for your consideration," Kissinger said. "Might I bring these along?"
"Bring anything along that you want, Henry. I will be delighted to see you."
Continuity at the Department of State affirmed, Ford brought in his two most trusted aides — Robert Hartmann and John Marsh — for the next decision: Where should he be sworn in? "They're talking about the Oval Office," Ford said.
"The hell with what they want," said Hartmann, Ford's plainspeaking counselor and principal speechwriter. "It's what do you want. You are going to be President."
Ford's first choice was to take the oath of office at the U.S. Capitol. Not only was it the traditional site of Presidential inaugurals; the Capitol was home to Ford. There, in the House of Representatives, he had served the Fifth District of Michigan for twenty-five years; there, his peers had chosen him to be Vice President, and confirmed him by a landslide vote. But, after discussion, all three agreed that this unprecedented inaugural should take place in the White House.
"The Chief Justice!" Ford said. "He must administer the oath of office." No lesser personage, the three agreed, would bring the legitimacy and appropriate dignity to this unprecedented occasion. In minutes, the White House switchboard operators found Chief Justice Warren Burger, traveling in the Netherlands.
"Mr. Chief Justice, I guess you've heard the news," Ford said. "I hate to interrupt your trip, but I would like it very much if you could be here for the swearing-in."
"Oh, I want to be there," Burger said. "I've got to be there."
Marsh, Ford's national security adviser and former colleague in the House, quickly arranged for an Air Force plane to pick up the Chief Justice in Europe, and fly him to Washington.
Since the East Room — the largest in the White House — could hold no more than 275 guests, Marsh recommended an order of priority for the invitations: the Ford family, the Cabinet and senior White House staff, the bipartisan leaders of Congress, the chairmen and ranking members of House and Senate committees, the diplomatic corps, Ford's fellow Representatives in the Class of 1948, and the entire Michigan delegation. All would have to be invited by telephone.
To begin the invitations, Ford telephoned two of his closest Congressional friends: Hugh Scott, Republican leader of the Senate, and Democrat Tip O'Neill, Majority Leader of the House and Ford's favorite golfing partner. "Are wives invited, Jerry?" O'Neill asked.
"They are now," Ford said cheerfully.
O'Neill read a statement he planned to make: Democrats would cooperate with Ford, but he must listen to and work closely with Congress.
"That's fine," Ford said, "and Tip, I will rely on you for advice and assistance."
Ever the partisan, O'Neill said: "Christ, Jerry, isn't this a wonderful country? Here we can talk like this and you and I can be friends, and eighteen months from now I'll be going around the country kicking your ass in."
As both laughed, Ford said: "That's a hell of a way to speak to the next President of the United States."
Ford asked Hartmann to bring in his inaugural speech; he wanted to go over it again. It was an excellent draft, for Hartmann could put into words what Ford was thinking but could not readily articulate. Ford particularly liked the opening: "Not an inaugural address, not a fireside chat, not a campaign speech, just a little straight talk among friends ..."
Reading on, Ford paused as he neared the concluding paragraphs. "Bob, just one thing troubles me and that's this line, 'Our long national nightmare is over.' Isn't that a little hard on Dick? Could we soften that?"
"No, no, no!" Hartmann said. "That's what you have to proclaim to the whole country, to the whole world. That's what everybody needs to hear, wants to hear, has got to hear you say. You have to turn the country around. That sentence will be the headline in every paper, the lead in every story. Junk all the rest of the speech if you want to, but not that."
Excerpted from Gerald R. Ford by James Cannon. Copyright © 2013 estate of James Cannon. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press.
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Table of Contents
CHAPTER 1. A Crisis of the Regime,
CHAPTER 2. Resolve,
CHAPTER 3. Transformation,
CHAPTER 4. Challenges,
CHAPTER 5. Advancing,
CHAPTER 6. Advancing,
CHAPTER 7. Passage,
CHAPTER 8. Revelations,
CHAPTER 9. Confirmation,
CHAPTER 10. Conflicted,
CHAPTER 11. Proposition,
CHAPTER 12. Taking Charge,
CHAPTER 13. Reaction,
CHAPTER 14. The Pardon,
CHAPTER 15. Testifying,
CHAPTER 16. Managing,
CHAPTER 17. Progress,
CHAPTER 18. Challenges,
CHAPTER 19. Ford's Way,
CHAPTER 20. Initiatives,
CHAPTER 21. Vietnam,
CHAPTER 22. The Campaign Begins,
CHAPTER 23. Nomination,
CHAPTER 24. Election,
CHAPTER 25. Epilogue,