Jerry Ford's Secret Slip of the Lip

No telling: Tom DeFrank interviews President Ford on Air Force One.
No telling: Tom DeFrank interviews President Ford on Air Force One. (Courtesy of Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library)

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By Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts
Friday, October 26, 2007

Thought you knew all the Watergate secrets? Tom DeFrank kept one for 33 years: Months before Dick Nixon resigned, Gerald Ford -- shrewder than people gave him credit for -- knew Nixon was doomed, and he outmaneuvered both the media and the White House. What's more, he wasn't above strong-arming a reporter to get what he wanted.

In April 1974, DeFrank was a 28-year-old writer for Newsweek -- one of six reporters who traveled regularly with Vice President Ford (who had been appointed to replace the disgraced Spiro Agnew just five months earlier). With the Watergate crisis deepening, the president tapped the affable Michigan congressman as impeachment insurance -- assuming that voters would rather have a Nixon than a Ford in the White House. "That was a real miscalculation," said DeFrank, now New York Daily News Washington bureau chief.

One afternoon, DeFrank found himself alone with the veep -- Ford's press secretary had fallen asleep next door. Ford was taking hits from Nixon loyalists who thought he wasn't sufficiently supportive. "Dick Nixon knows I've been loyal," Ford groused. "Why do they do this?"

DeFrank blurted his opinion: Nixon supporters were angry because he was finished and Ford would become president. "You're right," Ford blurted back. "But when the pages of history are written, nobody can say I contributed to it."

Ford instantly realized his words would make headlines and tried to take them back. "You didn't hear that," he said, then walked around the desk and grabbed DeFrank's tie, telling him he couldn't leave until they had an understanding. After a tense silence, he said, "Write it when I'm dead." "Okay," said the terrified reporter.

DeFrank went on to cover Ford's presidency and his losing 1976 campaign, and in 1991 began off-the-record interviews with him about Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Clinton and others for publication only after Ford's death in December. "He's far more candid in these conversations than he was in his memoir," said DeFrank, who collected them in "Write it When I'm Gone," out next week.

Would he make the same deal today? DeFrank told us he's not sure, but felt bound to keep this one for three decades: "The truth of the matter is that I gave the vice president of the United States my word."

READERS TELL US

Virginia writes: Your reference to "hot" Malibu real estate was tasteless. These people are losing their homes!

Alexandria writes: Thousands of people are displaced -- not just famous people and even famous people don't deserve to be mocked as they lose their homes.

A handful of readers voiced outrage at our brief item Wednesday noting the Hollywood celebrities whose homes were endangered by the Malibu wildfires. Hey, no one's mocking anyone here; just thought you'd be, you know, interested. And we'd rather direct you to the 6,000 words or so the Post has devoted to the topic in front-page stories this week than try to give a full picture of this human tragedy in a gossip column. If, however, you've got a problem with the "hot real estate" pun on grounds of pure cheesiness -- well, we have no defense there. Meanwhile, some of the other marquee names who have since fled their homes: Mel Gibson, Kelsey Grammer, Victoria Principal. Send your questions, comments and tips to reliablesource@washpost.com.

HEY, ISN'T THAT . . . ?

* A bearded George Clooney (blue blazer, dress slacks, gold chain) sitting on a bench by the Reflecting Pool, chomping on some sunflower seeds -- a scene he was shooting for "Burn After Reading," a CIA spoof by moviemaker brothers Joel and Ethan Coen that's filming in D.C. the next few days. Nearby, the Coens set up a separate shot with Joel's Oscar-winning wife, Frances McDormand. And a lot of business-suited extras hovered uncomfortably in the damp cold.

* Ethan Coen dining early Wednesday night with a brown-haired woman at Restaurant K (tuna steak, margaritas); he explained to a server they had to rush back to the hotel to catch the World Series.

* Former San Antonio Spur David Robinson lurking in the Pentagon corridors yesterday -- the 7-foot-1 Annapolis alum got a VIP tour of the 9/11 memorial construction site and met with Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

* George H.W. Bush dining at the downtown Palm last night with his old pal Wally Ganzi (the steakhouse chain's co-owner) and several others.

THIS JUST IN . . .

* Former British PM Tony Blair sold his memoirs -- U.S. rights to Knopf, U.K. rights to another Random House imprint -- for a presumably ginormous price after an unusually heated bidding war that engaged 10 publishers and lasted 4 1/2 days (most end within hours). Blair was repped by D.C. lawyer/superagent Bob Barnett. His book will hit shelves in two years.

* Britney Spears is almost off the hook for her August fender-bender -- a judge dismissed hit-and-run charges after the pop star paid off the wronged motorist. She's still facing charges for driving without a license, though.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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