Robert T. Hartmann, 91; Wrote Key Ford Speech

Robert T. Hartmann's
Robert T. Hartmann's "national nightmare" line met initial resistance from President Gerald R. Ford. (By Frank Johnston -- The Washington Post)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Robert T. Hartmann, 91, who wrote the memorable speech for President Gerald R. Ford that declared the end of the Watergate crisis with the declaration that "our long national nightmare is over," died of cardiac arrest April 11 at Sibley Memorial Hospital.

Mr. Hartmann spent 25 years as a reporter and editor at the Los Angeles Times before his interest in conservative Republican politics led him to enter politics. His best-known role was as confidant and senior aide to Ford, a Michigan congressman who became vice president and president.

At the Ford White House, Mr. Hartmann held the title of counselor and directed the president's speechwriting staff. He also was liaison between the executive office and Republican Party organizations.

In his memoir, "A Time to Heal," Ford wrote that he was reluctant to use Mr. Hartmann's "national nightmare" line to describe the electorate's weariness with the Watergate fallout. Because of the crisis, President Richard M. Nixon's resigned in August 1974 rather than face impeachment over the Watergate coverup.

Ford said Mr. Hartmann pushed him to use the phrase for the Aug. 9 address, explaining: "It's been a nightmare for everybody. For you, for me, for Nixon's friends and Nixon's enemies. For everybody in this country. It's something that has to be said, and you're the only one who can say it."

Ford wrote that Mr. Hartmann "was absolutely right," and the speech was arguably the most memorable he gave. After taking the presidential oath, Ford said in his address, "My fellow Americans, out long national nightmare is over. Our constitution works. Our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men."

The statesmanlike speech was the highlight of Mr. Hartmann's work during Ford's short-lived presidency.

Mr. Hartmann was called brusque even by admirers such as Ford and clashed often with other powerful aides, including Dick Cheney, Donald H. Rumsfeld and Alexander Haig. Frequently, Mr. Hartmann felt his influence diminished.

In his 1980 autobiography, "Palace Politics," Mr. Hartmann elaborated on his disagreements with other White House officials and blamed many of the former Nixon aides for Ford's election loss in 1976.

Robert Trowbridge Hartmann was born April 8, 1917, in Rapid City, S.D., and grew up in Upstate New York and Southern California. He joined the Los Angeles Times in 1939, a year after graduating from Stanford University. He had been editor of the student magazine.

During World War II, he worked in public relations and press censorship roles for the Navy in the Pacific. He retired from the Navy Reserve in 1977 with the rank of captain.

Resuming his career at the Times, he was Washington bureau chief from 1954 to 1963 and finished his newspaper career the next year after opening the Rome bureau. He won several journalism honors.

When Mr. Hartmann left journalism, he was hired as an "idea man" for the House Republican Conference and befriended Ford, a Republican from Michigan who was then the House minority leader.

After Ford lost the 1976 presidential race, Mr. Hartmann won a two-year appointment as senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford.

He was a resident of Bethesda and St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, and his memberships included the International Club of Washington and the Chevaliers du Tastevin, a wine appreciation society.

Survivors include his wife of 65 years, Roberta Sankey Hartmann of Bethesda and St. Croix; two children, Roberta Brake of Louisville, Ky., and Robert S. Hartmann of Bethesda; four grandchildren; and two great-grandsons.

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