Sincerely, Gerald Ford

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By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com
Friday, November 30, 2007

WRITE IT WHEN I'M GONE

Remarkable Off-the-Record Conversations with Gerald R. Ford

By Thomas M. DeFrank

Putnam. 258 pp. $25.95

"Nice guys finish last." No one wants to believe that mean-spirited adage, but in American politics in the last third of the 20th century, it might have held true. When Richard Nixon, a man who has the reputation of being one of our most unpleasant presidents, chose to resign rather than face impeachment, his successor was the amiable, self-effacing Vice President Gerald Ford, who liked to present himself to the public as nothing more or less than an ordinary, if honorable, man: "I'm a Ford, not a Lincoln."

For a while the public was dizzy with relief to have gotten out from under the nastiness and criminality of the Watergate scandal. But when Ford pardoned Nixon unconditionally -- to spare the ex-president the agony of indictment and possible conviction, and to spare the country a replay of the Watergate nightmare -- voters turned against him. For a while they suspected him of conspiring to save Nixon, of being an extension of the creepy intricacies of Watergate. But more than that, Ford gave uninspiring speeches. He fell on his butt while getting off an airplane, TV footage that played over and over again, and bonked innocent bystanders with golf balls. He survived two assassination attempts, but those attempts were made by women -- making them seem faintly ridiculous.

He lost the next election to Jimmy Carter, who turned down the air conditioning in government buildings, lowered the speed limit on the endlessly long highways of the West, prevented American athletes from competing in the Moscow Olympics, and couldn't seem to cope with the Iranian hostage crisis. Not only that, he wore silly sweaters and told the public that he had lust in his heart for women other than his wife. "Carter's so strange he makes Nixon look normal," a senior aide to Ronald Reagan told Thomas DeFrank, the author of this engaging collection of interviews and a longtime political reporter. If nothing else, "Write It When I'm Gone" reminds the reader just how terrific this country really is -- to have survived, and keep on surviving, such a string of dubious leaders.

DeFrank first began to cover Ford when it became clear that Nixon was headed for a fall. DeFrank's editor at Newsweek decided that "the magazine wanted to have a leg up with the new guy when Nixon resigned or was impeached." DeFrank, just 28, was "ecstatic at my sudden good fortune." But life on that particular Air Force Two was no picnic. Henry Kissinger had snagged the luxurious vice president's plane for himself, so the vice president flew slowly and humbly across American skies in "the military version of the Convair 580 twin-engined propjet." The journalists had so much fun that DeFrank (remember that reporters are supposed to be cynical and hardheaded by trade) sent this background dispatch to his magazine: "Jerry Ford is a human being cum laude, a down-to-earth, earnest, genuinely likable guy with an infectious laugh and not the slightest hint of pretentiousness. He is a politician of great and genuine sincerity." No offense to any politician of either party, but to whom, these days, might that description pertain?

The Ford presidential years were over in a twinkling, but DeFrank made a bargain with the former president to do a series of interviews with him that were to be published only after Ford's death. Over the years Ford made a substantial effort to keep up his reputation as a nice person, but he did confide to DeFrank that Carter and Reagan had in effect ganged up on him in 1976; that Carter was "the weakest president I've ever seen in my lifetime," that he considered Reagan to be "a lazy and unfit pretender," and that he was appalled not just by Clinton's adultery but by what Ford considered to be his moral and ethical blind spots. "I think he thinks he's sincere," Ford said, a fairly subtle remark for a self-described ordinary man. And, of course, he considered Clinton to have "a sexual addiction. . . . He needs to get help -- for his sake. He's already damaged his presidency beyond repair."

But Ford stays loyal to Nixon, saying the president he had served had "a five to ten percent flaw in his character," which came over him from time to time but that he was, in essence, sold out by Haldeman, Ehrlichman and, above all, John Dean, whom he calls "a self-seeking, ambitious smarty." And Ford believed to the last that he was right to pardon Nixon, even if it ruined his own career. He even found it in his heart to admire Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. (The latter was responsible for smuggling a sheep into DeFrank's hotel room. That anecdote alone should get you to buy the book.) In sum, even though the reporter doesn't say it, maybe Ford really wasn't the man for the job. He was decent, courteous, guileless. Overqualified might be one way of putting it.

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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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