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.
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:
Ford: Now, I have a copy of Evergreen here. I don’t know whether you have ever had an opportunity to see—
Waldie: Wait a minute, Mr. Ford.
Ford: Will you let me answer the question, please?
Waldie: Well, I will if you will—
Ford: Here is a copy of—
* * *
Waldie: Mr. Ford, do you think that is very good taste to display those before the television cameras?
Ford: Well, I am displaying them before the committee.
Waldie: Well, you are also displaying them before the television cameras…. I do not understand the necessity of going through the big bit with the nude pictures.
It was part of Congressman Ford’s old routine—telling people how shocked he was to find that the Douglas prose had been put to bed along with an article called “The Decline and Fall of the Female Breast.” To judge by the 1970 speech, you would think Ford was only revived by a liberal use of smelling salts and hymnbooks after aides showed him these magazines—with pictures “perhaps more shocking than the postcards that used to be sold only in the back alleys of Paris and of Panama City, Panama.” He could not even bring himself to read most of the titles, “so vulgarly playing on double meaning.” He felt obliged to suspect every title in Justice Douglas’s low literary lair: Why is the magazine called Evergreen? “Perhaps the name has some secret erotic significance.”
Ford is not the backwoods innocent he can seem. A partying favorite in Ann Arbor’s heyday of fraternities, he spent six years on an Ivy League campus before becoming a male model in New York, where his partner was a very sophisticated and beautiful young lady. Even back in Grand Rapids, he managed to find a bright divorcée who had studied modern dance with Martha Graham and become a fashion director. He came from a part of Michigan that played its politics rough—a place whispery with rumors of the Purple Gang, and where many people assumed that Grand Rapids political boss Frank McKay had bumped off state senator Warren Hooper. Ford went against the McKay candidate his first time out, and won. (He has never lost an election in his life—though two of his three elective offices were reached without an election.) He took every opportunity to link his name with that of his district’s favorite resident, Arthur Vandenberg.
Both his major jumps upward within the House—making him chairman of the Republican Conference and then minority leader—were engineered by others; but they did the engineering for him, because he was popular in that competitive world of rather edgy camaraderie. Long after his seat became a safe one, he spent a good half of his time on the road, campaigning for others and the party. Politics has been his whole life. He showed no inclination toward other uses for his hard-won law degree.
He has even turned a half-joking reputation for dimwittedness to political advantage. When he performs hack work or malicious hatchet jobs—even the Douglas campaign, which lasted more than a year and sank to vicious tactics—he remains “good old Jerry” just doing someone else’s dirty work. That is how members of the confirmation committee treated the affair, even though Ford renewed his Douglas trouble with unconvincing stories under oath. No one suspects him of being tortuous or Machiavellian; an engaging simplicity absolves him from ability to scheme. He intuitively plays on this. As Nixon blundered down, Ford took Pollyanna flights around the country, delivering pep talks on Republicanism. Some advised him to stay in Washington, to bone up on his future job. They did not reflect that the first thing he did, after being chosen to supplant Charles Hoeven as chairman of the Republican Conference, was to leave the country. He managed three vacations while his backers managed his coup.
He will do almost anybody’s dirty work—Dirksen’s, or Nixon’s, or Mitchell’s, or Agnew’s—but he is careful to have others do his own. Even his lies before the committee were received as exercises in doomed loyalty to Nixon rather than in personal mendacity. Ford knows when to let others do the ground work for him. He only needs a wink, and then he can relax—a rare gift among politicians, who like to be doing something about their careers all the time. Ford credibly repeated that he was making no preparation to be president while Nixon fought the sheriff off. Bob Hartmann and Phil Buchen were doing the preparing. They assembled the transition teams, without Ford’s formal acknowledgment (much like the “draft” campaigns for candidates, undertaken without the formal approval of their beneficiaries).
The picture of Ford as too good or too dumb to scheme, as loyal to a (forgivable) fault, makes him as hard to write about as a windowpane. Each of the four authors who goes at the job in these books has ample qualifications; but none can make much of a man whose only mystery is that he has no mystery. Unfortunately, the “good old Jerry” image blunts criticism with them all—and the presidential mystique dazzles two of them. Since the man lacks all mystery, both Sidey and Hersey focus on the majesty of his office.
Sidey’s is a picture book, but one with an ample text, with as many words as the Reeves book holds. The photographs and text are well attuned. One series of sixteen pictures presents the presidential seal as it shows up on odd bits of White House furnishings, right down to the cigarette packs. This prompts a fear that each separate tissue of toilet paper will soon have that seal picked out in perforations. Of course, Hugh Sidey’s job is to cover the president for Time—which means, especially at the outset, establishing good relations with as many men as possible around the president, who are all involved in protecting the president’s image (and their own). It also means dwelling, day in and day out, on the importance of the presidency—which is what makes Sidey’s job look important.
The combination of “good old Jerry” with the concept of the president as our embodied politics—indeed, as the embodiment of public virtue—makes the Sidey book become hymn-like in places. Ford cannot invite Irving Kristol or Herman Kahn in for a chat without this approving murmur from Sidey: “It was not unlike Thomas Jefferson’s evenings of conversations with the accomplished men of his time.” We do not need any White House tapes to know that a night with Herman Kahn has not turned Jerry Ford into Jefferson. The religious imagery takes over when Sidey dismisses the shadow of Nixon from the White House: “Richard Nixon’s jet was fleeing toward the far horizon while the nation turned to the east….” Ex Oriente, Lux!
But Sidey’s hymn is nothing to the visions granted John Hersey in the Oval Office. He presents that room as a mandorla through which higher energies are rayed and focused. With parabolas of power shooting all around the place, and Ford “sitting in a bundle of light,” and visitors “rendered ever so slightly tipsy” by the light, there has not been anything so fizzy and pinging in our literature since the hero’s scalp in Walker Percy’s Love Among the Ruins. Still, Hersey finds the whole White House wrapped in a reassuring calm. “And the center of the calm, its essence and source, has obviously been the President.”
Ford, of course, is praised as open and friendly, by contrast with Nixon. He allows Hersey to hang around him for a week, and “I am impressed in these few minutes by the President’s courtesy and trust.” We are given a spiritual drama of growing understanding with this stranger: “I have nevertheless come to like him as a man.” When Ford speaks with a special emphasis, Hersey admits the president has a right to be angry because, “I have asked him hard questions, and just now an insulting one.” The question was: “What do you say to those who call you a plodder and a man without charisma?” It is a question I have seen Nixon field without a tremor; and if Ford is insulted by that question he must be often insulted.
For some reason, Hersey does not reveal that he crossed Ford’s path before he entered the Oval Office. That is doubly odd because the subject of Yale comes up several times. When Ford appoints Carla Hills the secretary of HUD, Ford says other job-seekers might be practicing the Whiffenpoof song, since he and Mrs. Hills are both from Yale. Later Hersey asks Ford about his time at Yale, and tells us what his grades were. He never mentions that he had a chance to observe him there. In the 1935-1936 football season, Hersey was a senior, and an end on the football team. Gerald Ford, just graduated from his own bright football days as a Wolverine, was a new line coach at Yale, specializing in his own position of center. Why did Hersey forgo the interesting contrast between the young coach in his Yale locker room and the man light-bundled in his Office?
With a journalist less conscientious than Hersey, one might suspect the worst: that he wanted to make a better case for Ford’s openness and trust by playing down reasons for his being nice to a man with whom he shared the camaraderie of team effort (University of Michigan players have made a great deal of ties no more apparent). But I am afraid that Mr. Hersey’s famous modesty suggests a motive that, while it does him personal credit, shows how advanced is our general presidentolatry. The claim that he played for Yale when Ford was a coach would probably have seemed boastful to Hersey, a thing to be hidden out of good taste and deference. Besides, it reduces the impact of the transfiguration scene to remember the earlier climb up a dusty hill.
Jerald terHorst had the best credentials for writing about Ford. As an old friend and a Michigan journalist, he knew as much about his career as anyone but even closer friends, who would lack the steadying control of journalistic ethics to give them some objectivity. Yet terHorst sees nothing but the same old “Jerry” everyone sees—that is, he sees nothing. He looks through the windowpane. When Ford weaves and doubles back at the command of Nixon, terHorst just feels sorry for ol’ Jer: “Ford, along with other congressional leaders, found himself scrambling to keep up with the surprise moves by the White House. But each time, he managed to put aside past objections to such decisions and come to Nixon’s defense. Such flip-flopping was not Ford’s strongest suit….”
Ford found himself scrambling, trying to keep up, managing his surprise, and putting aside objections and laboriously coming to a man’s defense, though it was not his nature (or strong suit). We get the feel of resistance, whose presence is assumed because Jerry is always nice; but the resistance is finally overcome by a higher niceness (Nixon, a friend, needed defense). If one tries to read the story that way, one cannot read very far. It’s too dull. But the signs of resistance are only presumed, not established. If anything, I would say flip-flopping, easily and well, is precisely Ford’s strong suit—no, his second strongest suit. The strongest is managing to flip and flop without being called a mere flipper and flopper. He does make others presume a virtue where they cannot see one.
Only Reeves refuses to genuflect to the presidential seal. His book is full of quiet mockery, of pleasant Mencken grumbling. Yet his best remarks are about all presidents and all politicians. His Ford is, if anything, the dullest one in all these books. He sums up the man this way: “The President of the United States is a very ordinary man.” Yet the ordinary man does not spend two hundred days a year flying off to give nondescript speeches before small clumps of strangers. The ordinary man does not perform the dirtiest assignments for his party, then walk away unsoiled. None of the four books treated here picks up the way Ford canvassed the hill for Nixon, testing the idea of full pardon for Lieutenant Calley—an episode publicized in several media by Evans and Novak. That was part of the flunky role Ford played right up to the moment when, as vice president, he attacked those considering impeachment as “extreme partisans” out to harm America. The ordinary man does not have a whole line of extraordinary men working to promote him.
The Ford in Reeves’s book is not even a windowpane; he is—in the quoted judgment of another politician on Ford—“thin as piss on a piece of slate.” Given that judgment, Reeves spends most of this short book rather obviously looking around for something to say on some other subject. The book is scattered and anecdotal, and enjoyable because it is only marginally about Ford.
Writing about Ford seems almost as dull, in these books, as being Ford—or as seeing him. One wonders why writers of such talent waste their time on a job so uncongenial. A good test of their difficulty is seen in the treatment each gives to the Douglas incident and to Nixon’s pardon. For terHorst, the Douglas affair is just another of “Ford’s efforts to help the embattled man in the White House.” Yet the Nixon of 1969 was not embattled—he was riding so high he thought he could pack the court at will with right-wing stooges, and had given Mitchell license to find and promote the stooges. Reeves makes one of his few errors when he says that Becker (instead of Hartmann) received the Mitchell “garbage” on Douglas. Becker did not join the effort until after the Hartmann speech was written. For the rest, Reeves sees that effort as a product of Ford’s “unbending, undying, unthinking loyalty.”
Sidey sees the Douglas campaign as Ford’s one political lapse, which he was able to redeem: “When the Douglas storm settled, a chastened Ford looked back and saw that he had gone too far…. Three months after he became President, Ford asked Douglas and his wife to a state dinner and the two men shook hands warmly.” Hersey merely passes on, as straight man, Ford’s grotesque later rationalization of the affair—that he raised the question of a congressional study to head off the danger of impeachment in a fit of congressional fury! (This claim is accepted without question in the very session where Hersey tells us he was asking hard questions.)
The treatment of the Nixon pardon is even less satisfying. Since terHorst, as press secretary, felt betrayed in this instance (as men like Charlie Halleck had been in the past), and since this did not fit in with terHorst’s view of good old Jerry, there was a total breakdown in recognition. So terHorst resigned. The resignation was admirable, but terHorst’s own surprise explains why his book is a failure. He only glimpses the real Jerry at the very end, and he can make nothing of the sight. The Nixon pardon was not in the list of hard questions Hersey saved up to ask at the end of his week with Ford. Sidey seems to find nothing more admirable in Ford’s career than his pardoning of Nixon:
This has always been a forgiving nation…. I got the impression as I listened that compassion for a doomed man might have been more in Ford’s mind than he had told the public…. That sudden query about Pat Nixon seemed to underscore the sincerity of the talk we had just had. There were three handshakes before I got out the door, a cheery invitation to come on back sometime, and then the President returned to that desk at the far end of the Oval Office.
That Office is a great persuader.
When Reeves comes to the pardon, he makes his one attempt to find a spot not thin as piss in Ford. He notes that some psychiatrists feel an adopted child (like Ford) must forever seek a father figure—and, since Nixon was a father figure to Ford, he had to pardon the man. It is not convincing, and even Reeves shoves the thing forward uneasily, like a cook criticizing every dish at his own table. Ford did not know he was adopted until his formative years were over. And he had a very satisfactory replacement. Besides, Nixon was not a father figure to him, any more than Vandenberg had been. (Reeves rightly notes that Ford played up his ties with Vandenberg, just as Truman had his ties with Roosevelt.) Nixon was someone Ford could use by serving him.
Why the pardon, then? When I heard of it, an episode I had just read about came instantly to mind. In 1972, an elated congressman on his way home from a party ran a stop sign in Georgetown, hit a car, hit a fence, hit two trees, hit a brick wall, hit another car. The ruckus attracted a small crowd, and the driver, on emerging, did the natural thing: he went around shaking each man’s hand. There, in small, was the essential US House of Representatives. Ford, totally of the House, Housey, also did the natural thing. The presidential resignation was an unpleasantness, an “incident.” Ford had to rush around shaking everyone’s hand, even Nixon’s. You don’t make many enemies, in the House of Representatives, by doing favors, by shaking hands. It is the proper home of Rayburn’s maxim about “getting along,” and Ford is the world’s champion going-alonger.
Ford is not dumb or acquiescent, not self-destructively loyal, not lacking in ambition. He has refined political skills; they are just not the skills we have seen on the largest stage of politics. Other men have gone to the White House by way of the Congress, but they were passing through. Ford’s ambitions were all bounded by the Congress, and by its lower house. He turned down plausible chances at the Senate. The House fitted his temperament and training to perfection.
The present House of Representatives looks like history’s joke on the framers. In the constitutional scheme of things, the House was to be the most “radical” wing of the most popular branch of our government. It would be an equivalent “Commons” in a Parliament fighting off the executive’s kingly privilege. The senators, our “lords,” elected by their peers in the state subparliaments, with six-year terms, would be broadly responsible to entire states. But members of the House of Representatives, all of them up for election every other year, each in his own small locality, would be the most democratic element in government, a barometer of shifting popular moods. The cooler, more remote men of the Senate must steady and delay change urged by House firebrands at the populace’s beck and call.
So how did we get the House we’ve got, from a plan like that? It is the most conservative wing of the conservative branch. It is the land where the lobbyists play. It is stingier with public funds than the Senate wants to be. Its potentates have been men like “Judge” Howard Smith and Wilbur Mills. What went wrong?
There are two main answers to that question. One can say that the framers’ preconceptions were false—that the people are not radical, but cautious; that elites initiate change; that the popular wing is conservative because the populace is conservative. This answer offends liberal orthodoxy and is not indulged in polite society.
The other answer is to say that the framers were right in their day, but since then the machinery has gone awry. The popular branch does not reflect the popular will because of changes over time. Whatever its other shortcomings, this answer does point to relevant change. The representative, it was presumed, would begin and remain a man close to his district. The Congress would have comparatively short sessions. The difficulty of travel would keep a representative home except when Congress was in session. The normal scene of his action and concern would be in his district. When he went to sessions of Congress, it would be as a stranger to the capital reporting on the area he knew best and lived in.
Senators, by contrast, representing the whole state, serving as links between state legislatures and the national government, would have less frequent contact with any of their constituents (except their own immediate neighbors). Only presidents were expected to live much (not all) of the time in the capital. They were chosen by the electoral college, the elites’ elite, and would stand farthest off from individual constituents, few of whom would ever see the man their electors had chosen in their wisdom.
Modern transportation and communication have turned that scheme almost exactly upside down. Few people can tell you the name of their congressman. Far more know at least one of their state’s senators, by name, face, or repute. And many citizens now live vicariously with the president’s family and dogs, by way of women’s magazines and TV. Congressmen are, of all these people, the ones most bound to Washington. They have fewer opportunities for travel and exposure than do senators. And now the difficulty is with travel to their districts; not, as at the outset, with travel to the capital. They become citizens on the Potomac where senators are often just celebrities.
It is true that the representative has a comparatively small district he must service. His staff must get out his newsletter, answer mail, schedule him back before district gatherings as often as the budget will allow. But congressmen spend as much time servicing each other as in servicing their districts. They become each other’s constituents. A freshman congressman barely finds his way around before he must start running for re-election. Since general recognition of congressmen is so low, he has a tremendous advantage in mere incumbency—more so than candidates for higher office. Where the voter knows practically nothing about either candidate, the mere fact of prior election to the United States House of Representatives is itself a large recommendation. And that advantage will grow, campaign by campaign, by increments of recognition, by gradual achievement of seniority and some power in the House. If a congressman can do only one widely recognized favor for his state in his first two terms, but two in his third term, and three in his fifth or sixth, he acquires virtual immunity from challenge by a man whose prospects in the early terms are no better than the incumbent’s were when he began. With a congressman, you buy 1/435th of a vote in the House. With a senator, you buy over four times that power in his chamber.
The individual congressman weighs little. His power is a power of combining with his fellows in the House. He must grow by agglutination, which takes time. Thus a congressman uses his Washington connections to commend him to his district’s constituents, rather than vice versa. The man whose seat is still not safe asks colleagues to come and tell the home folks how important and respected he is in Washington. Notices in the national press are sent back home. By the time a man is established in the House—often becoming re-electable for life if he is content to rise no higher—he has incurred a number of debts of this sort; and the way to increase his power in the House is to serve other members as he was served, acquiring his own due bills.
This would be an almost inescapable task, even if the congressman wanted to escape it. But most House members like the job, or learn to like it, of doing favors for their fellows. The Senate likes to think of itself as a very exclusive club. The House is a bit embarrassed about its inclusiveness. Mutual puffery sustains the members’ self-esteem, abraded elsewhere in the capital. Most congressmen drive about Washington, shop and go to the movies, without being recognized. At least around the House their fellow club members and their shared employees give them a respectful welcome.
Babbitt, you remember, can hardly wait to escape from the anonymity of even Zenith’s streets into the world of nicknames, established jokes, and achieved little niches at the Athletic Club. The District of Columbia is Zenith on the Potomac; the House wing and office buildings make up the Athletic Club. (The Senate is the Union Club, from which Babbitt must lower his sights.) Congress bunches. Lifelong House men move in clusters, amoeba-like, by omnidirectional adjustment. There are clubs within clubs, and jealous little calibrations of privilege. Rivalry is intense but low-key because of the embracing code. The jealousies are school-size, a world of afternoon cabals, of honor pledged, of little betrayals, as clique worries at clique.
For all of Ford’s political life, this has been his chosen world. Some trace his virtues and limits back to Grand Rapids, looking for clues among old bottles of Vernor’s and Stroh’s Bohemian. Grand Rapids, it is thought, made him straight, slow, warm, dull, joking, jock-loving. Maybe so. But he went to the best breeding ground for just those traits, and they blossomed there. Ford is not “uncorrupted by Washington.” He was brought to congressional fulfillment there, where his skills were at home. He entered a small and protective world of comrades and rivals, where one gets ahead by advancing the team’s chances. His fellows there do not like sudden moves, “scenes,” major showdowns. They jolly advantage from each other, “getting along.”
When some rigid Dutch constituents mumbled unhappily at Ford’s choice of John Milanowski, a rowdy Polish Catholic, to be his administrative assistant in Washington, Ford said: “Don’t worry, John. We’ll kill ’em with love.” Jolly them down. That was his personal recasting of the Rayburn creed, and it shows Ford’s skills are not merely intuitive. He has reflected on them enough to make them consistent, if not fully conscious all the time. He can even articulate them when he must—and through chewing gum, if need be. When Milanowski coached Ford in public speaking, he did not worry about his plodding style or verbal clumsiness. He got the effect he aimed for: “You find yourself wanting to believe in him. And that’s the test of a good speaker, isn’t it?” When accused of inconsistency, Ford admits to the charge with a grin—then adds, with a wink: “Zigzaggers make touchdowns.” A life of perpetual adjustments makes men of the House live by small commitments easily cut back.
During Watergate, Ford rephrased the creed very well: “Why do I uphold the President one day and the next day side with the Congress, which is deliberating impeachment? Well, I have never seen a controversy in which one side was all wrong and the other one hundred percent right.” He switches sides, just so long as he never switches teams. “Our three separate branches of government were designed to check and balance each other’s abuses and excesses, but not to produce stalemate and paralysis. So I consider it my duty to try and head off deadlock and seek a reasonable and prompt solution to the nagging Watergate issue.” In short: Whoever wins, I’ll try to be on their side. And then—in the House way—we’ll shake hands all round; today’s loser may be tomorrow’s winner.
Since congressmen are always running, the House is like a great big locker room on the eve of an endless homecoming. Short of actually covering him on the Hill, Hersey had a better chance of understanding Ford back in the showers at Yale, rather than while ducking power rays in Oval Heaven.
We have not had a president in recent times with skills so specialized for one arena. It is considered odd for Morris Udall to run for president straight from the House; and Udall was never so clubby and single in his Housemanship as Ford—Ford of the Chowder and Marching Society, of the Doormen’s Society, of his Republican Conference chairmanship, of the minority leader post. Whether a man so trained, and so abruptly jolted up into another world, can get along with only his old skills, we are about to learn—and have begun to learn, day by day; not too happily. As Representative Harrington of Massachusetts puts it, “They turned him loose after twenty years in the cellar.”
It is unlikely that Ford will acquire new skills—as his airplane-chases around the nation prove. As vice president, he kept on traipsing. It was said he would settle down in the Oval Office—but the week Hersey spent “at home” with him as president, though chosen to be representative, was uncharacteristic because he was at home. Ford campaigned in the old House way for his colleagues in 1974—to no avail, as everyone predicted. Would he settle down after that? He has not. Now he must prove that Lynette Fromme and Sara Jane Moore cannot force him to stop shaking hands. And 1976 bicentennially looms—a fatal lure to crowd-lovers like Ford, entirely apart from his own election push.
The specialty of our legislature is not legislation—Ford reached the top rungs of the House without putting his name to a single major law. The House specialty is running for office. There has been a tendency for recent presidents to run their campaigns together, though four years separate them. Ford will accelerate that process. It no longer seems to be the job of our rulers to rule, but just to run. Ford, on his past record, will probably run well. It is hard to dislike him. He is not Nixon.
October 16, 1975