One President Who Didn't See the Press as an Enemy

Ford defending his pardon of Nixon, left, and in Vail, Colo., in December 1974, stopping to speak with the media.
Ford defending his pardon of Nixon, left, and in Vail, Colo., in December 1974, stopping to speak with the media. "Gerald Ford was the nicest and most decent public figure I ever covered," Schieffer told CBS viewers. (By Frank Johnston -- The Washington Post)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 1, 2007

Gerald Ford never received particularly warm coverage during his brief presidency, at least not after the first morning, when reporters gushed over the sight of the man who replaced the imperious Richard Nixon actually toasting his own English muffins.

There was, of course, the thunderous media condemnation of the Nixon pardon. Beyond that, New York magazine ran a cover depicting Ford as Bozo the Clown. The New York Daily News carried the immortal headline when he opposed a financial bailout package: "FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD." And if many reporters didn't exactly believe LBJ's crack about Ford having played football too long without a helmet, the consensus remained that this accidental president was a man of modest gifts.

How, then, to explain the gushing tributes that have filled the news columns and airwaves since his death last week?

One explanation, beyond Ford's inherent decency, is the relationships he forged with numerous journalists. To watch Tom Brokaw, Charlie Gibson, Brian Williams, Bob Schieffer, Andrea Mitchell and others fondly remembering the 38th president is to be reminded that he was never paranoid about the press or, for that matter, a devious dissembler.

The obvious warmth in the remarks of these journalists -- Brokaw is to speak tomorrow at Ford's National Cathedral memorial service -- stands in sharp contrast to the bitter and contentious relationship between other modern presidents and the Fourth Estate:

Lyndon Johnson privately grumbled that the New York Times was "run by a bunch of commies."

Nixon, who detested the press, had journalists on his enemies list wiretapped and investigated.

George H.W. Bush's unofficial campaign slogan was "Annoy the Media -- Reelect Bush."

Bill Clinton ripped the "knee-jerk liberal press," which he believed viewed him with disdain, and was furious about the media's obsessions with Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky (his anger flashed again during a recent interview with Fox's Chris Wallace).

George W. Bush held few news conferences in his first term, has criticized coverage of the Iraq war and denounced major newspapers for publishing national security leaks, some of which his administration is investigating.

Ford, by contrast, liked reporters -- he invited a half-dozen of them to his first state dinner, a week after assuming the presidency -- and maintained friendly relations with some of them long after leaving office. He wrote Williams a number of letters and once called the NBC anchor at home to thank him for a note. Williams described the late president as "decent, courageous, honest."

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