I remember when Gerald Ford was simply a Congressman from Michigan, and then when he was Minority Leader, but I didn’t give him much thought. I remember when Spiro Agnew resigned as Vice President, and Gerald Ford was appointed to replace him. I hadn’t given much thought to the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution before this, either. The idea of a Vice President resigning had not occurred to me, and the idea that a replacement (and therefore potential President) could be sworn in without any sort of popular vote never struck me as anything that would ever really happen. It’s a terrible idea, when you think of it – for any number of reasons.
Yet in 1973, this is how Gerald Ford became Vice President and why, in 1974, when another unthinkable event occurred, this time the resignation of the President himself, Gerald Ford became President.
Having said that, I was pleasantly surprised at the brief Ford presidency. He really did calm things down, and nothing terrible happened. I remember of course, the surprise pardon he gave to now ex-President Nixon, something that upset any number of my friends, but I thought it was the right thing to do. Let the past be past, and get on with the future. Who needed to stir everything up again?
After Ford lost the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter (I clearly had suspicions about Carter, a little known governor from one of the states which had been firmly on the wrong side of the civil rights battles), I stopped thinking at all about Ford. I was a little surprised that this Michigan man did not go back to his home state, but settled instead in Rancho Mirage, CA, in the heart of the Palm Springs desert area, and that he vacationed in the Colorado Rockies, but that was it.
As time went by, however, I thought about him more and more, as a pretty good President, who knew how to retire and enjoy life, while other former Presidents just seemed to be sticking their noses in everything they could. As Ford grew older and older, my feelings grew warmer and warmer.
After Jerry Ford died in the last week of 2006 at the age of 93, I was both surprised and pleased to read that he had been giving journalist Tom DeFrank (I must admit I was unfamiliar with him) a series of candid interviews over more than a decade, having extracted from DeFrank the promise that nothing would be published as long as Ford was alive. The next year, DeFrank published “Write It When I’m Gone: Remarkable Off-the-Record Conversations with Gerald R. Ford”. This week, I read the book.
Of course, it was interesting. Tom DeFrank was a young Newsweek reporter assigned to cover Ford as Vice-President and then, in the waning days of Nixon, he became the magazine’s White House correspondent, remaining there throughout Ford’s term. During Ford’s Vice Presidency, DeFrank was one of seven reporters who traveled with him on Air Force Two. They clearly developed a good rapport, and DeFrank had great respect for Ford as a person and as a politician.
Nothing in this book, though, deals with Ford as a politician. It deals with Ford’s thirty plus years as a former President, and with Ford’s thoughts about some of those with him he worked, and about his fellow ex-Presidents. It describes a very genial, human man, who in fact bore grudges and valued loyalty. Grudges against Carter and Reagan, with whom he had political battles. A surprising loyalty to Nixon, a man whom Ford thought was a talented leader and a genuinely good fellow, with a small portion of his character flawed. Same with Clinton, by the way. George H.W. Bush he admired to the max, it seems. He started being supportive of George W. Bush, but changed his mind as the Iraq war dragged on and on.
He was loyal to those who worked for him when he was President, notably Rumsfeld and Cheney. He was very supportive of Cheney as Bush’s vice president, although he thought that Cheney (through no fault of his own) had become a liability by the time of the 2004 election. He was supportive of his entire cabinet, with the exception of Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, whom he thought misguided on policy, and insubordinate to his own instructions.
He talks of the long flight to Anwar Sadat’s 1981 funeral, when Nixon, Ford and Carter flew on Air Force One as President Reagan’s representatives. None of them had been on good terms with the other, and Ford was determined that the flight should be pleasant and worked hard to accomplish that. At the start, they decided they would neither talk politics nor elections, and instead talked about things like: how to build and finance a presidential library. Although he succeeded, he said that it was not easy, as both Nixon and Carter were difficult to talk to. One of Reagan’s advisors on the trip (unnamed) told Ford: “Carter’s so strange, he makes Nixon look normal.” That was probably the best line of the book.
After Ford left office, he decided it was time to make money, so he began lecturing for very high fees, and serving on multiple corporate boards. He received much criticism for this (he was the first, of course, of many presidents to follow this path), but was never defensive about it, saying that this was just capitalism in action. He became a multi-millionaire quite quickly, his goals being to be able to lead a very comfortable life, and leave enough so that his children and grandchildren could do the same.
Throughout the book, there are references to Ford’s political beliefs. I had forgotten just how conservative he was in his domestic policies – the Tea Party would have been able to support much of what he believed, although he would not have approved of the movement’s rough edges. He was always civil, always a gentleman.
I’d recommend the book, because it is an easy read, and because it is quite instructive. I would not recommend it, though, for DeFrank’s writing style, which is surprisingly ordinary. Nor for its editing, which is lacking in some respects, as you see quite a bit of repetition, where things are noted, perhaps for the third time, as if they had never been mentioned before.
Perhaps, the reason for this lack of polish lies in the dates. President Ford died on December 26, 2006. “Write it When I’m Gone” was published in October 2007. Maybe they rushed to print a little too quickly.