Portrait of a President
Gerald Ford and the Future of the Presidency
A Ford, Not a Lincoln
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.