Gerald Ford and the Press
From Watergate to a Presidential Bid

Ron Nessen
Press Secretary to President Ford, 1974 - 1977
Thursday, December 28, 2006 11:00 AM

Ron Nessen, press secretary to President Gerald Ford from 1974 - 1977, was online Thursday, Dec. 28, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the former president, from his rise to the presidency after the Watergate scandal to his unsuccessful bid to be elected president.

Read his Op-Ed: Moral Leadership ( Post, Dec. 28)

Full Coverage

Multimedia Retrospective: Gerald R. Ford 1913 - 2006

A transcript follows.


Ron Nessen: This is Ron Nessen. I'll try to respond to your comments and questions about the death of President Gerald Ford.


Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: I was in the Navy aboard USS California when Ford uttered his credulous: The Soviet Union is no threat to the nations of Eastern Europe speech.

Many of us were draftee sailors serving in the nuclear engineer rooms and all of us remembered Czechoslovakia in 1968 and some, Hungary in 1957. I can't tell you how angry and disturbed my shipmates were by this.. stupidity or reality denial.

In 1976, we spent 9 months patrolling the Med largely showing the flag but occasionally having almost run-ins with Soviet naval vessels.

Now you can spin it anyway you wish, but on a nuclear cruiser 30 years ago, our Commander in Chief embarrassed us and our service at sea protecting the waters of the world.


Thanks much. Vietnam era Veteran

Ron Nessen: The question President Ford was asked in that debate was long and convoluted. His intention was to say that the United States would never recognize or accept permanent Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. It didn't come out that way, but that was his meaning.


San Francisco, Calif.: Mr. Nessen, thanks for joining us today to chat, and my condolences on your loss. Since we cannot know whether the nation would have healed better or differently absent President Ford's pardon of his predecessor, and America had rallied around President Ford in his first month in office, couldn't it also be correct to say that the pardon stopped the healing already underway?

Ron Nessen: President Ford said that left-over Nixon matters were consuming 25 percent of his time and 25 percent of his staff's time. He granted the pardon in order to be able to concentrate full-time on the pressing issues facing the nation, particularly the Vietnam war, the economy, and the Soviet threat. From the perspective of 30 years of subsequent history, the pardon is now recognized by most people...including Bob Woodward and the Kennedy "Profiles In Courage" being a right and courageous thing to do.


New York, N.Y.: What was your impression of how President Ford was affected by the criticism of the pardon?

Ron Nessen: He believed the pardon was the right thing to do for the nation -- as most people now do -- and he never had second thoughts about doing it.


Loudoun County, Va.: Ron: What exactly were the circumstances of the departure of your predecessor, Jerry terHorst? I thought he left because Ford would not pardon draft dodgers, but in fact Ford began that process for the country, and went a long way to making that happen.

Ron Nessen: Jerry ter Horst disagreed with President Ford's decision to pardon Richard Nixon, and he resigned in protest. I respect his views. But my view of the Press Secretary's job was that it was immaterial whether I agreed or disagreed with presidential job was to announce and explain the President's actions.


Metropolis, Ill.: Ron, given current White House Press Corps coverage, what do you think is different about coverage of the President now compared to President Ford's tenure.


Ron Nessen: The press coverage of the White House is marked now, as it was when I was press secretary, by a great deal of suspicion and skepticism and downright disbelief. The major difference is that there were no 24-hour a day cable TV news networks in those days. With so much airtime to fill up, cable news channels often fill the time with speculation, predictions, and guesses.


New York, N.Y.: Re. Woodward's article with Ford's embargoed viewpoint on the war.

When a reporter discovers information that might change whether we go to war or who is elected president, doesn't s/he owe it to the nation to make every effort to get this information out? I don't understand journalists or journalism as practiced anymore ... I thought it was the duty of the 4th Estate to enlighten the public about such things. Am I wrong? Ford Disagreed With Bush About Invading Iraq ( Post, Dec. 28)

Ron Nessen: I'm sure there will be a great deal of second guessing about Woodward's decision to keep President Ford's views of the Iraq invasion a secret until after Ford's death. Woodward is not a daily reporter and has an agreement with the Post to allow him this lee-way.


San Diego, Calif.: Mr. Nessen,

Why do you think President Ford did not wish to air his disagreements with the current administration's Iraq policy until after his passing?

Ron Nessen: Having served as President, Gerald Ford knew that such public criticism from a former president would only make President Bush's task of managing the Iraq War more difficult.


Sacramento, Calif.: President Ford said he was a Ford, not a Lincoln. How do you think history will judge Ford's presidency?

Ron Nessen: After 30 years, an historic assessment has emerged: Gerald Ford restored trust in the presidency after Watergate, he ended the Vietnam War in a way that avoided an outburst of "Who Lost Vietnam?" recriminations, and he steered the American economy through extremely high inflation and a very deep recession.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Thanks for taking questions, Mr. Nessen. The Watergate scandal provided the backdrop for my initial interest in politics. I remember thinking how kind President Ford seemed to be. Can you shed any light on what his personal management style was when you worked as his press secretary?

Ron Nessen: President Ford allowed his senior staff members what he called "peeking privileges" -- meaning we could peek into the Oval Office and if he wasn't on the phone or with a visitor, we could go in to ask a question or get instructions. He preferred to get his information in written form rather than from oral briefings. He was an avid newspaper reader -- scanning at least 7 newspapers a day, including the Grand Rapids Press. He didn't like it if he was overbooked with too many appointments.


Laurel, Md.: How well would he have fit into today's southern-dominated Republican party?

Ron Nessen: President Ford was part of a group of moderate Mid-Western Republicans following World War II. There continue to be moderate Republicans in the Mid-West, the South, the East, and the West Coast. Of course, our politics seem to be more polarized these days between the Left and the Right without as many people in the Middle. The Republican Party offers a pretty wide-range on the ideological spectrum. Of course all politicians must represent the views of a majority of their constituents. That's how they get elected.


Alexandria, Va.: Mr. Nessen, enough of this lionizing apologia. Ford bargained for the presidency in exchange for a guaranteed pardon for Nixon. Ford refused to back up troops the U.S. had sent abroad. Ford's sole domestic "program" was his ridiculous little "Whip Inflation Now" buttons. He was a circus act, and his administration was the first to be so obviously undignified and incompetent. Your worshipful comments sound like self-defense.

Ron Nessen: Your views differ greatly from the generally accepted assessment of the Ford Presidency with 30 years of historic perspective. Just to correct one point -- There is no evidence that there was any kind of deal for the Nixon pardon. I was standing beside President Ford when Bob Woodward told him a few years ago that, after examining private papers, he had concluded there was no deal.


Fairfax, Va.: Has there been any reaction from President Bush regarding President Ford's comments on the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which were released by Bob Woodward today?

Ron Nessen: A lot of reaction on this web chat !!!!!!


Springfield, Va.: Mr. Nessen:

What stands out in your mind as the most memorable moment of the Ford presidency that you witnessed firsthand and why? Thank you.

Ron Nessen: One private moment -- When President Ford learned that his beloved wife Betty had breast cancer.

One public moment -- When President Ford was notified that his forceful military response had persuaded the Cambodians to release the American merchant ship Mayaguez and its crew, which they had captured in the Gulf of Siam.


Washington, D.C.: Jim Adams, former Associated Press reporter who traveled with then Vice President Ford. I'm coming in too late to get on but wanted to say hello to you and add that Ford was certainly one of our most honest and straight forward presidents. I don't remember ever hearing him make a statement that was political hooey.

Ron Nessen: Jim -- Having never expected to be president, he didn't weigh and contort every word or action for its effect on a future campaign.


Columbia, S.C.: Two questions, same subject. Chevy Chase has often said in the past that he suspected his weekly "Saturday Night Live" imitation of Gerald Ford as a bumbling goof were ultimately damaging to Ford's re-election. Agree or disagree? Also, you and Ford both appeared on the program in its heyday -- what was the fall-out from that episode among conservatives?

Ron Nessen: Chevy Chase is perhaps displaying a bit too much self-importance. The assessment in the White House was that Ford's agreement to record several bits for the show, and his self-deprecating put-down of Chevy Chase at a White House Correspondents Association dinner, probably helped him with voters because it showed he had a good sense of humor and didn't take himself too seriously.


Waco, Tex.: Thank you so much for agreeing to this Q and A session! I have a question about the youth of America.

As a young college professor born under the cloud of the Nixon administration, I try to tell my students that politics still is an honorable profession, but they are quite dismayed and totally uninterested in such pursuits. As someone who was close to President Ford, and if we could somehow wave a magic wand and convince the students of America that politics needs them, what would you -- what would Jerry Ford -- say to them?

Many thanks!

Ron Nessen: As a former football player, he probably would tell young people, "If you want to affect the final score, get into the game!" I find it very disheartening that fewer than one out of five people under the age of 30 read a daily newspaper. I find it additionally disheartening that half the people under the age of 30 got information they used to decide who to vote for in the last election from Jon Stewart, Saturday Night Live, MTV, Jay Leno, and David Letterman.


Arlington, Va.: Mr. Nessen -- do you think President Bush should declare a national day of mourning on the day of President Ford's funeral, as he did for President Reagan?

Ron Nessen: Yes I do. Many of those who loved and admired President Ford will mourn privately.


Bethesda, Md.: In my mind one of Ford's great legacies was how he PUBLICLY supported his wife in her battle with alcoholism and addiction. In those days it had to have been politically heroic, and probably cost him votes. Your thoughts?


Ron Nessen: Betty Ford performed a wonderful public service by being so open about her breast cancer at a time when that was not usually done. It alerted many women to have breast examinations, which detected their cancer early enough for effective treatment -- including Happy Rockefeller and my own mother.


Salisbury, Md.: Good Morning, Mr.Nessen -- I was rather young at the time, but was later aware of your appearance on NBC's "Saturday Night Live"; at that time a rather offbeat choice for host, but more common as figures like Al Gore and Rudy Giuliani have followed. I wonder how receptive President Ford was to that whole idea? Was it seen by the administration as a chance at good publicity, or an unwelcome risk? (you handled it well, by the way)

Ron Nessen: President Ford had three teenage children living in the White House -- Susan, Jack, and Steve -- so he was very aware of the program. In addition, Chevy Chase was the entertainment at the White House Correspondents Association dinner in 1975, during which he did his "clumsy Ford" routine with President Ford sitting about two feet away from him on the podium. President Ford laughed harder than anyone. He had a good sense of humor and didn't take himself too seriously -- unlike some presidents I could name.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Thanks Mr. Nessen for taking my question.

Could you give us some insight on what it was like when President Ford interacted with the very strong personalities of Rumsfeld and Cheney. Any illuminating anecdotes?

Ron Nessen: One of President Ford's most admirable traits was his ability to find and recruit bright and able young people for public service. Rumsfeld, who had been a Congressman from Illinois, and Cheney, who was an assistant to Rumsfeld, were early examples. Others included Paul O'Neill, Carla Hills, Rod Hills, James Baker, Ed Levi, George H.W. Bush, etc. etc.


Portland, Ore.: I actually read your book "It Sure Looks Different From the Inside."

How has handling the press changed in today's world? Would President Ford's image be any different if here were president today?

Ron Nessen: Well, you are part of a very small and elite group if you read "It Sure Looks Different From The Inside"!

The biggest change in dealing with the press since Ford's tenure is the coming of 24 hour cable news networks, which give the White House, the President, and the Press Secretary much much less time to decide what to do and what to say in a crisis.


Ron Nessen: Thank all of you for participating. I'm sorry I couldn't answer all your comments and questions.

The death of Gerald Ford is a great loss. We all mourn this loss in our own private way.


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