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He’s Not So Dumb

Accompanying Ford to his hearing was a young lawyer named Benton L. Becker—he was seen conferring with Ford over several documents just before Ford’s own testimony. Mr. Becker has had a wonderful history, hovering in the wings of several big stories, vivid yet peripheral, evasive even as he elbows his way in. He served three years in the Justice Department, and got to know about congressional investigations when he helped prepare a criminal case against Representative Adam Clayton Powell. In 1970, he left the executive branch, was hired as a staff member on Joe Waggonner’s congressional staff, and also opened a private practice in Kensington, Maryland.

These activities were not enough to keep Mr. Becker busy—he also conferred extensively with Robert Hartmann on ways to keep the drive against Justice Douglas alive. Ford had given Hartmann’s speech on April 15, 1970, after Nixon’s second court nomination had been rejected. On September 3, 1970, Becker wrote a letter to the lawyer for Louis Wolfson, the convicted financier who had been associated with Albert Parvin. Becker, looking for Parvin material that might hurt Justice Douglas, asked for an interview with Wolfson, and promised “to assist him in any way available to me.”

Becker claimed to be writing not only for himself but for “my clients, Congressmen Ford, Wyman, Waggonner and others,” who also expressed sympathy with Wolfson. Ford and Wyman both denied that Becker was their lawyer at the time; and working on Waggonner’s staff did not seem to qualify him as Waggonner’s lawyer, either. Representative Drinan put it best: “My legislative assistant does not write letters saying that he represents Congressman Drinan, and I do not think anybody on any staff of any Congressman should say that they represent, that they have been retained; that is not really true. You were not retained by those Congressmen. You were on the Government Federal Payroll.” By the time of Ford’s hearings, Becker had called up Dr. Arnold Hutschnecker, the man involved in some of Robert Winter-Berger’s allegations against Ford; and Becker again represented himself as Ford’s lawyer, though he later admitted he was not. One would think Ford would learn, in Becker’s case as in Winter-Berger’s, to avoid those who misrepresent themselves as Ford’s agents. But Ford showed up with Becker at the hearings, and had more business in store for him.

What kind of assistance did Becker’s letter offer to Wolfson’s lawyer, in the name of congressional “clients”? The lawyer, William O. Bittman, says that Becker, when he telephoned him out of the blue, offered certain information that would be of use. Asked to put his offer in writing, Becker composed the letter already referred to. In response to that, Bittman wrote: “When we spoke over the telephone, you indicated that your clients had some information and might well be in a position to help Mr. Wolfson in his present situation.” Becker denied making any such offer, and said that he was calling merely to offer the “help” of an old friend from the Justice Department.

But Mr. Bittman does not remember knowing Becker in the Department, and Congresswoman Holtzman pointed out that the eagerness to renew old ties is belied by the fact that he did not respond to Bittman’s request by supplying him with any information. In an interview with Waldie, Becker claimed his offer was to donate his personal services to the Wolfson legal team, preparing briefs and the like (nothing at all can fill up Becker’s busy schedule). Since Bittman was a member in a very large firm, it seemed unlikely that he would need a volunteer brief-writer. Mr. Becker lamely amended his suggestion to an offer “including but not limited to brief writing or anything else that an attorney might do.”

Floundering deeper all the time, Becker now thought he could become credible by admitting to selfish motives. He wanted to see if there was any business Bittman’s firm could throw his way:

Representative George Danielson: Was it your motivation to assist Mr. Bittman pro bono publico, or did you expect to get something back for it?

Becker: What I expected, frankly, if anything, was simply to establish a relationship between a Washington firm and a Maryland firm.

Danielson: Where is Kensington, Maryland, how far from Washington?

Becker: It is in Montgomery County.

Danielson: Would it be over a hundred miles?

Becker: Oh, no, sir.

Danielson: Would it be two hundred?

Becker: Did you say over two hundred?

Danielson: Where is it, how far from Washington?

Becker: Maybe ten, maybe fifteen miles.

Danielson: Commuting distance?

Becker: Oh, yes.

Danielson: I know on the letterhead which is kind of blurred, that Mr. Bittman’s firm had sixty-nine lawyers as of the time this letter was written. What help do you suppose they would need in Kensington, Maryland?

Mr. Becker did not make a very good witness. He soon reached an advanced state of dither:

Well, wait, offering that to Mr. Bittman. What I was doing to Mr. Bittman, I felt, was simply—and this is, I should add, by way of reconstruction, when I think back this past weekend and looking at all these letters. What I think I was simply doing is simply letting Mr. Bittman know that a former colleague, what he was doing and where he was doing it, lest a possibility ever came up for some co-counsel relationship or something of that nature. I wasn’t offering myself in that way.

But members of the committee could dismiss Becker, like Winter-Berger, as one who used Ford’s name without his knowledge. Father Drinan seemed to speak for a number of those on the committee when he said: “I am afraid, sir, in my judgment, you seem to become more implausible at every moment…. I believe Mr. Bittman [about Becker’s offer to give some government information or aid the Wolfson case], and I cannot accept or really believe your interpretation of your letter or the letter of Mr. Bittman.”

After this unpleasant time with the committee, Becker continued to be controversial. He joined the law firm of ex-Representative William Cramer, an old Ford buddy, and became counsel for several figures prosecuted in Maryland scandals. One of these figures, Joel Kline, testified that he directed Mr. Becker to lie to federal prosecutors. He also said that Becker transmitted the false information to the prosecutors, and wanted Kline to pull the strings that would make him a Montgomery County judge. Becker denies the cooperation in perjury but admits that he asked Mr. Kline if he could help him secure a judgeship. At the same time, in 1972, Kline’s partner Eric Baer admitted to perjury and said that Becker, acting as his lawyer, had known that he was committing perjury. By that time the prosecutors let journalists know they were interested in investigating Becker.

Meanwhile, what had happened to Becker’s relationship with Gerald Ford? That interested Father Drinan at the time of the confirmation hearings.

Drinan: And you have had no transactions with Mr. Ford’s office from the termination of the Douglas matter until his nomination as Vice President?

Becker: No transactions. I have met him, I have seen him.

Drinan: You have not represented him?

Becker: No, sir.

Drinan: Would you say that you did say to the doctor that you represented him, that you were his lawyer, because we have a doctor here and he got the clear impression that you represented him.

Becker: Yes, I believe I testified to that.

Drinan: Represent him in what sense?

Becker: Mr. Cramer, Mr. Haber and I are doing anything that we can to assist Mr. Ford with the confirmation proceedings.

It seems the kind of help Ford could do without. Yet when the news of Ford’s secret transition team emerged, who but Benton Becker was among those planning for the takeover? Perhaps, one could add, Mr. Ford knew nothing of Becker’s activity, since the transition team tried to leave Ford plenty of room for “deniability” about plans to become president while he was still vice president. But that will not explain the next, most surprising thing of all—that when Ford plotted the pardoning of Richard Nixon, working with only a few intimates, the man who commuted to San Clemente with the pardon in his briefcase was: Benton L. Becker! And Becker worked out the arrangement that would have given Nixon access to his papers.

Becker first shows up, in Jerald terHorst’s biography of Ford, on page 229—in the last chapter, on the Nixon pardon. To judge from that book, you would think that Ford had no earlier dealings with Becker, no reason to wonder at his odd ways:

On Saturday night I [Mr. terHorst] had been given a copy of a tentative draft of the Nixon statement that Benton Becker, a Washington attorney working on special assignment as Ford’s emissary, had brought back from San Clemente the previous day. But we had no assurance that Nixon would follow that text to the letter, so I delayed reproducing it for the news media. It was a wise decision. Checking with Becker about thirty minutes before the President spoke, I learned that Nixon was doing what he had so often done with personal statements and speeches while in the White House: he was revising it up to the last moment. Becker advised me to expect some changes.

Perhaps the least pardonable aspect of the Nixon pardon was the use of this strange intermediary to conduct the delicate bargaining. The weirdest thing of all is that, if Becker is to be believed, Nixon told him, after concluding the negotiations: “You are a fine young man. I wish I’d had young men like you around me.” Becker passes the Nixon test—which, if nothing else did, ought to give Gerald Ford second thoughts about his agent. Becker’s relationship to Ford, through Robert Hartmann, seems to be that of a crony-of-a-crony. This suggests the real resemblance between Ford and that odd new idol for Republicans, Harry Truman. Hartmann stands in the noble line of Harry Vaughn, the embarrassing old pal who likes to speak for his boss. As Reeves puts it, “Bob Hartmann was the king of Gerald Ford’s hill—and it was a pretty low hill.”

One other episode from the hearings would not merit further discussion, but for the way new developments cast light back on it. The Fords, it turns out, are not quite as stodgy as they seemed. Mrs. Ford snapped Mrs. Grundy’s garter by saying her daughter might have a teen-age affair. The president liked, for a while, to have swinging bachelor David Kennerly hanging around him. One son nightclubs with Bianca Jagger. One son, according to the Reeves book, shocked servants at Walter Annenberg’s estate by showing up with “a live-in girl friend.” It almost looked like a spicier Brady Bunch had moved into the White House. The public outcry against Mrs. Ford’s “immoral” talk was played up by those who want to float Ronald Reagan’s candidacy on a combination of Grundyism and bigotry. But it was hard to feel much pity for the president, since he was just getting his own medicine. Ford expectably came to his confirmation hearings with some wellworn “dirty books” he had displayed on many occasions, after learning that Justice Douglas published articles in Evergreen Review and Avant Garde. Ford tried to angle the nudie shots for TV at his hearing, and Jerome Waldie could not maintain his line of questioning:

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