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He’s Not So Dumb

Portrait of a President

by Hugh Sidey, photographs by Fred Ward
Harper & Row, 190 pp., $12.95

The President

by John Hersey
Knopf, 153 pp., $6.95

Gerald Ford and the Future of the Presidency

by Jerald F. terHorst
The Third Press, 245 pp., $9.95

A Ford, Not a Lincoln

by Richard Reeves
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 212 pp., $8.95

For a while, it was enough not to be Nixon. We did not expect Ford to be perfect; just not to tell unnecessary lies. There was no economy to Nixon’s lying. He added the pointless little excess—like falsifying his return date from Moscow, to suggest he missed the countdown toward a Democratic National Committee break-in. Nixon offended as much by being maladroit as by being malevolent. Ford’s have been good workmanlike lies, the kind we allow politicians when telling the truth would embarrass them.

At his confirmation hearings for the vice presidency, Ford had to squirm through long questioning under oath about his attempt to impeach Justice Douglas—yet he only told a couple of direct lies. It was a refreshing change from the Nixon performance. True, he said, “My action was totally independent of anything that happened in the Senate other than the coincidence that Justice Douglas had a somewhat similar arrangement with the Parvin Foundation to that of Justice Fortas with the Wolfson Family Foundation.” He meant that his action was “totally independent” of the Senate’s rejection of Clement Haynsworth for the Supreme Court—and that was one of his lies.

Ford rested his argument on chronology; which is what undid him. Ford said that he began his own investigation into the possibility of impeachment “sometime in the summer of 1969,” after Justice Fortas resigned over the Wolfson fees: “it was sometime shortly after the Fortas matter.” Since Fortas resigned on May 14, 1969, even an investigation launched in the dog days of a Washington summer was off to a sluggish start. Ford was just trying to establish that his work on impeachment began before September 3, 1969, when Haynsworth was nominated by President Nixon—and well before November 21, when Haynsworth was rejected. One cannot make the post hoc, ergo propter hoc argument if Ford began his effort ante hoc.

For most congressmen, “starting my own investigation” means one of two things: 1) a bit of information has been leaked or volunteered, which he wants to use, or 2) he wants to make a speech and has assigned an aide to start collecting information in order to draft it. Ford claimed that he began with 2), with an assignment to Robert Hartmann that he look into this subject, and only moved back to 1) when, shortly afterward, he asked the Justice Department for help in his independent investigative effort.

That, in itself, would be strange enough. Congress usually has an adversary relationship with the Justice Department. Why would an attorney general leak raw FBI files to help one lowly congressman impugn the honor of a Supreme Court justice? But that is just what John Mitchell did in this case, according to Ford’s sworn testimony before his fellows. Mitchell said he would look in the files and then suggest promising “areas” for Ford to investigate. In line with this, Mitchell sent Will Wilson (shortly afterward forced out of the Department under shadow of a scandal back in Texas) with what Ford kept referring to as “blank papers,” giving topic heads for Ford’s staff to investigate. Again, the story is odd to the point of zaniness if one keeps trying to believe it. The Justice Department cared enough for the congressman, and so little for the Supreme Court justice, that it tried to help along an impeachment effort by hints and nudges; but, at the same time, it cared so little for the effort’s success that it would not back up those hints with information gleaned from its own files.

But here is where chronology began to trip him up. Congressman Waldie of California asked Ford to check his appointments book and establish the date when Will Wilson brought him the “blank papers.” Ford, promising candor after Nixon’s resistance to subpoenas, came back with the information. Wilson had come to his office on December 12, 1969. Take a quick run-through of the dates again—May. 14, Fortas resigns; sometime, vaguely in summer, Ford claims that he launched an independent investigation; September 3, 1969, Haynsworth is submitted to the Senate for confirmation; November 21, Haynsworth is rejected; December 12, three weeks later, Wilson arrives with the dirt on Douglas. The dates tilt and bunch around fall, not spring (when Fortas resigned), or summer.

Previously, Ford claimed that he called Mitchell at the beginning of his investigation. So, “shortly after” Fortas resigned, Ford asked Mitchell for a tip on “areas” he might look into. Mitchell promised his help. Then, while poor Ford waited, all the time wondering what to investigate, Mitchell sat on the request for six months. Even if we labor to stick to Ford’s story, we must wonder why Ford didn’t wonder at this sudden unearthing of material, asked for half a year ago, in the aftermath of Haynsworth’s rejection.

But we do not have to labor at Ford’s original chronology—he was ready, by this time, to abandon it. He no longer called Mitchell “shortly after” the Fortas resignation. He did not even dawdle toward the telephone that “summer” (thus beating the September 3 nomination date). Now he thinks he called Mitchell in the fall. When he has to, he can change his story on the stand. Those who think Jerry Ford “too dumb to fart and chew gum at the same time”* need only read the confirmation hearings to see he can maneuver inch-by-inch to save his skin. While he could no longer say, very credibly, that he asked Mitchell in the summer for things he got in December, he keeps insisting on a date in the fall—i.e., before winter: “I would assume sometime in October.” That is: a full two months before the Wilson material arrived (rather than six months earlier)—but still before Haynsworth was rejected. The canny old gum-chewer knows better than to multiply lies needlessly. So his tactic at this point was one of volunteered ignorance. He entertained confusion, hoping it would prove contagious:

Representative Waldie: So that there is no possibility that you could have in fact called Mr. Mitchell subsequent to November 21, 1969, the date that Mr. Haynsworth was rejected.

Ford: Would you repeat that again, please?

Waldie: There is no possibility that you could have called Mr. Mitchell subsequent to November 21, 1969, the date Mr. Haynsworth was rejected by the Senate?

Ford: It is possible that I did contact Mr. Mitchell prior to that time.

Waldie: No, no; I said subsequent to that time.

Ford: What I said was it is possible that I could have called Mr. Mitchell prior to that time, and—

Waldie: But what I asked, is it possible you could have called Mr. Mitchell subsequent to November 21, 1969, to set up the appointment with Mr. Wilson with you on December 12, 1969?

Ford: It is possible, but it is more likely that it was sometime in October, prior to November 21.

It takes an almost magic inoffensiveness to get away with that. Most committee members congratulated Ford on his candor at the end of these hearings. We approach the man’s real genius.

Waldie, after brilliant questioning, concluded: “I believe the testimony confirms that in fact your call to your attorney general was subsequent to November 21, 1969, the date the Senate rejected Mr. Haynsworth. There is a controversy in your statement and my belief. I believe that Mr. Mitchell was acting on behalf of the president and I believe further that you were aware of that, and that what was in fact occurring here was a political act on the part of the Department of Justice to assist in removal of a Supreme Court justice.” In other words, Congressman Waldie thought that Congressman Ford had been lying under oath—and then Congressman Waldie voted to confirm Congressman Ford as vice president of the United States. I later asked him why. “Anything was better, at that point, than Richard Nixon in the White House.” It was enough.

Return, for a moment, to those “blank papers” Congressman Ford got from the Justice Department. The papers were far from blank. One of them ran to two full pages of single-spaced typewritten summary, with facts and dates crowded together. Why “blank,” then? Because they lacked identifying letterhead or department stationery. This was uppermost in Ford’s mind, since he did not want to be put in the position of knowing he had leaked raw FBI files.

Ford had another line of defense that he clung to against the odds—that the many factual allegations in his speech against Justice Douglas were based on independent investigation by his office, and not on the “blank papers.” He insisted on this with great urgency: “They gave me no factual information. I made some subsequent investigation.” That was another lie. Under Waldie’s questioning, Ford’s office could turn up no record of investigative work beyond the “blank papers” themselves. Ford could name no “investigators” other than Robert Hartmann, who drafted the speech, “and myself.” FBI stuff was incorporated almost verbatim in Hartmann’s speech, errors and all, with no corrections or confirmation. The “blank papers,” which Ford said gave him “no factual information,” supplied all the apparent “facts” about the Parvin Foundation’s ties to organized crime. Here is Hartmann’s speech, as given by Ford.

In January 1963 the Albert Parvin Foundation decided to drop all its Latin American projects and to concentrate on the Dominican Republic. Douglas described President-elect Bosch as an old friend.

And here is the FBI source-sheet:

January, 1963. Albert Parvin Foundation decided to abandon all projects in Latin America not related to the Dominican Republic…. Douglas called Bosch an old friend.

It is not hard to write speeches—or, as Ford put it, “conduct investigations”—by that method. Here is another sample of Hartmann’s work:

With the change of political regimes the rich gambling concessions of the Dominican Republic were up for grabs…. This brought such known gambling figures as Parvin and Levinson, Angelo Bruno and John Simone, Joseph Sicarelli, Eugene Pozo, Santa Trafficante Jr., Louis Levinson, Leslie Earl Kruse, and Sam Giancanno to the island in the spring of 1963.

And here is his source:

There have been indications from time to time of other Mafia figures who have moved in and out of the gambling establishments in the Dominican Republic, including Joseph Sicareli of New Jersey, Eugene Pozo of Florida, and Santa Trafficante, Jr., of Florida. In the spring of 1963 Louis Levinson was negotiating with the Dominican Republic, as well as Leslie Earl Kruse of Chicago and also Sam Giancanna of Chicago.

Hartmann, compressing while copying his source, just strings out the names (Angelo Bruno was brought in from the immediately preceding sentence), not bothering to notice he has put Levinson in twice—and he adds Parvin just to keep the tenuous tie with Douglas. There have been many arguments against the leaking of raw FBI files to the public, and Ford’s own leaking act confirms them all. Meanwhile, his doughty “investigator,” Robert Hartmann, has become White House counsel, one of the principal advisers to the president of the United States.

  1. *

    Richard Reeves finally prints the characteristic Lyndon jibe in the form passed around by newsmen, before it was scrubbed up for The New York Times.

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