Transcript

Gerald Ford: Life and Legacy

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Lou Cannon
Former Washington Post Staff Writer and Reagan Biographer
Thursday, December 28, 2006; 12:30 PM

Lou Cannon, former Washington Post staff writer, was online Thursday, Dec. 28, at 12:30 p.m. ET to discuss the life and legacy of Gerald Ford.

Multimedia Retrospective: Gerald R. Ford 1913 - 2006

A transcript follows.

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Lou Cannon: I've known Gerald Ford for a long, long time. I knew him when I covered Congress and at the time he became vice president and then president I was the White House correspondent for The Washington Post. When he became president after Nixon resigned Ford was determined to show the world and the White House press corps that he was the opposite of Nixon in many respects. One of the ways that he did this is that he made himself accessible to the press corps and particularly to The Post, which had been barred even from the press pool during the Nixon administration. So I saw President Ford often and kept in touch with him after he left the White House and saw him many times over the years, most recently in June of this year. He was always friendly and straight forward in answering any questions.

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San Francisco, Calif.: Mr. Cannon, it's an honor to have you join us to chat today, sir, I am a great admirer of yours. Were you privy to either of the Reagan/Ford co-presidency discussions (1976 or 1980), or did you afterwards hear anything more about them from either man that you could reveal now?

Lou Cannon: I don't think there's much to these discussions that hasn't been revealed; I've discussed them in my books about Reagan. At the time I didn't believe that those discussions would ever lead to the selection of Ford as vice president and wrote in The Post that the vice president was going to be George H.W. Bush. What happened is that the passions of the entourage took over and they began discussing how the presidency would be divided up between Reagan and Ford. It never made any sense because the power of the presidency can't be delegated in that way.

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Springfield, Va.: Mr. Cannon:

History seems to view Ford's pardon of Nixon as the right thing to do. I wonder about the timing of the pardon so soon after taking office. Do you think Ford would have been better served by delaying the pardon or was it done at the right time? Thank you.

Lou Cannon: I do think the pardon was the right thing to do and it's very hard to know what the best timing would have been for that. I discussed this once with Mr. Ford and he suggested that he had been influenced by these various stories in the press, including a story of mine, which said that Nixon was not well. I think that Ford felt that he had to do it as soon as possible but I think he would've been better served had he prepared the American people a bit more for what he was going to do.

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Bethesda, Md.: Two questions: First, When Ford was being confirmed for vice president by the U.S. Congress, he specifically stated that if he became president as the result of Nixon's resignation or removal from office, he would NOT run for president in his own right. Why did he break his word? Second, when Ford tried to keep Reagan from running for the GOP nomination by offering him a cabinet position, why did he offer him the minor posts of Commerce and Transportation, which he knew Reagan must refuse, instead of a more appropriate job like Secretary of Defense? Was this a deliberate insult to future President Reagan or did he simply feel like the California governor was not up to a major assignment?

Lou Cannon: I you are mistaken about Ford's promise; I have carefully examined the record an know of no promise he ever made not to run for president in his own right.

As to the second part of the question, I think that Ford and his team made a serious mistake offering Reagan such a relatively minor post in a forlorn effort to keep Reagan from running for president. What the offer reflected was a misunderstanding of how determined Reagan was to run and how formidable a candidate he could be.

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Russell, Kan.: Do you think that if Ford had personally asked Ronald Reagan to be his running mate in 1976, Reagan would have felt obliged to accept? Could the two men ever have worked harmoniously together or were the personal and philosophical differences between them just too great?

Lou Cannon: One of the great unknowns of modern presidential history is what Reagan would've done if Ford had said to him after winning the nomination, "Governor Reagan, the nation needs you and I need you on the Republican ticket to win the presidency."

Reagan's advisers feared that he would have no other choice but to say "yes." For this reason, they had made an agreement with the Ford team under which Ford promised that he would not ask the question. Ford kept his promise. If Reagan had been on the ticket, I think he was a loyal enough person that he would've worked with Ford and that Ford also would've worked with him.

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Washington, D.C.: Thank you for taking my question. I have read that President Ford never got along with President Reagan. Is this true? Why? Was this a lasting bitter feeling?

Lou Cannon: Ford and Reagan were certainly never best pals but the reports of enmity between them have been exaggerated. What happened is this: Reagan had a difficult time in 1976 assimilating his defeat at the hands of Ford for the Republican presidential nomination. He assumed that Ford would lose the election and he was already looking ahead to 1980. In the 1976 campaign Reagan provided some help to Ford but far less than Ford thought he should have given. However, by 1980 Ford enthusiastically backed Reagan in the campaign against President Carter and the two men got along reasonably well after that.

Shortly before the 1980 election I asked Ford why he was doing so much to help Reagan when Reagan had not done all that much to help him. Ford replied that Reagan would be a better president than Jimmy Carter.

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Alpharetta, Ga.: Was President Ford pro-choice? Did his stand on the issue change over time?

Lou Cannon: The terms "pro-choice" and "pro-life" had not come into widespread usage during the Ford presidency which began soon after the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized many abortions. So this was not a litmus test issue for Ford nor do I believe he had ever thought that much about. Over time, after he left the White House, Ford became more aware of this issue and I think was generally on the side of the pro-choice forces. I'm not certain about this, but I do know that he had become a very strong supporter of stem cell research.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Had Gerald Ford been elected in 1976, do you think the Equal Rights Amendment would have been ratified?

Lou Cannon: No, I don't. By that time the conservatives opposed to the amendment were strong in the state legislatures and there simply weren't enough states that were going to ratify the amendment.

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Bartlett, Ill.: At what point did Ford and Jimmy Carter become close friends? Was it after both had been out of office? Was the relationship truly close, or did they just keep occasional contact as former presidents seem to do now and then?

Lou Cannon: I don't know the exact date at which their friendship started. I do know that in 1981 when both Ford and Carter represented President Reagan at the funeral of President Anwar Sadat, they formed a bond. Over the years Ford and Carter did favors for each other in terms of the presidential libraries and speaking appearances and they came to like and respect one another.

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Washington, D.C.: Lou:

President Ford is being canonized now as "the right man at the right time." I am curious, what do you think would have happened, if say, Nixon's first choice for VP instead inherited the Nixon mantle (i.e.: Connolly)...

P.S. -- Big Fan of your book about the LAPD from years ago.

Lou Cannon: That's an interesting question. First of all, I don't think John Connolly would have been confirmed by a Democratic Congress. Second, while Mr. Connolly had many abilities I don't think he would've been the reassuring figure that Gerald Ford was in this moment of crisis.

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Washington, D.C.: Several stories have noted the star quality of the Ford administration staff. I'm struck by the stories of Ford's decency and comity as an individual, in comparison to the confrontational nature of former staffers such as Cheney and Rumsfeld when dealing with Democrats or the press.

Were the Ford staffers always this aggressive and how did that work with Ford's nature, or have they changed over time?

Lou Cannon: During the Ford presidency Don Rumsfeld and even more, Dick Cheney, who succeeded Rumsfeld as White House chief of staff, were quite cooperative with Congress on many issues. I think that the president, whoever he may be, sets the tone. It may be true that Rumsfeld and Cheney have changed in some respects but the big difference between now and then is that President George W. Bush has not been the cooperative president that Ford was. However, we shouldn't let our fond memories for Ford put two rosy a glow on this: Ford had a number of important bills passed over his veto.

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Santa Barbara, Calif.: From an ethical standpoint, did you ever hear of, or see an evidence of Ford acting in anyway less than the person of integrity that he has been described?

Lou Cannon: I do not know of any instance in the presidency where Ford acted unethically. He can be questioned on his political judgment and certainly on his opinions but his moral character was strong and good.

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Glenside, Pa.: Did President Ford have a particular opinion about the decline of the moderates of the GOP, and the rise of the Christian conservative movement? I know the former is difficult to talk about because it was a fairly recent, evolving phenomenon.

Lou Cannon: I talked to Ford about this issue over the years. He didn't use the phrase "Christian conservatives" but he was very concerned that the party had lurched too far to the right, particularly on social issues. And an interview I did with him in 2004 to update his obituary in The Washington Post Ford also said that he regretted in retrospect that he had not withdrawn U.S. forces from Vietnam sooner than he did. There isn't any question that Ford was uneasy about our present adventure in Iraq although he didn't want to undercut the Bush administration by talking about it publicly.

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washingtonpost.com: This concludes our discussion with Lou Cannon. He had to leave for another interview. Thank you for joining us.

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