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Former President Gerald Ford’s Legacy Remembered

December 27, 2006 at 6:30 PM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: We’re joined by presidential historian Michael Beschloss; Ellen Fitzpatrick, professor of American history at the University of New Hampshire; Richard Norton Smith, presidential historian and former director of the Gerald R. Ford Museum and Library; and Ron Nessen, President Ford’s press secretary from 1974 to 1977, and the author of the memoir “It Sure Looks Different from the Inside.” Mr. Nessen currently is a journalist-in-residence at the Brookings Institution.

Richard Norton Smith, on the day he resigned, Richard Nixon said, “The leadership of America will be in good hands.” Did Gerald Ford know what he was getting into?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: I’m not sure anyone really knows what they’re getting into under the best of circumstances, and those were the worst of circumstances.

I mean, as we’ve heard all day, the worst constitutional crisis, certainly of the 20th century, soon to be the worst economy since the Great Depression, the last months of the Vietnam war, and a pervasive, I think, cynicism that had grown up — not just because of the Vietnam and Watergate, important as they were — but this was a country that had been in cultural upheaval, really, since the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963.

And all of this was dumped upon this, in many ways, unsuspecting — although, in retrospect, perhaps ideally suited — congressman from west Michigan.

Restoring 'trust and faith'

Ron Nessen
Former Press Secretary
It wasn't that the work was so surprising to him, because he'd been in Washington for 25 years... But I think it was his personality that was really one of the contributions he made to healing and changing the mood of those times...

RAY SUAREZ: Ron Nessen, as a network correspondent, you covered brand-spanking-new Vice President Ford, who hadn't even run for the job. Did you see a man who was ready to be president?

RON NESSEN, Former Press Secretary for President Ford: Well, I think what Richard says about him being sort of an ordinary human being was probably one of his best qualifications.

It wasn't that the work was so surprising to him, because he'd been in Washington for 25 years. He was a Republican leader of the House. But I think it was his personality that was really one of the contributions he made to healing and changing the mood of those times that Richard described.

He was like the guy next door. The imperial presidency of Richard Nixon and of Lyndon B. Johnson was passed, and this was like your next-door neighbor had become president. And I think that helped to restore trust and faith in the presidency.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Beschloss, that restoration, is that Ford's most enduring achievement?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: I think probably the biggest thing. And not only, you know, after this period, 11 years of assassination and war and political scandal, but also, you know, I was a sophomore in college at the time. And I can remember that, because you had a president and vice president resign to escape going to prison, Nixon and Agnew, a lot of people felt that that's what every politician was like, that if you investigated him or her enough, you'd find a crime and you could send him or her to jail.

And, you know, it gives you pause to remember that Richard Nixon's real choice for vice president, if he could have gotten him confirmed, was John Connally, his former treasury secretary. And had Connolly been nominated, what would have happened would have been, at just the moment that Connolly would have succeeded to the presidency, early August of 1974, that was the week that Connally was indicted in the milk fund scandal for perjury and obstruction of justice and bribery.

Can you imagine what it would have done to the system had that happened?

Pardoning Nixon

Ellen Fitzpatrick
University of New Hampshire
[Pardoning President Nixon] was a very difficult decision. In retrospect, he's been praised for his courage and foresight by many in making it; other people still feel that it was a mistake.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Fitzpatrick, less than 30 days in came the pardons.

ELLEN FITZPATRICK, University of New Hampshire: Yes.

RAY SUAREZ: Talk about that time and whether that will be one of the most memorable days of the Ford administration.

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Yes, I think the pardon is crucial, because, as Michael and Richard and Ron have pointed out, Gerald Ford came into office with a great deal of goodwill, a feeling of great relief that the republic was going to endure this constitutional crisis, that the system worked, that we were a government of laws, rather than of men, and that law would prevail, decency and goodness.

One month into his presidency, Ford made the decision to pardon Richard Nixon of any crimes that he might be guilty of. And very rapidly that goodwill evaporated.

It was a very difficult decision for him to make. He wrote about it. It's been analyzed at length since, and it's a controversial one. His standing in the polls absolutely plummeted.

There was enormous suspicion that a deal had been made, that he had been -- you know, that Nixon's resignation had been extracted in exchange for this pardon. And all of the paranoia -- some of it based in real concerns -- that was part of Watergate settled upon Ford.

It was a very difficult decision. In retrospect, he's been praised for his courage and foresight by many in making it; other people still feel that it was a mistake.

RAY SUAREZ: Richard, was President Ford surprised by the reaction to that pardon?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I think he was. You know, he has said many times that he expected that it would be unpopular; I don't think he really had an idea that it was going to be as unpopular.

The next day he flew to Pittsburgh, and he spoke to a convention, and outside the hall were demonstrators chanting, "Jail Ford." He certainty didn't expect that.

But, remember, however, he had already gotten a taste of that. The pardon of Richard Nixon, in my opinion, should not be seen in isolation. It's the second act of a two-act drama, because two weeks before the pardon, he got in a plane and he flew to Chicago to the VFW convention.

And as part of this healing process, he basically unveiled a Vietnam amnesty plan that would, in time, allow 200,000 young men who had evaded the draft to, as he put it, work their way back into American society.

He said laughingly on the way out that at least he didn't have to worry about too much interruption by applause, and it turned out that the speech was not well-received.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: He was right.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: But it was very much part of that -- you know, this was a guy who never expected to be president, who decided from the outset that, however long or short a time he was there, it was going to be a season -- if he could make it -- of healing, and he would draw the poisons out of the body politic.

RAY SUAREZ: Even if it meant his own political career was over?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yes, because, remember, at that point, he had no intention of running in 1976. So he could -- in a sense, he could offer himself up. Now, he very quickly decided he kind of liked being president, and he'd like to have four years on his own.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Beschloss, you wanted to say?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Yes, I wanted to say that I think it was noble, because he knew that this was the price of doing the two things that probably were most important for him to do as president, which were to wind up Watergate as quickly as possible, and do the same with the Vietnam era.

If that's what it cost, if it meant that he would have a hard time winning election in 1976, that was the price he was willing to pay.

'Tumultous years'

RAY SUAREZ: Ron Nessen, you were on the inside during these years, and I think it's good for people to remember how tumultuous those years were, no matter who was president.

Less than a year between going from a congressman from Grand Rapids to a summit with Leonid Brezhnev, where they're talking about throw-weight and missiles and missile ranges, a couple of months later, Saigon falls and, a couple of months later, he's back in Brezhnev at Helsinki. What were those years like?

RON NESSEN: Well, they were tumultuous. And I think one thing, just to back up to the pardon for a second, Ford said that the leftover Nixon matters were taking 25 percent of his time and 25 percent of his staff's time.

And there were so many pressing issues, like the one you mentioned, on his plate, he had to get rid of this distraction of leftover Nixon matters, and that's why he gave the pardon.

He was, of course, asked, "Was there a deal?" And he said there was no deal, and there's never been any sign of a deal.

There were many, many things and pressures on the presidency. We had very, very high inflation -- 13 percent, 15 percent inflation -- and then, all of a sudden, at the end of '74, the economy fell off the edge of the table, and we were in the deepest recession since the 1930s.

We had the end of the Vietnam War. We had the dealings, as you say, with the Soviet Union. We had the Helsinki Accords, whose effect I think was not recognized at the time, but did have, I think, a profound effect on the fall of the Soviet Union.

And you had many, many pressing issues. So when he said he needed to get this 25 percent distraction of leftover Nixon matters off his plate, it was because he had so many other matters on his plate that he needed to deal with.

RAY SUAREZ: Everything seemed to be moving so quickly. Professor Fitzpatrick, just another 14 months later or so, he was running for president.

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Yes.

RAY SUAREZ: And earlier in the program, we saw excerpts of his debates with Jimmy Carter. Very famously, he said that there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Has the role of the debates in history been exaggerated, gotten about right? At the time, was this seen as big a gaffe as it's come to be remembered?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: It was seen as a pretty big gaffe; there's no question about it. And I think that, combined with the growing lack of deference towards the president that was only exacerbated by the Watergate events and the fallout from it, he was ridiculed for the comment.

But what's interesting about it is that the question that Max Frankel asked him, that he then later bumbled in his response, really posited that Ford had given something away at Helsinki, that essentially the United States had acceded to Soviet domination in Eastern Europe.

And what Ford was attempting to say was that, no, this criticism that was being made of his presidency, from the right and on the left, many sides had difficulty with the Helsinki Accords, he was saying, "No, I would never have agreed to that."

So it was a very loaded question, and he was trying to make the case that that was not something that he would have done. But in the glare of television and the unforgiving light of media coverage and so forth, it was pretty disastrous.

A 'lost era'

Richard Norton Smith
George Mason University
I think that ... ability to see people not as political caricatures or ideological creatures, but as human beings, I think that is something that a lot of us feel has been lost. And Gerald Ford symbolizes the best of that era.

RAY SUAREZ: Does the occasion, Richard Norton Smith, of Gerald Ford's death force us all to remember what might be a lost style, a lost era in American politics?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yes, I think there is a longing for that kind of civility. You know, when these guys could go at each other hammer and tong until 6:00, and then they'd get in a cab and go out and have a drink and be friends.

There's a wonderful story that sums it up, for me at least, George McGovern told me about early in the Ford presidency. He was invited to a stag dinner at the White House. Well, he'd never been invited to dinner at the White House. And he was so surprised that first he thought it must have been a mistake.

And he said this to the president. And he said, you know, "When Lyndon Johnson was here and I opposed him on Vietnam, you can be sure I was never invited. And when Richard Nixon was here, you can be sure I was never invited." And Ford said, "I know, George; that's why I invited you."

And I think that kind of just plain decency and ability to see people not as political caricatures or ideological creatures, but as human beings, I think that is something that a lot of us feel has been lost. And Gerald Ford symbolizes the best of that era.

RAY SUAREZ: Ron Nessen?

RON NESSEN: One of Ford's favorite expressions -- and I heard him say it a thousand times -- was, "You can disagree without being disagreeable." And that not only sums up his own attitude toward politics and the adversaries in politics, but it really sums up why that era was different from what we have now, with the divisiveness, the nastiness, the partisanship, and so forth.

In those days, there was an institution which was the weekly bipartisan congressional leadership coming to the White House for breakfast or lunch with the president. And that was during the Ford years.

And that has disappeared as an institution in our politics, which sort of underscores how times have changed since we had a president whose philosophy was you can disagree without being disagreeable.