Is Gerald Ford running for President on the NBC ticket? It certainly looks that way.
At a press conference here NBC news president Les Crystal took pains to emphasize that Ford's original agreement with the network was revised in December and that in effect carte blanche has become carte gray. Ford will no longer be permitted a commentator pose but will participate in a series of four presidential "memoir" shows along the lines of LBJ's chats with Walter Cronkite.
Lyndon Johnson wasn't running again, however, whereas Gerald Ford has anything but ruled out the posibility. Political savants say that at the very least Ford wants to keep Ronald Reagan from becoming the 1980 Republican nominee, and prominent exposure on prime time TV could be very handy to that little plan.
And Ford is getting paid a bundle by NBC to boot.
The financial details of the agreement were never made public. But a knowledgeable industry figure says Ford will get $500,000 per show, with probably a four-show maximum between now and election year.
A spokesman at Ford's Palm Springs headquarters says that figure is "way to high," but won't be any more specific.
Crystal said here that the minute Ford's hat topples into the ring the deal is kaput: "Part of our arrangement From B1 is that if he becomes an active candidate then the program or the arrangement is terminated."
But isn't Ford behaving like an active candidate already? "I don't think so," Crystal said. "He says he might like to be President someday, but I don't think he's behaving like an active candidate." How does an active candidate behave? "An active candidate says he is running for office. He is out on the hustings constantly."
As it happens, Ford has hardly been Mr. Shy-boots since he lost the election. The Ford spokesman says that Ford "has traveled more since leaving the White House than he did while he was President." In just under a year he's been to 27 states and logged 250,000 air miles. On Saturday, he'll be speaking to the National Association of Wholesale Distributors.
Ford has been cagey on the question of whether he will run again --which figures, since when he says yes the NBC deal, and presumably the money, will go up in smoke. On Dec. 22, Ford told a reporter half jokingly that "By 1980, I'll be too old to ski, but not to be President." Obviously it's the first half that's the joke.
Crystal says that an active candidate would be "out criticizing his opponents." On Nov. 21, Ford publicly chastised the Carter administration for the way it was handling Israeli-Arab peace negotiations.
Still, Crystal does not think Ford's prime-time exposure gives him an unfair political advantage. "In 1979, virtually on the eve of the 1980 campaign, his book will come out, and our memoir program that year will deal very specifically with Watergate and with the Nixon pardon," Crystal said. "There are many political analysts who think the pardon was his downfall in terms of getting reelected.
"So on the eve of the political year the whole Nixon-Watergate relationship will be opened up again and I don't think that presents any particular political advantage."
Of course, as in the case of the Nixon-Frost interviews, the Watergate shows will probably get great ratings and the others will do zilch. The Ford presidency was not a particularly thrilling era and it's doubtful Americans will eschew "Charlie's Angels" for a stroll down that memory lane.
In the Reagan camp, there is reluctance to speculate aloud on whether Ford will run again. Reagan says through a spokesman here that he "would not want to comment or be put in the position of second-guessing others or helping them make decisions."
Barry Jagoda, President Carter's television adviser, says, "All we know about ford is what he has said -- that he hasn't closed out his options."
But beyond the matter of whether Ford is getting paid for beating his own drum on NBC, there is the deeper question of news pollution. We expect people hired by network news departments to be so far as possible unblased authorities. Gerald Ford can be said to be authoritative but surely not unblased on most of the subjects he'll be dealing with. Placing him in a straight news setting, such as in special reports or on the "Nightly News," can impair the credibility of network news in general.
The very fact that NBC has rewritten the Ford agreement suggests a basic discomfort in the nes department with the whole situation. Among the fringe benefits to be dropped, Crystal said, was an unspecified amount of travel at NBC's expense, including, Ford's spokesman said, an "extensive foreign trip."
NBC news insiders privately view the Ford and Kissinger deals as "unconscionable" and "embarrassing" because of the implicit compromise of their own professional status. They are additionally irked that the deals weren't made by NBC News at all but by corporate president Herbert Schlosser, who may not have realized how large a can of worms he was opening when he signed up the dynamic duo. He got his stars but earned a lot of resentment from the news people.
Thus, Crystal might have been trying to reassure his own staff when he emphasized here that Kissinger, while a "valuable asset," remains a "private citizen" who is "not an employee of NBC" and whose role is "not that of a journalist." The distinction may not be as clear to viewers who see Kissinger chatting with David Brinkley on Kissinger's first major special Friday night or to those who have seen him commenting on the "Today," show and other NBC news reports.
Maybe it's a tattered canon by now but it's still supposed to be an operative principle of American journalism: The news reporters get paid but the news sources don't. Just because this ideal has been violated before doesn't make new infractions any more appetizing or easy to live with.
Richard Wald, the former NBC News president Schlosser fired last year, said yesterday he thought the better part of valor would be not to comment on the ethics of the Jerry and Henry shows.
"You've instantly started on one of the questions why I am no longer at NBC," Wald said from New York, "I don't want to discuss it. I'm trying to be a gentleman. I don't want to embarrass Les Crystal; he's a fine man."
Part of the general chagrin at NBC News over this checkbook superstar journalism is the fact that Ford's razzle dazzle agent at William Morris, the ubiquitous Norman Brokaw, engineered a deal in which the really spicy stuff Ford might say about Watergate has to wait until his book is published. So NBC has paid its millions without hope of a Watergate scoop.
The White House is watching all this with bemusement. "One of the things we have tried to do is respect the prerogatives of news organizations to make their own ethical judgments and ethical calls," Jagoda says. "There was too much second-guessing of news organizations in the past and we don't want any part of that."
Yet if Jagoda refrains from denouncing the NBC deal, he does concede that it "presents a lot of problems for a broadcast journalist" and that "while I like the idea of having diverse presentations of views on television, including Ford's and Kissinger's, this seems to be more than an opportunity to express views. They've become an actual part of the apparatus. I don't think it's a matter of political ethics. It's a matter of journalistic ethics."
For NBC, the third-place network, whose ratings are in rags and whose news operation is undergoing morale problems and personnel shifts -- both the "Nightly News" and the "Today" show are considered to be "in trouble" -- the Ford and Kissinger shows add a couple of fat straws to a weary camel's back.
But as long as Schlosser is running the network, and hiring news people over the head of the news chief, neither Jerry nor Henry is likely to get a heave-ho. It's a mess any way you look at it, and anything but a proud moment for broadcast journalism.