“‘Tom, you did not hear that.’
“I was speechless – literally. That wasn’t what he wanted to hear.
“Ford walked around his desk and confronted me directly, fact-to-face. I got an unobstructed view of his blue eyes; they weren’t friendly.
“Towering above his quarry, he gently grabbed my tie and said in a firm tone o voice, ‘Tom, you are not leaving this room until we have an understanding'”
So begins the unusual presidential biography, Write It When I’m Gone. In the spring of 1974, Thomas DeFrank, covering the vice-presidential beat for Newsweek, had gotten Gerald Ford to inadvertently acknowledge he was likely to be the next president. At that point, Ford couldn’t let the young reporter leave the room with that scoop – it would have played further havoc with the national politics of that year.
The book is an unlikely view into the thoughts and opinions of a former president. Sometime after Ford’s presidency, DeFrank leveraged his relationship with Ford to have more off-the-record conversations that could be published upon Ford’s passing.
It’s remarkable, in that presidential memoirs tend toward spin or selective memory. However, DeFrank’s book reveals a very candid side of a former president. For instance, Ford reveals his dislike of Reagan was almost as strong as his dislike of Carter. (Reagan had posed a primary challenge in ’76, giving Carter some ammo during the general campaign. In 1980, Reagan had considered making Ford his veep candidate, until Ford’s list of demands was too much.)
The book, of course covers Ford’s pardon of Nixon. Ford was convinced the nation couldn’t move forward without it.
The book is interesting for its backstory on Watergate, as well as the subsequent fallout. Interestingly, Ford reveals that Donald Rumsfeld (and perhaps Dick Cheney) had talked Ford into dumping his vice-president, Nelson Rockefeller, from the ’76 ticket in favor of Bob Dole. The move was designed to appease the ultraconservatives, and Ford later regretted it. “I’m embarrassed that I didn’t tell the right-wingers that Rockefeller had done a good job and would be a good vice president for a four-year period.”
Ford also reveals his opinions on the political maneuvers and calculations of George H.W. Bush, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and George W. Bush. None of it is terribly surprising, only that a former politician was ever as unguarded as Ford was.
While not a comprehensive biography of the country’s 38th president, it’s definitely worth the read for a behind-the-scenes look at presidential politics in the 70s and beyond.
Today marks the 37th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation.