National Commentary

Helen Thomas: Ford Was A Good Accidental President

WASHINGTON — Reporters are not supposed to be too cozy with their sources, especially presidents.

The professional fear is that the journalists could be co-opted by that friendship and remain mute about stories that they should tell.

If it were a grave issue of war and peace, there would be a dilemma for the reporter. But often the revelations that a president makes to a reporter are interesting — rather than important — and so there is no real harm done when the reporter withholds the info.

Thomas M. DeFrank, Washington bureau chief of The New York Daily news, had a close relationship with the late President Gerald Ford, who died last December at age 93.

DeFrank has written a fascinating book titled "Write It When I'm Gone" based on a series of off-the-record interviews with Ford over a period of years starting in 1991.

DeFrank actually began covering Ford when President Richard M. Nixon introduced him as the nation's new vice president in 1973, replacing Spiro Agnew who fell from grace under corruption charges.

Ford was no dummy. He knew — as did most of Washington — that the Watergate scandal would inevitably lead to the political demise of Richard Nixon.

As vice president, Ford ran into trouble with Nixon loyalists after speculating about which Nixon administration officials he would fire if by chance he became president.

Discussing the problem with DeFrank, the author said Ford was fuming over being portrayed as a "low voltage plodder."

Ford then asked DeFrank why the Nixon aides were attacking him.

"They're angry and they're bitter because they know Nixon is finished," DeFrank replied. "It's over. He can't survive and you're gonna be president."

DeFrank wrote: "Before I had time to reflect on my own audacity, Ford floored me with his totally unanticipated answer."

"You're right," Ford went on, "but when the pages of history are written no one can say I contributed to it."

Then DeFrank said Ford seemed thunderstruck "at the enormity of his mistake" and told DeFrank that he could not leave the room until they had an understanding.

The understanding held for many future interviews with Ford demanding, "Write it when I'm dead."

Ford was welcomed with a sigh of relief when he became the nation's 38th president on Aug. 9, 1974, after Nixon was forced to resign because of the Watergate scandal.

But within a month, he committed a politically fatal mistake by pardoning Richard Nixon on Sept. 9, 1974, after getting word that Nixon was distraught, perhaps suicidal.

DeFrank wrote: "I'm still convinced the pardon finished Ford's chance to escape the unique historical status of America's only unelected vice president and president, an anomaly that bothered him far more than he admitted."

"In time, however, the pardon has been judged a principled decision of statecraft that helped right a wounded and polarized nation after a profound constitutional crisis," DeFrank wrote.

Overnight the enormous goodwill for Ford swiftly dissipated in the wake of the Nixon pardon and his "popularity plummeted," DeFrank noted.

Publicly, Ford never acknowledged any remorse over his generous gesture to Nixon but we White House reporters knew the cost and the continuing cloud of suspicion that a deal may have been made before the Nixon resignation was obtained. That deal would have been a resignation in exchange for a pardon.

Ford always denied it.

Ford had aspired to be speaker of the House — not president — and was a Republican loyalist and leader from the time he was elected to Congress from Grand Rapids, Mich., in 1949.

Ford truly enjoyed being president and went into a funk after he was defeated by Jimmy Carter who later became a close friend.

DeFrank portrayed a private Ford who could resort to profanity when angered.

Ford viewed John Dean — the White House aide who blew the whistle on Nixon — as "the real skunk of Watergate," according to DeFrank. When Ford became president, he happily fired James Schlesinger as defense secretary — the new president considered him arrogant.

But despite all, Ford could not get himself to condemn Nixon except to say he had a "character flaw."

DeFrank has written a wonderful book which will inform readers about a good and courageous president — but one who probably won't wind up on Mount Rushmore.


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