Former White House press secretary Jerald F. terHorst dies at 87

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 2, 2010; B06

Jerald F. terHorst, 87, a newspaperman who resigned after one month as White House press secretary over his disagreement with President Gerald R. Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon, died March 31 of congestive heart failure at his home in Asheville, N.C.

Mr. terHorst, Washington bureau chief for the Detroit News, was Ford's first appointment in 1974 when Nixon resigned the presidency and Ford, then vice president, succeeded him. Thirty days later, Ford announced that he would pardon Nixon for any Watergate-related crimes he might have committed. Upon learning of the pardon the night before the announcement, Mr. terHorst said he was unable to defend the decision.

"It really was for me an agonizing decision," he later said. "I stayed up most of that night just formulating a three-paragraph letter of resignation."

Quitting over matters of principle is so rare in Washington that the letter gave him membership in what former Secretary of State Dean Acheson once called "the most exclusive club in the America -- men in public life who have resigned in the cause of conscience."

Mr. terHorst wrote in his resignation letter:

"As your spokesman, I do not know how I could credibly defend that action in the absence of a like decision to grant absolute pardon to the young men who evaded Vietnam military service as a matter of conscience and the absence of pardons for former aides and associates of Mr. Nixon who have been charged with crimes -- and imprisoned -- stemming from the same Watergate situation.

"These are also men whose reputations and families have been grievously injured. Try as I can, it is impossible to conclude that the former President is more deserving of mercy than persons of lesser station in life whose offenses have had far less effect on our national wellbeing."

Mr. terHorst returned to newspapering as a senior correspondent and syndicated columnist and in 1981 became director of public affairs for the Ford Motor Co. He moved from Alexandria to North Carolina in 2006.

Jerald Franklin terHorst was born in Grand Rapids, Mich., on July 11, 1922. He attended Michigan State University for two years and served in the Marine Corps during World War II in the Pacific. He graduated from the University of Michigan in 1947. He was recalled to service in the Marines during the Korean War and was based in Quantico, Va.

Mr. terHorst had already begun his journalism career, working first for his hometown newspaper, where he began covering Ford, who represented Grand Rapids in Congress. In 1953, Mr. terHorst joined the Detroit News. He moved to Alexandria in 1957 when he joined the newspaper's Washington bureau. Within three years, he was bureau chief. As a reporter, he was in Dallas on the press bus when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. He later accompanied Nixon to China.

When Mr. terHorst was appointed press secretary Aug. 8, 1974, an Associated Press story mentioned that former White House aide Charles W. Colson had tried to leak derogatory material about Daniel Ellsberg's attorney to Mr. terHorst. Ellsberg was a former Rand Corp. and Defense Department analyst who gave newspapers and Congress secret documents about the Vietnam War that became known as the Pentagon Papers. Mr. terHorst refused Colson's offer, the AP story said.

"He was a very principled man, and those values were quite evident to all of us growing up," said his son, Peter terHorst of Asheville. Neither Mr. terHorst nor his wife, who was also a journalist, regretted his decision to leave the White House, their son said Thursday. "We don't always have examples that rise to that level, but they both were people of integrity."

A Washington Post Style story on Mr. terHorst's first day in office quoted an anonymous reporter who said: "He seems too nice to be press secretary. He'll never last in this lion's den."

After leaving the White House, Mr. terHorst was named the first recipient of the American Association of Journalists and Authors' Conscience-in-Media Award. George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and its School of Media and Public Affairs have named an annual award for excellence in political reporting for him.

In 1974, he wrote the book "Gerald Ford and the Future of the Presidency" and five years later co-wrote "The Flying White House: The Story of Air Force One" with Air Force One pilot Col. Ralph Albertazzie.

Mr. terHorst, the only person to have held all five elective offices in the Gridiron Club, an exclusive organization of Washington journalists, was also a past board member of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the advisory council for the National Press Foundation and WETA.

He also enjoyed fly-fishing for trout and attending Appalachian arts and crafts festivals.

His wife of 64 years, Louise Roth terHorst, died last year.

In addition to his son, survivors include three daughters, Karen Morris of Decatur, Ga., Margaret "Peggy" Robinson of Alexandria and Martha Lubin of St. Petersburg, Fla.; and eight grandchildren.

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