Barry Werth’s account of the first 31 days of the Ford Administration is, quite frankly, jaw-dropping. Obviously, it was an unprecendented time in American history; you had the resignation of President Richard Nixon after he clearly broke the law several times over and had put himself in the express lane for prison, the “accidental” nature of Ford’s ascendency to the Oval Office after Nixon Vice President Sprio Agnew resigned amid clear evidence he took kickbacks from awarding state contracts as Governor of Maryland and the suspicions that some sort of deal had been cut between Ford and Nixon Chief of Staff Alexander Haig for the infamous Nixon pardon. And somehow we were led to believe in the mid-90’s that Clinton’s transgressions with a certain intern were somehow in the same league as this mess…
The catastrophic situation Ford inhereted from his disgraced predecessor would be enough to drive most people into an early grave. Inflation was out of control, Vietnam was still a mess, Cambodia was self-destructing, everyone on every side of the political spectrum was calling for Nixon’s head, Nixon himself was concurrently near death yet still fighting like a badger for A) his Presidential materials (most of which could likely further incriminate him in additional crimes) and B) his freedom from prosecution. Amazingly – most likely becuase everyone was so sick of the word “Watergate” – Ford set off out of the gates quite successfully, shirking the reputation of Presidential defiance toward the press, Congress and, well, people in general set by the Nixon White House. Ford fixed his own meals (poetically captured by the press during an unguarded moment while Ford prepared an English muffin for breakfast one morning), he attempted to dress himself (this did not last long), he held press conferences that were cordial (as opposed to the steel-caged death-match vibe every Nixon press conference had) and he sought the opinions of many, not just a select few.
This strategy worked great until he seemingly lost his mind and pardoned Nixon on the 31st day of his presidency. Through this narrative though, it’s evident that despite innuendo pointing to a deal, Gerald Ford, a simple, pragmatic, humble man on which whom history thrust the greatest of responsibilities, simply thought a pardon would move the country beyond Nixon and Watergate. Most of his advisors warned against it. Several aggressively recommended against it. One resigned in disagreement. Tip O’Neal responded to Ford’s informing him of the upcoming pardon with, “Jesus, Jerry, don’t you think it’s a little soon?!” But, Ford went ahead anyway becuase he thought it was the right thing to do. In today’s age of decision-by-poll-numbers and waffling for political outcomes, Ford’s headstrong attitude for decision-making, whether right or wrong, makes for a refreshing read. The moment by moment account of how he arrived at the decision to pardon, and all the periphery he had to navigate getting there, is fascinating. Add to it a young Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld as up and coming staffers and the whole thing has the feeling of Shakespearean tragedy.
For further reading: Exile: The Unquiet Oblivion of Richard Nixon by Robert Sam Anson – in my opinion, the most interesting part of Watergate was not how Nixon got himself into it, but how he got himself out of it…
This is a great book to pick-up and just jump around through. I’ve always been almost as fascinated with Ford’s Presidency as I am with Nixon’s, mostly because it’s usually portrayed as a work uncompleted. Its also got a peripheral quality to it, even though we all know that for more than 2 years, Ford, as President, could have dropped an atomic bomb on whomever he liked.
This poignant look at President Ford is not just about his short time as Commander-In-Chief. DeFrank highlights then-off-the-record conversations that span almost 40 years on subjects ranging from the mildly/somewhat surprising (e.g., Reagan was a total prick behind closed-doors, someting I do not find hard to believe at all…) to the completely unsurprising (e.g., Clinton tried to pick up every woman he met at a Ford-hosted cocktail party shortly after being elected).
Among the most shocking revelations? During Monicagate, Clinton pled with Ford to “make some calls” which Ford rightly refused to do unless Clinton came clean. The impasse was unbreakable and, well, we all know what happened next. The other surprising revelation to emerge was the mutual respect and friendship that developed between Ford and Jimmy Carter – the depiction of which reminded me an awful lot of the apparent admiration Clinton and George H.W. Bush have for one another.
Ford as a person is well-defined, perhaps better than anywhere else I’ve read. Put it this way, after reading how much the guy liked butter pecan ice cream, I went out and bought a pint myself, enjoying it thoroughly. Write It When I’m Gone is a historical artifact of the highest order. It gives one of our most overlooked Presidents a human side that is almost always ignored in political retrospectives. Gerald Ford, regardless of what else you may think of him, was a patriot first and foremost that, I think, sincerely cared more about America than party, ideology or winning elections.
If y0u’re noticing a trend develop, good for you. When The Cupcake gets into someting, he goes all in. This is the academic’s version of the Ford Presidency; it’s light on entertainment and heavy on legislation, forgien policy decisions, the 1976 primary campaign and everything in between. I would recommend it for hardcore political junkies only (thankfully, I am one, so I still found this wildly entertaining). Of particular interest is the chpater on the fall of Saigon and the horrendous inaction of Congress (both parties) to provide funding for the South Vietnamese to properly defend/evacuate. This topic alone is likely worth 2 or 3 more books.
– All academic books like this contain bibliographies of epic proportions. The one found in this book will likely keep any Ford buff going for years; citation after citation (with descriptions!) of killer stuff…
The Smoking Cupcake, October 2011