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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)

"Gerald Ford was the nicest and most decent public figure I ever covered," Schieffer told CBS viewers.

"He was open, he was candid," Brokaw said on MSNBC. "When he told us something, we generally could believe it."

Tom DeFrank of the aforementioned Daily News became friends with Ford and interviewed him more than three dozen times at his California home -- always off the record, at DeFrank's suggestion.

Journalists tend to give the benefit of the doubt to people who are nice to them; that's just human nature. They do not, however, give incumbents a free pass. They piled on after Ford clumsily declared, in a 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter, that "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe" and initially refused to correct the misstatement.

After Ford lost the election, he remained unusually accessible -- on his terms.

In 2004, Ford sat for a four-hour interview with The Post's Bob Woodward for a book project, on condition that his remarks not be used until after his death. It was during that session, as Woodward reported last week, that Ford criticized Bush's decision to invade Iraq. Historian Michael Beschloss, in a Newsweek cover story, recalls a 1995 off-the-record sitdown in which Ford said the GOP had moved too far to the right.

No one has criticized Ford for keeping these views private. A bolder politician would have spoken out, but Ford remained a loyal Republican and rarely engaged in public debate during his ex-presidency, preferring a life of Rancho Mirage golf, Vail skiing and charity work.

Ford was the last president to tap working reporters for the press secretary's job. His first choice, Jerald terHorst of the Detroit News, resigned one month later to protest the Nixon pardon. Ford's second spokesman, Ron Nessen, had been NBC's White House correspondent. The equivalent today would be President Bush tapping David Gregory for the post. Tony Snow, who currently mans the podium, was a conservative commentator and talk-show host, not a reporter, and all other White House press secretaries since Ford's day have been drawn from the world of politics.

Every former president's death is now treated as a television spectacular, and Ford's passing, during the post-Christmas lull, has been no exception. There is a tendency to overly praise such men -- even Nixon drew plenty of media accolades after his 1994 death -- in a way that goes beyond their actual accomplishments. Ford inherited a slew of foreign and domestic problems and made little progress in solving most of them during his 2 1/2 -year tenure.

But the passage of time often brings reappraisals, as has been the case in recent years with Harry Truman, who was quite unpopular when he left office. In an age of intense political polarization, the media are now showing a deeper appreciation of Ford's regular-guy persona and his willingness to cooperate with Democratic opponents.

No single act better illustrates the tides of revisionist history than the dramatic pardon of Nixon. That decision infuriated much of the country and the media, which saw Ford as placing his Watergate-scarred predecessor above the law. "The president is now seen for what he is -- an ordinary pol who cannot be trusted, even if he does make his own breakfast," wrote syndicated columnist Joseph Kraft.

The New York Times editorial page denounced the "unconscionable" pardon as "a profoundly unwise, divisive and unjust act" that had delivered a "body blow" to Ford's credibility.

But some journalists who largely dismissed Ford's rationale -- that he issued the pardon to heal the nation's wounds -- have been rethinking their stance. Roger Wilkins, a former Times editorial writer who repeatedly criticized the pardon, ultimately changed his mind, writing Ford a letter last month to say that the former president had been right.

Richard Reeves, a Ford biographer, was the man who mocked him as Bozo in the New York magazine piece that excerpted his book. A decade ago, in American Heritage magazine, Reeves expressed regret that his book on Ford had been unnecessarily "cruel." As a national leader, Reeves wrote, "President Ford was a man with many flaws and more inadequacies. But he had become president by accident, done the best he knew how, and, we now know, muddled through a very dangerous time."

The lesson here is that a media consensus, no matter how widely shared, may suffer from the tunnel vision of the times. The blurry snapshots of journalism sometimes look very different in history's rearview mirror.

Evolutionary Thinking

"The fact is, newspapers are still among the best media businesses -- and the most important." -- McClatchy CEO Gary Pruitt, Wall Street Journal, March 16, 2006, after his company bought the Knight Ridder chain.

"It was a drag on the bottom line, and we felt we could do better without it." -- Gary Pruitt in the New York Times on Wednesday, explaining that his company sold the Minneapolis Star Tribune after eight years because its profitability had declined and a special tax benefit was available.

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