Ford, Nixon Sustained Friendship for Decades
Friday, December 29, 2006
Months before Richard M. Nixon set a relatively unknown Michigan congressman named Gerald R. Ford on the path to the White House, Nixon turned to Ford, who called himself the embattled president's "only real friend," to get him out of trouble.
During one of the darkest days of the Watergate scandal, Nixon secretly confided in Ford, at the time the House minority leader. He begged for help. He complained about fair-weather friends and swore at perceived rivals in his own party. "Tell the guys, goddamn it, to get off their ass and start fighting back," Nixon pleaded with Ford in one call recorded by the president's secret taping system.
And Ford did. "Anytime you want me to do anything, under any circumstances, you give me a call, Mr. President," he told Nixon during that May 1, 1973, conversation. "We'll stand by you morning, noon and night."
This and other previously unpublished transcripts of their calls, documents and personal letters provide a portrait of an intensely personal friendship dating to the late 1940s but so hidden that few others were even aware of it. Until now, the relationship between the two presidents has been portrayed largely as a matter of political necessity, with Nixon tapping Ford for the vice presidency in late 1973 because he was a confirmable choice on Capitol Hill.
But the tapes, documents and two lengthy recent interviews with Ford before his death this week, conducted for a future book and embargoed until after his death, show that the close political alliance between the two men seriously influenced Ford's eventual decision to pardon Nixon, the most momentous decision of his short presidency and almost certainly the one that cost him any chance of winning the White House in his own right two years later. Ford became president on Aug. 9, 1974; he pardoned Nixon just a month later. "I think that Nixon felt I was about the only person he could really trust on the Hill," Ford said during the 2005 interview.
Ford returned the feeling.
"I looked upon him as my personal friend. And I always treasured our relationship. And I had no hesitancy about granting the pardon, because I felt that we had this relationship and that I didn't want to see my real friend have the stigma," Ford said in the interview.
That acknowledgment represents a significant shift from Ford's previous portrayals of the pardon that absolved Nixon of any Watergate-related crimes. In earlier statements, Ford had emphasized the decision as an effort to move the country beyond the partisan divisions of the Watergate era, playing down the personal dimension.
A key window into their close friendship and political alliance was that May 1973 call. It was the day after Nixon had gone on national television to announce the resignations of his two top aides, H.R. "Bob" Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman, and the Watergate coverup was unraveling. The president knew it and was eager for Ford's reassurance that his political situation on Capitol Hill was not as grave as it seemed.
"You've got a hell of a lot of friends up here," Ford told him, "both Republican and Democrat, and don't worry about anybody being sunshine soldiers or summer patriots."
"Well, never Jerry Ford," Nixon replied. "But if you could get a few congressmen and senators to speak up and say a word, for Christ's sakes."
Ford was played a copy of that tape in 2005. Although the existence of Nixon's secret taping system had been publicly disclosed in 1973, no such tapes of Ford had come to public attention, and the former president seemed stunned. "I remember vividly that," he said, recalling how Nixon often turned to him to get things done on the Hill. He added that he considered himself to be Nixon's "only real friend."