By James Cannon
Univ. of Michigan. 482 pp. $35
Between Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, a former Republican congressman from Michigan served as commander in chief for 895 days. Gerald Ford’s “first priority was to calm the capital and the country, to restore legitimacy to the Presidency, to heal a wounded nation,” writes the late James Cannon in this, his second book about the unelected 38th president. “He did so by being the man he was — honest and trustworthy, the very opposite of his predecessor.”
A journalist who turned to politics, Cannon served in Ford’s White House. Unsurprisingly, his review of the administration’s record — Ford’s ineffective “Whip Inflation Now” initiative, his strategic arms-limitation talks with Leonid Brezhnev and the divisive 1976 election — stops just short of hagiography. The author doesn’t shy away from criticizing the president’s naivete and subpar skills as an orator, but is tone-deaf in his praise for what Ford is best remembered for: pardoning Nixon to end the Watergate scandal.
“Almost alone, Ford foresaw the consequences of a [post-resignation] trial,” Cannon writes. “It took years, but informed public opinion eventually supported Ford on the pardon.”
Yes, by the time Ford died in 2006, the public’s disgust with his pardon of Nixon had faded. But informed objections to the constitutionality and propriety of Ford’s pardon, which he discussed with Nixon’s staff before Nixon resigned, persist.
While Cannon’s book is less than perfect, his extensive interviews with Ford and his staff members, including Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, add detail to the portrait of a president younger Americans may know only through Chevy Chase’s bumbling “Saturday Night Live” caricature. Ford occupied the Oval Office almost as long as John F. Kennedy. He deserves more than pratfalls.