A Time to Heal: The Autobiography of Gerald R. Ford
Martha: The Life of Martha Mitchell
Confession and Avoidance: A Memoir
To Set the Record Straight: The Break-in, the Tapes, the Conspirators, the Pardon
A Time for Truth
“About three o’clock next morning,” Jerry Ford writes in his memoirs, “I was awakened from a sound sleep by a very wet kiss. I opened my eyes. Liberty was wagging her tail, and I knew what that [author’s italics] meant. Groggily, I slipped on my robe and my slippers, took the elevator to the ground floor and walked outside. There I waited until Liberty was ready to return. We stepped inside again, and I pressed the button for the elevator. Nothing happened. Someone had just cut back the power, I figured, so I said, ‘Liberty, let’s walk.’ I opened the door to my left, and we climbed the stairs to the second floor. At the top of the stairwell was a door that led to our family quarters. I turned the knob, but it was locked. Liberty and I walked back down to the first floor, and I tried to open the door there. It was locked too. I must have walked up and down those stairs several times. This is ridiculous, I thought. So I started pounding on the walls.”
Plopping about the White House grounds in his slippers and his pjs waiting for his golden retriever to defecate, trapped in the stairwells, locked out of his bedroom, bumbling with his dog, he was a bow wow of a president, and in case you’ve forgotten how much of a dog he was in your irritation at Jimmy Carter, this besottedly dull volume should remind you. As I read it, I pictured the ghostwriter, wearied past wakefulness by the thin banality of the subject, fighting off the yawns, then giving in to sleep as forehead hit typewriter keyboard. Of course, if you do read every page, you will find small chocolate drops of unintended humor, such as, “I managed to rank in the top twenty-five percent of our class. How that happened I can’t explain.” Or we have the definitive explanation of Mr. Ford’s pratfall out of Air Force One when attempting to deplane in Salzburg, Austria: “I was the most athletic president to occupy the White House in years. ‘I’m an activist,’ I said. ‘Activists are more prone to stumble than anyone else.’… The news coverage [of his bouts with various banana peels] was harmful, but even more damaging was the fact that Johnny Carson and Chevy Chase used my ‘missteps’ for their jokes. Their antics…helped create the public perception of me as a stumbler.” And now you know how that came about.
Richard Nixon might enjoy this book; it has so much about sports in it. The scores of most of the University of Michigan football games in the early 1930s are recorded in the event you hadn’t heard the results. There is a rich discussion of Coach Fielding “Hurry Up” Yost and the single wing. It is also noted that Betty Ford, and may God bless her for her understanding toward Liberty’s wet kisses, missed the first half of the 1948 Michigan/Northwestern game.
Like the man who made him our president, Jerry Ford also is attracted to athletes and sportsworld types. Joe Garagiola gets more space in the president’s memoirs than the Ford children. Election night, Joe, whose wet kisses are the equal of Liberty’s, was invited to the White House. As the bad news from the Southern states came in, Ford writes, “I guess I looked pretty lonesome sitting there in front of the TV. Garagiola came up and put his hand on my shoulder. ‘It’s all right, Prez,’ he said. ‘We’ve given up a couple of runs, but the ball game is only in the top of the fourth; we got a long way to go.”’ After they’d gone the long way, “There we were, two has-been athletes, hugging each other in total silence. Then the mood broke and the tears began to flow. ‘Damn it, we shoulda won. We shoulda won,’ he said.”’ Atta way to go, Prez, baby.
The book is a collection of souvenir ashtrays, of twenty-year-old civic awards whose gold paint is flecking off to show the plastic underneath. Total recall of the imbecilic detail: “Then I flew to Michigan to march—for the twenty-fifth time—in the annual Red Flannel Day parade in Cedar Springs, which bills itself as the ‘red flannel manufacturing capital of the world.”’ Betcha didn’t know that.
There were a lot of Red Flannel Days in the life of Jerry Ford, Liberty, Whatserface and the kids: “…as Vice President…Betty and I [sic] moved up a notch on the social scale and for the first time we had round-the-clock protection from the Secret Service.” And then there are the quotes which should be candidates for bronzing, such as Betty’s exclamation on being told the Nixons would be moving out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue soon. “‘My God,’ she replied. ‘This is going to change our whole life.”’
The parts of the book having to do with Jerry Ford’s public, political life are strangely without Jerry Ford in them. It’s as though the book’s subtitle ought to be “The Autobiography of Jerry Ford as told to Jerry Ford by his Ghostwriter after a Search of the Newsclips.” Apparently Jerry was absent from himself, a guy led around by the nose out of disinterest or a calculated naïveté, if there can be such a thing. How else can we accept the pages of clotted explanation about how he could travel the country for months saying Richard Nixon was an innocent man while refusing to study the evidence even when Nixon offered it to him. No, he says, he preferred to rely on the judgment of former minority leader Senator Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, a man who was himself so ethically compromised by the people he had taken money from that when he retired from the Senate a move was made to name a toll road comfort station after him as a memorial to his career of public service.
Some assertions in the book may be flat out falsehoods, such as the statement concerning Cambodia that “we had tried on at least half a dozen occasions to achieve a negotiated settlement there without success.” Doubtless this came from Kissinger, who, even by Ford’s account, seems to have had absolute free rein during this undistinguished interregnum. From first to last Ford follows the Kissinger interpretation of events, which means, inter alia, the secretary of state escapes responsibility for the destruction of Cyprus and the wretched record in Angola.
Kissinger is adulated on page after page. But Jerry has a good word, a slap on the back, a fanny pat for everybody as he makes you relive a thousand and one nights on the fund-raising circuit. Indeed, I believe he has a sour word for only three people throughout the entire work: (1) Walter Mondale for displaying hitherto unsuspected spine in refusing to shake the hand of one of those graceless Ford whelps at a Columbus Day parade in New York City; (2) Ronald Reagan for poutingly refusing to campaign for him (Jerry can’t get it through his head some people do look at the evidence); and (3) James Schlesinger, who is accused, if you can believe it, of being excessively dovish in his position of secretary of defense.
“Somehow Schlesinger had succeeded in projecting the public image of a hawk. In reality the reverse was true,” writes Ford, who says the man who was to become Jimmy Carter’s secretary of energy opposed development of the cruise missile in addition to nagging everybody about getting American nationals out of South Vietnam before the collapse: “Defense Secretary Schlesinger asked me to start evacuating them immediately. He repeated his request almost daily. Kissinger and I opposed so precipitous a withdrawal. (Later, I learned that Schlesinger had ordered the flight of empty or near-empty planes in and out of Saigon—just to establish for the record, I suspected, that it would not be his fault if we failed to remove all our people.)”
Ford, who seems to subscribe to the theory that a congressional stab in the back lost us the Southeast Asian war, also reveals that Schlesinger was such a loudly cooing dove he didn’t want to go to war over the Cambodian seizure of the American freighter Mayaguez: “Rockefeller favored giving the B-52s the go-ahead. Kissinger preferred carrier strikes if the planes were available, but he was adamant about the need for a strong response…. Schlesinger didn’t seem to want any bombing at all, either by the B-52s or by the Navy carrier aircraft.” Perhaps Mr. Schlesinger, who also has not amassed a reputation as a high-1Q, gifted child in Washington, was far enough up the Stanford-Binet scale to recall the United States had already dropped millions of tons of bombs on that land only to see the founding of a communist government there so savage it makes the Albanians look like moderates.
Considerations of this kind are absent from Ford’s book, and one suspects from the minds of Herr Kriegsdoktor and his sponsor, the lecherous Pocantico Hills Medici, as they sat in the Oval Office telling Liberty’s person on what palm-treed isle the stainless steel eggs should fall. As they talked, did Nelson pat the dog, did Liberty slobber three wet kisses on the merrily malicious face of our curly quondam secretary of state? Ah, Liberty, the stories you could tell if only you could wag your tongue as well as you can wag your tail.
Yet even Rocky, surely no moralist lost in public life, believed in something and knew there is a point at which you must take a stand or reveal yourself to be an absolute nullity. For both him and Ford, that point was the foreign policy plank, a piece of Reaganite jingoism, at the Kansas City nominating convention. “When I read the plank, I was furious,” our erstwhile leader writes. “It added up to nothing less than a slick denunciation of Administration foreign policy…. I met with Rockefeller. When I indicated that I would go along with the plank, Nelson was extremely disappointed. But he recognized the political realities, and like the good soldier he was, he said he would support whatever I decided to do.” Shortly thereafter good soldier Nelson retired to mass marketing reproductions of his art collection.
Ford mentions “political realities” but what emerges from his drawing of himself is a short attention span opportunism which comes out from time to time as the opaque vapors in his skull condense on the bony walls long enough for him to see his surroundings. Then the cloud cover returns and there is nothing to be seen and all that can be heard are muffled chitterings as he and Garagiola search for life’s base paths.
Martha Mitchell didn’t give wet kisses, but if Winzola McLendon’s biography is to be believed, she still was a bitch. This is a book of no political or historical use, and without footnotes its veracity can’t be tested, yet, regardless of what inaccuracies it may or may not contain, it has the stink of dismal truth about it. Brought up to be a Daddy’s Little Girl, what once could have been a pleasing personality and at least a serviceable intelligence was shaped into the kind of woman who at the time of her death “had a collection of over two hundred pairs [of shoes] in practically every color and fabric.” The adult Martha of McLendon’s book, at least before the bad times came, apparently did nothing but drink, go shopping, and make a horse’s ass out of herself in front of boys like John Mitchell who teeheed at seeing a woman impersonating a poodle.
If Washington women/wives seem to become drunks and dope fiends, or should I say suffer from alcoholism and drug dependency, more than people in other categories, perhaps it’s because of their men. Read the Ford memoirs and this one and you can’t decide which is worse—the men’s inattentiveness or their attentions. Martha suffered from both. Either John was never around or he came home with the boys and showed off his little forty-year-old girl Martha.
Not that the boys were above using this self-centered, loud-mouthed female infant. McLendon quotes a staff person from the Nixon re-election committee assigned to Martha as saying, “So they used her for a long time, even in the campaign of 1972, until the Watergate scandal broke. Then they wanted no part of this woman who said what she thought and had it come through as the truth.”
In the end, Martha Mitchell ran for aid and comfort to the other side, to the peaceniks whom she had baited, to the despised liberals. Whether she did it out of outrage at what her husband and his friends had done or because her marriage and her life were sinking in a vat of scotch whiskey it is impossible to say. What can be said is that Martha Mitchell really “knew” nothing; McLendon thinks otherwise, but she can come up with little besides a few disordered snips and snaps from the late Mrs. Mitchell’s brain. With that said, and with the tasteless promotion which will no doubt accompany Martha, this is not a bad book if taken as a story about a woman of our period. It is depressing, saddening to the point you sigh as you read it; yet the protagonist, whether accurately drawn or not, is moving in a manner leading characters in books of this genre seldom are.
That is much, much, much more than can be said of Leon Jaworski’s new book, a work of such self-satisfied, pompous inconsequence only the juniors in Mr. Jaworski’s multi-million-dollar Texas law firm should have to read it. No other reason exists for fighting off sleep through its pages save brown-nosing the boss. Maybe these tales from the mouth of a complacent man were first inflicted on Jaworski’s young associates. Imagine them, precisely turned out in their flared pants, standing deferentially around this former president of the American Bar Association, this famous Watergate prosecutor, this prestigious special counsel to the House of Representatives on the Korean scandal; then one of these ambitious lawyerlings, anxious for a brownie point, says, “Sir, you really should write another book. You’ve led such a fascinating life.” And thus another klunker is born.
Like Jaworski’s work, Judge John Sirica’s also is padded out to book length by long, unnecessary extracts from the Nixon tapes, court records, and such. The Judge joins Jaworski and Ford in their profitless, prolix discussion of the Nixon pardon, saying, “Nixon should have been indicted after he left office…and then, no matter how long it took, he should have stood trial…. That was made impossible by the pardon…. I still have the lingering feeling that no matter how great his personal loss, Nixon did manage to keep himself above the law. He was forced to give up his office, but he was not treated the same way as the other defendants…. If he had been convicted in my court, I would have sent him to jail.”
They didn’t call Sirica Maximum John for nothing, but for some there may be a question whether Maximum John may have exceeded the maximum limit in the way he conducted part of the Watergate business. He himself is sensitive to the Nixon faction’s charge that he used the sentencing power to extort confessions from the Watergate buggers. To defend himself, Sirica quotes from the federal statutes under which he acted. But they do not support him. They say a judge is empowered to impose a maximum punishment provisionally, pending development of the social work information parole officers supply judges for guidance. The language doesn’t license a judge to use this power as a judicial thumbscrew for obtaining information. After reading Sirica’s account of how he handled the trials of the burglars we discover that he was our Judge Julius Hoffman, the ferocious black-robed gentleman who tried too hard to put the Chicago Seven in jail and was therefore repudiated by the appellate court. Sirica’s conduct was never so immoderate, so prosecutorial and wanting in respect for his own office, but by his own description of himself he is a hanging judge, a judge from whom the innocent may have as much to fear as the guilty. In the Watergate matter, it more or less worked out, but clearly, this is no judge to hold up as a model.
William Simon is the only one of our four autobiographers who may still have an important national role to play. At least I guess you would call A Time for Truth, which has sold 200,000 hardback copies, an autobiography, though it is so lacking in organization that it might be better described as a ramble through the super-excited raspberry patch of Mr. Simon’s mind. It is a mind worth taking a look at, not only because Simon is a gifted man but also because the former secretary of the treasury under Nixon/Ford is a major figure in corporate America and an important continuing influence in the Republican Party.
Unhappily, Simon proves again that neither wide knowledge nor culture is needed for success in business or advancement in politics. Not only is his understanding of modern American history, especially FDR and the New Deal, factually mistaken, but his mind is chock full of barbarously erroneous angers such as these: “I discovered that the American intelligentsia vastly preferred impecunious Ph.D.s who destroyed the economy…. America’s major universities are today churning out young collectivists by legions…. The United States…is now ruled, almost exclusively, by a political-social-intellectual elite that is committed to the belief that government can control our complex market place by fiat better than the people can by individual choice.” So much for the proposition that Wall Street, where Simon made an estimated twenty million dollars selling bonds for Salomon Brothers, is where cosmopolitan businessmen as opposed to the visigoths over at the N.A.M. hang out.
On balance, our author was a good secretary of the treasury, although he showed a combative callousness toward those less fortunate or, as he might see it, more sinful and therefore poorer than he. This bragging, bullying quality isn’t an attractive trait in his book either. His stridency, however, is no more a problem than his questionable grasp of reality. For Bill Simon, if for few others, America is being destroyed by a collectivist intelligentsia so that “the problem is that the existing counterintelligentsia has comparatively little access to that broad market of ideas. The reason for that is shocking: There are few voluntary institutions in America today that are organized to finance intellectuals who fight for economic, as well as political, liberty.” If you say so, Bill.
In the past, statesmen have written their autobiographies to put themselves in a better light, to answer their opponents, to give their side of the story, but these autobiographies are more like signed confessions. Obviously, they were written without the publishers giving the authors their Miranda warnings.