Every great man nowadays has his disciples-and it's usually Judas who writes the biography. -Oscar Wilde
It could be called a major entry in the Piranha School of Memoirs-and former first lady Betty Ford isn't at all happy about it.
Mrs. Ford's former press secretary, Sheila Rabb Weidenfeld, in an upcoming book "The First Lady's Lady," says that Mrs. Ford's daughter Susan was dating a married man while living in the White House and that her mother knew about it, that son Jack got stoned on marijuana and that son Steve while tipsy took a pickup on a "weaving tour of the White House" that ended with an all-night assignation in the Queen's Bedroom.
Yesterday, Mrs Ford pointedly answered her fromer top aide at the Washington Press Club. "As a mother I feel very defensive, I think to write about any children who have lived or are living at the White House is a very unfair sort of thing. Particularly when when it is critical.
"To take things that have been confided, really, and put them in print I think is very bad."
She added, "I would like to think that anyone working with me in a close personal and confidential way that I discussed issues or conversations with in confidence would consider that as confidential and not write about it."
Weidenfeld, 35, protests that she was trying to "humanize" the people within and the institution of the White House and that the pre-publication accounts were "taken out of context." However, her Publisher, Putnam's, in its blurb in the galley proofs chooses to star these very same pearls of history. Because of the controversy about the book, the publication date has been advanced from February to January.
What is more, the book presents Weidenfeld, a former TV producer, as the mastermind who packaged, produced and presented the candid and quotable Mrs. Ford as if she were a TV show. She fantasized, for example, on the way home from her interview for the job, "a grand finale salute to the most outstanding First Lady in American History-Betty Ford! (A Sheila Rabb Weidenfeld Production.)"
And in another chapter, Weidenfeld complains that she was understaffed and had "too little time to take the initiative. I want to continue to build Mrs. Ford's public image so that she does become a first lady with easily identifiable and respected personality traits. The more she is taken seriously, the more she can do.
"I told all this to Mrs. Ford today. I wonder if she understood."
This comes as a revelation to those who knew and admired Betty Ford and her longtime stance on such issues as the Equal Rights Amendment-or heard her field tough questions since she has been out of the White House.
And some of the long knives of Washington are now out for Weidenfeld, many from those who are repeatedly zinged in the book. UPI reporter Helen Thomas, portrayed as a screaming harpie by Weidenfeld, said, "Sheila was always out of her league-and her class. She never understood the press corps. Mrs. Ford has more depth and maturity than Sheila will depth and maturity than Shelia will ever have." Weidenfeld's response to Thomas: "Helen hates me."
And Ford's press secretary, Ron Nessen, is presented as not overly competent: a churl who wouldn't give her an AP or UPI machine for her office, and usurped her place in making announcements on Mrs. Ford's illnesses. Weidenfeld was disturbed that she was not allowed to eat in the White House mess at prime-time lunch hour with the West Wing "big boys," as she terms them.
Nessen responds: "I certainly loomed larger in her life in the White House, apparently, than she loomed in mine. She seems consumed by the most minor, trivial matters. She was always like a dog yapping at your heels, saying you had to 'produce' the president, while we were talking about very important issues. I hope her veracity in the book is higher than her veracity in the White House. Right up to the very end when Mrs. Ford had a stomach upset, had a cold and sore throat, Sheila did not want to tell."
Weidenfeld wrote that Nessen went around telling the White House aides that he could never have understood how he could have been a member of the press corps-"a bunch of jerks." He responds: "That's a goddamn lie."
And top campaign adviser Stu Spencer responds similarly to Weidenfeld's claim that he pulled Jack Ford off the campaign trail after he revealed in an interview that he had smoked pot: "Bull - - -."
Spencer sputters off on a diatribe of the kiss-and-tell memoir, "It's just hopeless. Insanity has set in. I never worked for two finer people than the Fords. That's why this stuff bothers me. One of those media consultants has me quoted so accurately in his book at one meeting when I was ripping those asses [other aides] up and down, that I wondered if he had a photographic memory. Turned out he was racing out of the meetings and taping everything."
Kin and Lovers
We have grown accustomed to tittle-tattle from the likes of White House kennel keepers and ex-mistresses, from Warren Harding's Nel Britton (of whom he wrote: "I love you garbed but naked more") to JFK's Judith Exner. And kin of the famous dabble in dirt, from Lyndon's brother, the late Sam Houston Johnson, to Carter's worm-farm uncle, Hugh. And assorted aides have had a revenge field-day zapping other assorted aides since FDR memoirists Ray Moley and Jim Farley. It is, after all, almost a requisite to expose palace intrigue among the clash of hangers-on, the ambitious and egotists who abound in White House politics-generally with a self-serving caveat that the author was the only sane one there. And assorted Jackiologists have turned a sizable number of trees into pulp.
However, Weidenfeld especially inflames many in Washington because no one can recall a first family quite so "lovingly" remembered in print. She seems actually shocked at the response, and defends herself:
"I wrote the book to increase the psychological understanding of the White House. Some very petty things go on there and the West Wing has a sexist attitude about the East Wing."
"I believe it is an honest portrayal of an honest and decent family and one the American people should be proud of.
And so, Weidenfeld felt the need to include this tidbit about Mrs. Ford talking about Mrs. Carter: "She greeted the Carters graciously when they entered the White House." But "it was a different attitude than the one she had toward Mrs. Carter during the campaign . . . 'Saccharin sweet but always ready to stick a knife in your back.'"
Mrs. Ford has spoken reservedly but judiciously about Mrs. Carter in public. Weidenfeld says, "I don't think that was a betrayal. I don't think that reflects poorly on her. It says that you get very caught up in a campaign." Such a statement, however, is not in the book.
Weidenfeld goes on at length about Mrs. Ford's slurring her words as a result of alcohol and pills.
"I explained the vicious circle of alcohol, pills and emotional pressures," says Weidenfeld. She does not mention that Mrs. Ford dealt with her alcoholic and drug problem candidly and courageously last spring. "I couldn't. This was written in diary form; I was writing about events as they happened." Asked if she ever considered an epilogue to explain such matters, Weidenfeld said, "You're making me very defensive," and terminated the phone interview.
White House Empathy
One White House staffer close to Mrs. Ford said, "I think when you accept a position like that, you put your personal life on hold. It requires total trust that shouldn't end when you leave the White House. But Sheila was totally into herself, and I don't say that in a mean sense. It was just that everything revolved around her. She doesn't have the empathy she should have to write deeply about the Fords. It was always, 'How does this affect me and my job? When Mrs. Ford was in a great deal of pain, Sheila would just push, push, push her. The bottom line is that the book says more about Sheila than it does the White House.
"I'm sure Sheila thinks it is an honest book and from her point of view, I have no doubt that it is."
A Washington memoir can be justified if it contains some redeeming historical, social and political value, but this is often lost today in the lure of the six-figure advance.
Coates Redmon, a former speechwriter for Rosalynn Carter, who quit along with several others in the low-paid, hassle-filled East Wing, says she hopes her own memoirs will inform the public about that "unique" place, the White House. "The air is simply different there," she says.
"A press secretary is almost like the priest. I wouldn't say those things about my friends' children. Out of context is not the point. The point is the fact they were in at all. A member of the press may have the right to let the public know when politicians act like slobs, but if I am employed by the Carters, I don't have that right-and it doesn't stop when I leave."
Some superb Washington books, like Harry McPherson's "A Political Education," have managed to combine the anecdotal with illuminating judgment about the institution of politics and the men who run Washington.
His mentor, Lyndon Baines Johnson, was presented in balance, from warts-and-all pettiness to his political genius.
And William Safire's "Before the Fall" portrait of Nixon is complex and penetrating, albeit too sympathetic for most critics.
Safire, who emptied out his drawerful of memos, notes and observations, into a huge book, contends, "Every political figure hires a writer with the complete understanding the person is going to write a book later. He should expect to see it appear some day.
"But you ought to consider the effect that revealing confidences has on other historians," although, he feels, the seemingly trivial can be meaningful. "I felt the point at which Nixon stopped putting the towel on the ottoman before he put his feet on it, a year and a half after he entered the White House, was revealing." It showed to some columnists who devoted space to that revelation, that the uptight Nixon finally felt at home in the White House.
Safire said, "In a close call I would go for telling what happened-such as a politician's opinion of another-if it were revealing." One such point he makes in his book is that Nixon said his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, was "power crazy," and an egomaniac.
But one chronicler says he would stip short of Ron Nessen's quote that Gerald Ford referred to Alexander Solzhenitsyn in a private meeting as a "goddamn horse's ass." The memoirist said, "That could be harmful politically. If Nessen had written, 'Ford called me a horse's ass,' that would be all right; it reveals a strong, honest and forthright Jerry Ford."
Tone of the Excerpts
Nessen was criticized by columnists as dishing the dirt when a few excerpts of his book were released in advance, including that Ford sometimes flirted with good-looking women and that Mrs. Ford was jealous. He also mentioned her drinking. But for the most part, Nessen's book is more serious than that.
Looking back, he feels sorry that he quoted Mrs. Ford as making "snapping" remarks about other women. "I did not convey adequately her more good-natured tone."
The Last Word
It is a wonder to many Ford White House staffers why Weidenfeld took on some of the people she did in her book. One is Don Rumsfeld, now the president of G.D. Searle Pharmaceutical Company, and a powerful player in Republican politics through five presidents. The other is Bill Gulley, of the White House Military Affairs office. Anonymous Secret Service aides tell Weidenfeld that Nixon was "Living like a king" because Gulley sent planes with White House wine to Nixon.
Weidenfeld quotes this same anonymous secret serviceman as saying that Rumsfeld was a close friend of Gulley. Rumsfeld is portrayed as a shouting sexist who treated her, and the first lady, with condescending contempt.
Rumsfeld said, "This is all really funny. I don't know Gulley well. Big people write with a degree of tolerance, not revenge.
"And Sheila's forgotten one of Rumsfeld's rules. 'Don't play president. You're not. The constitution provides for only one. Don't forget, and don't be seen by others as not understanding that.' . ." He adds, "you could change that to first lady."
Gulley says he is definitely going to have the last word.
"She complained in the book that she couldn't get a White House car. She had a car assigned to her that the women use, and a driver," says Gulley, "She complained that he didn't have a chauffeur's uniform. That started back in the Johnson era when the women would be driven around for the social events, to get their hair done. Do you know what it would look like for the whole world to walk by and see a White House car parked in front of a beauty parlor?
"And besides, Rumsfeld said, 'Don't give her a goddamn thing.'
"Sure I sent things back and forth to Nixon-that was part of my job and it wasn't illegal. But never wine. You know, after we left the White House she called everyone, asking for any kind of dirt she could get on me. I'm surprised she opened herself up." The Piranha School of Memoirs seems destined to prevail once more. "My memoirs are coming out next spring and I have many, many things on Sheila. I have them for a fact." There was an ominous chuckle. "And I belong to the don't-get-mad-get-even school." CAPTION: Picture 1, Sheila Rabb Weidenfeld; Picture 2, Mrs. Ford at the Press Club, by Harry Naltchayan