Gerald R. Ford: His Political Life

David S. Broder
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, December 27, 2006 11:00 AM

Washington Post columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Broder will be online Wednesday, Dec. 27, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the political life of Gerald R. Ford, 38th president of the United States.

A transcript follows.

Audio: Broder on Ford's Life and Career (Washington Post Radio, Dec. 27)

Full Coverage


Silver Spring, Md.: Hello and thank you for doing this discussion on such short notice. One of the captions for the photos of President Ford on the Post's Web site notes that Ford was not Nixon's first choice to fill the vice president's position upon Agnew's resignation. Who was his first choice? Given Ford's position as minority leader and how well regarded he was, I was surprised to learn he had not been Nixon's first choice. Thank you.

David S. Broder: The historians have said that Nixon's first choice was former Texas Governor John B. Connolly who had served as Treasury Secretary. But Nixon was told that Connolly would have difficulty being confirmed as vice president by the Senate and House because Democrats were still resentful of Connolly's having switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party.


New York. N.Y.: As a leader who was never elected to national or even statewide office, should Gerald Ford be given all the honors and respect traditionally given to presidents?

David S. Broder: In my view, President Ford is fully deserving of the traditional honors. He served the nation in its highest office at a difficult time and with great distinction.


Ocala, Fla.: Thanks for joining us today Mr. Broder. If you could speculate, what would the consequences of President Ford NOT pardoning President Nixon have been?

David S. Broder: What an interesting question. My guess is that there would have been strong public pressure for prosecution of Richard Nixon, since several of his White House associates were already facing criminal charges. A lengthy trial would have been a difficult ordeal for the country, something President Ford wanted to spare Americans. I cannot, of course, guess what the verdict might have been.


New York, N.Y.: Thank you for doing this chat. What role, if any, did Pres. Ford play in subsequent administrations? Did Clinton/Bush ever call on him for advice or anything like that?

David S. Broder: I think there were occasions where the first President Bush consulted with President Ford. But I do not know how often that happened.


Salt Lake City, Utah: Hi David,

Thanks for taking questions. In the last ten years we've had an interesting national lesson in how two very different presidential administrations respond to criticism of government corruption, misjudgments, and ethical lapses. Ford assumed office during a period in history characterized by rampant criticism of the government and politicians. How did he and his advisors handle this? Are there lessons modern presidents could learn from Ford's example?

David S. Broder: Thank you for the question. I think President Ford's response the scandals of the Nixon era was based on his belief in openness of government. He and his associates made themselves easily available to reporters and ordinary citizens to explain what they were doing and why. Whenever there were questions about ethics, Ford responded directly, and on one famous occasion, even went before a committee of Congress to explain what was happening. He set a model of candor that could be instructive for our current political officials.


Washington, D.C.: As a young man with no memory of the Ford administration, I must rely on the teachings of my elders. I know Ford's decision to pardon Nixon was wildly unpopular at the time, yet my American history textbooks and teachers and generally agreed with Ford that the decision was necessary and unavoidable. Still, I can't help feeling that the nation missed an important opportunity to expressly define what is, and is not, acceptable exercise of presidential power. With the further lessons from the Clinton impeachment and the resurrection of the imperial presidency under Bush, do you believe history still supports Ford's choice to end the "nightmare" rather than seek a full accounting?

David S. Broder: That is a difficult question. History is likely to make a divided judgment on President Ford's decision. For myself, I thought and wrote at the time that he was well justified to spare the country further struggling with the Nixon legacy, but I can certainly acknowledge the point you make about the lost opportunity to set a clear legal standard for future presidents.


Beaumont, Tex.: Presidential send-ups on "Saturday Night Live" began with Chevy Chase as a very clumsy Gerald Ford. Do you know how Ford took these sketches?

David S. Broder: Yes, I do. He found Chevy Chase very amusing and appeared with him several times, but he always told us reporters that he wanted us to remember that it was a parody, and he was in fact a pretty graceful athlete.


Oklahoma City, Okla.: At the time of pardon, many in the press and public cried foul, alleging that a deal had been struck (i.e., Nixon's resignation in exchange for a pardon). Did you feel that way at the time, and have your feelings changed?

David S. Broder: No, I felt and wrote at the time that President Ford made the right decision, but you are correct that there was widespread criticism of his action. In retrospect, I would still defend what he did.


Washington, D.C.: I read in the obituaries today that President Reagan never once invited President Ford to the White House during the former's time in office. What was the nature of their relationship, particularly following their battle for the '76 nomination?

David S. Broder: It was never a cordial relationship. President Ford believed that President Reagan's challenge in the Republican primaries of 1976 cost him dearly in his effort at election. He was also dissatisfied with the degree of support that Reagan gave to him after the convention in Kansas City. When Reagan was nominated in 1980, Ford made it clear that he would not have been his choice for the Republican nomination.


Philadelphia, Pa.: How will history judge Mr. Ford's work on the Warren Commission? Did his part in that cover up have anything to do with his choice as VEEP?

David S. Broder: All right, so we are into Warren Commission conspiracy. I do not think seriously anybody believes that the two periods of President Ford's life are in any way connected.


Chatsworth, Calif.: What do you regard as Ford's single greatest accomplishment as president?

David S. Broder: Unquestionably, his restoration of public trust in the presidency and in the conduct of that high office. The breach of trust under Richard Nixon had been terribly damaging to the country and Ford did a great public service in rebuilding the structure of public confidence in our government.


Alexandria, Va.: Do you have any sense of how Nixon regarded Ford? Did he like him, respect him? I always thought Nixon did not care for the man, and choose him as VP because Ford was a popular figure in Congress and could be easily confirmed.

David S. Broder: There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support your view. Nixon spoke despairingly of Ford in White House conversations, some of them captured on tape. Undoubtedly Ford's popularity in Congress was a major reason, perhaps the principal reason, that Nixon chose him to fill the vacancy for vice president when Spiro Agnew was forced to resign.


Arlington, Va.: President Ford had closely observed the Vietnam War and difficult consequences for our Nation. Did he ever make any comparisons to the War in Iraq? If not what to you speculate his comparison may be? Thanks.

David S. Broder: I am not aware of any comments from President Ford about the war in Iraq and I cannot speculate about his attitude.


Rockville, Md.: You note that President Nixon wanted John Connolly to replace Agnew. Didn't Nelson Rockefeller come into the mix, but Nixon decided he didn't want someone who was "more presidential" to be no. 2?

Subsequently, comment if you would about the selection of Rockefeller to be VP and how Ford wrestled with the decision to dump Rockefeller from the ticket in 1976.

David S. Broder: I am unaware of any serious consideration that Nixon gave to Rockefeller. They had been rivals and I doubt that Nixon wanted Rockefeller as his possible successor. When Ford had to decide about keeping Rockefeller on the ticket, he was under heavy political pressure to appease the conservative wing of his party. He was persuaded that dumping Rockefeller might dissuade Ronald Reagan from challenging him in the primaries. It did not. And later Ford said publicly that he thought dropping Rockefeller was the biggest he had made as president. He reached out to Rockefeller and Rockefeller's family in his retirement years.


Alexandria, Va.: One of the most fascinating TV events I remember is the 1980 GOP convention when there was talk of a Reagan - Ford co-presidency. Was this really considered seriously? And do you think Ford really wanted to run in 1980 but was dissuaded by other factors, including his family? Thanks.

David S. Broder: That was an amazing day at the Detroit convention. For a few hours that day, I think both Reagan and Ford were seriously considering Ford going on to the ticket, the idea was being pushed by a number of people with ambitions of their own, including Henry Kissinger. But when it came time to make a decision, both men realized the folly of that scheme and they dropped the plan quickly, setting the stage for Reagan to pick George H. W. Bush as his running mate.


Laurel, Md.: For some years after he left office, people criticized some of Ford's post-presidential acts for seeming a bit tacky. (A big contract to be a commentator on NBC for instance.) OTOH, Ford was not an independently wealthy man like most modern presidents except Clinton have been.

Did Ford's financial state play a role in the kind of ex-President he was?

David S. Broder: I don't know the answer to that question. You are correct about Ford's personal finances, but he had many wealthy friends who saw to it that he had many money-making opportunities as soon as he left the presidency, so I don't think he ever felt financially pressed.


Edmond, Okla.: Do you have any sense of how President Ford coped with the enormous pressures heaped upon him in assuming office the way he did. It would've destroyed lesser men (and it nearly did destroy Mrs. Ford -- though this is not to disparage the great contributions she would later make as a result). Was he a man of faith? Was he naturally cool under pressure? What sense do you have?

David S. Broder: President Ford was a man of faith, though he never advertised his religious beliefs. I am sure that he found strength in his religion and he also had a wonderfully supportive wife in Betty Ford, and a host of friends in both parties from his years of service in the House of Representatives. He had a gift of friendship and engendered extraordinary loyalty among the men and women who served with him in the White House, and I am sure all of that helped him cope with the pressure of the job.


Ramsey, N.J.: Why did President Ford say that Russia did not dominate Eastern Europe in his debate with Jimmy Carter? Did he really believe that, did the pressure of the situation force him to misspeak? Seems astounding that a President would make such a comment.

David S. Broder: I think he simply misspoke. He said afterward that what he meant to imply was that the U.S. would not accept the notion of permanent Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, but obviously he knew that Soviet forces were in Poland and other countries at the time that he spoke. Put it down to nervousness or just a bad moment but it was costly to his campaign.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Today's story mentioned that President Ford received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Is that true or is it being confused with another honor not related to heroism in battle?

David S. Broder: I think it is another medal to the best of my knowledge he did not receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for anything with his service in World War II.


Bowie, Md.: Ford was the only Republican presidential candidate since 1964 to do badly in the South. How well would he have fit in today's Republican party?

David S. Broder: A good question. He might have difficulty being nominated for president in today's Republican party because he and his wife were outspoken advocates of the pro-choice position on abortion. Republicans have not nominated a candidate of that stripe since President Ford.


McLean, Va.: Some have said that Ford was too much under the sway of Kissinger. At the time was there any serious consideration of getting a new secretary of state?

David S. Broder: Not that I can recall. In the 1976 primaries, Ronald Reagan was highly critical of Kissinger and the policy of detente. But Ford never considered abandoning Kissinger as far as I know.


Arlington, Va.: Is it possible that because Ford did not have to raise any funds to campaign for his presidency, he had more flexibility to be open and honest in office?

David S. Broder: It is possible. He came to office with far fewer obligations than most of those who have gone through the normal process of a lengthy campaign and all the fundraising that is required for it. I think he valued that freedom of operation during the time he was in office.


Lincoln, Mass.: What was Ford's relationship like with Tip O'Neill, both as Congressmen and after Ford became president?

David S. Broder: Ford and O'Neill were great friends in Congress and the friendship continued after Ford moved to the White House. The very first trip that Ford took as president was to Tip O'Neill's annual golf tournament in Massachusetts and the two old friends played around together as cozily as they ever had in the past.


Eagle River, Ark.: President Ford inherited a nation not only weakened by the Presidency but also an economy ravaged by war and spending and a demoralized military fresh from our defeat in Vietnam. How well did President Ford address these issues and in context weren't these concerns sufficient to justify the pardon and get on with their solutions? Who was giving economic advice during his presidency?

David S. Broder: You are correct that President Ford was dealing with a difficult domestic and international set of challenges. I think the record on the domestic side was mixed. His economic team, led by Alan Greenspan, first thought the challenge was inflation, but suddenly found themselves coping with a severe recession. They struggled to keep policy abreast of changing economic conditions. Abroad, Ford had to deal with the remnants of the Vietnam War and an aggressive Soviet Union. He did his best but I doubt that anyone would claim brilliant success for him on that front. Certainly, the challenges facing the country were large enough to justify his decision to tempt to put the Nixon controversies behind him by issuing the pardon.


Bridgewater, Mass.: What kind of a relationship did Ford develop with Carter after they were both ex-presidents? It seemed quite a novelty at the time to see the two former rivals appearing together, promoting the same cause.

David S. Broder: They developed a warm relationship. I think that is a tribute to President Ford's friendliness. He managed to forgive Carter for the barbs during the campaign and they worked together very effectively on several humanitarian causes.


Rockville, Md.: We know that the Nixon library is built near subterranean sliding plates that may one day cause an earthquake ... So, is there any truth to the rumor that Ford may be buried in California, on a hill overlooking Nixon's faults?

David S. Broder: The answer is no.


Ex-Washingtonian: When High Sidey died, Gerald Ford wrote a lovely tribute in which he mentioned the irony that he had designated Sidey to eulogize him at his own funeral. Any idea whom Ford chose to replace Sidey? Did Ford plan all the details of his own funeral well in advance? If so, why the delay in announcing them now?

David S. Broder: I recall that letter about Hugh Sidey very well and it was typical of President Ford's generosity of spirit. I don't know if he chose a substitute for Hugh, nor do I know how much of his own funeral he had planned.


Rockville, Md.: I recall that President Ford was the target of at least two assassination attempts. Did he ever speak about those incidents? How would you say it affected him?

David S. Broder: He spoke about them quite often and quite openly and said that he never feared for his own life despite those assassination attempts. Knowing him, I can believe that his personal safety was not a matter of real concern for him. He had been through the war and like others of his generation had a fatalistic attitude about death.


David S. Broder: I'd like thank everybody for participating in this conversation and for sharing your memories of a man for whom I have great admiration.


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