The 38th President: More Than Met the Eye

On the morning of Sunday, Sept. 8, 1974, after he had been president for about a month, Gerald Ford took communion at St. John's Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square, across from the White House. He prayed alone in the presidential pew. On the way out the church door, he sloughed off reporters who were badgering him about his plans for the day--"You'll find out soon enough," he said. Back in the Oval Office, he telephoned Sen. Barry Goldwater, the fabled conservative, to tell him he was pardoning Richard Nixon for whatever crimes the disgraced president might have committed in office. Goldwater, whose voice had been critical in forcing Nixon's resignation, was dumbfounded. "It doesn't make any sense," he protested. Ford answered, "The public has the right to know that, in the eyes of the president, Nixon is clear." Goldwater responded: "He may be clear in your eyes, but he's not clear in mine."

Next, Ford called his old congressional adversary, the then House Majority Leader Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill, and told him that he intended to pardon Nixon. "I'm telling you right now," O'Neill said, "this will cost you the election. I hope it's not part of any deal."

"No," Ford replied calmly, "there's no deal."

"Then why the hell are you doing it?" O'Neill asked.

Ford answered that Nixon was a "sick man" and that his daughter Julie "keeps calling me because her father is so depressed." O'Neill was unpersuaded, but Ford seemed determined. A few minutes later that Sunday morning, the president went on national television to announce his decision. Ford's own aides had been dubious about the pardon and had tried to argue with him. But Ford moved--quickly, at first secretly, then decisively--to cut off any criminal prosecution of his predecessor. Ford had experienced no trouble sleeping the night before--"Once I determine to move, I seldom, if ever, fret," he recalled in his memoirs. After announcing the pardon, Ford recorded, he felt "an unbelievable lifting of a burden from my shoulders." He went off to play golf.

O'Neill's warning was not wrong. The public hammering Ford took for pardoning Nixon probably did cost him the election in 1976. "Jail Ford!" screamed angry crowds, who widely assumed (not altogether without reason) that Nixon had wrangled a deal. Most news-papers in the righteous post-Watergate era gravely editorialized against Ford's action. His own press secretary, Jerry terHorst, quit in disgust.

Yet, more than three decades later, Ford's decision has been largely vindicated. The conventional wisdom has shifted: pardoning Nixon was the farsighted thing to do. It spared the nation an ordeal of recrimination and allowed the healing to begin.

In the first hours and days after his death last week at 93, Gerald R. Ford Jr. was eulogized as a model of common-sense leadership, a plain-spoken Everyman who followed his own conscience. He was seen as a real-life Jimmy Stewart figure, a regular guy whose heartland decency shamed the Washington pols. His reputed willingness to reach across the aisle was held up, explicitly and implicitly, as a reproach to the current chief executive.

As president, Ford was mocked, especially on "Saturday Night Live," for tripping over his own feet and getting tangled up in his own words. In contrast to the darkly complex "Tricky Dick," the image of Ford as a genial, trusting, slightly naive stumblebum was somehow comforting. But it was largely a fiction. Ford was probably the best athlete ever to occupy the Oval Office; he was a graceful dancer and a smoothly expert skier. More important, he was hardly "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." In reality, he was a quintessential pol who spent more time cutting deals than shaping lofty visions.

Ford was a politician in the best sense: he understood how to use power to serve the public interest. He was also a decent man. But he was a complex one, whose motivations have remained well hidden, obscured to this day by his skillful legacy-polishing in retirement. Ford's morality and character had been forged not just by the Main Street virtues of Depression-era Middle America, but by the bitter, carefully concealed personal experiences that often shape and drive (and sometimes twist) great leaders. Ford was far from the oaf Chevy Chase made him out to be, and his presidency, though it lasted less than 900 days, was no mere stop-gap. Ford had a way of showing up and doing surprising things at critical moments in history, with repercussions--some intended, some accidental--that echo today.

Gerald R. Ford Jr. was born Leslie Lynch King Jr. His real father was a handsome, wealthy, blond-haired wife-beater who first struck his bride on the first night of their honeymoon for smiling at a stranger in the elevator. Later, Leslie King Sr. held a knife over his wife as she lay in bed with her newborn baby; she then fled to Grand Rapids, Mich., and married a paint salesman named Gerald Ford, who gave her baby boy his name. At 16, young Jerry, by then a high-school football hero, was tending a lunch counter when Leslie King Sr. sauntered in. "I'm your father," he announced. "I'd like to take you to lunch." King was passing through town on his way to pick up an expensive new car, a Lincoln. King asked Ford if he would like to move back to live with his true father in Wyoming.

"It was a hell of a shock," Ford later recalled. He went to lunch, but was shaking with resentment. "Nothing could erase the image I gained of my real father that day--a carefree, well-to-do man who really didn't give a damn about the hopes and dreams of his son." In bed that night, Ford wept "tears of anger." He tried to remember verses from Proverbs his mother had taught him: Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy paths.

These words were to become a sacred talisman for Ford. He said them to himself right after he had nearly been swept off the deck of a carrier as a naval officer during a Pacific typhoon in World War II, and he said them to himself the night before he was sworn in as president of the United States. The passage suggests a comforting submission to God's will, and no doubt Ford found solace in it. But the real message he took from the shock of seeing his delinquent father was not at all passive: it was to keep moving along those "paths," to not look back, to not brood, but to act --without remorse or regret.

As a young man Ford became adept at productively channeling his anger. As a center and linebacker at the University of Michigan, he was a ferocious blocker and tackler. He was tough enough to be offered contracts by the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions, but pro-football money was small in those days; he decided his ambition was better served by attending Yale Law School.

Ford finished in the top third of an accomplished class that included future Supreme Court justices and a secretary of State. But he found his calling working for Republican Wendell Willkie in the 1940 presidential race. Ford discovered, he later recalled, that "I liked politics, everything about it." He meant not just glad-handing on the stump but wheeling and dealing in the back room.

Blond, big-shouldered--a hale fellow--Ford struck some sophisticates, including his prewar girlfriend, Phyllis Brown, a New York model from a fancy prep school, as a little slow-witted. "Jerry had an innate awareness that was deceptive," Brown later told former Ford aide James Cannon, author of "Time and Chance," a 1994 account of Ford's ascension to the presidency (written with access to Ford's papers). "Actually, it was a cunning side. People would be talking and thinking, 'Dumb Jerry the football coach is not getting it.' But that was part of the cunning. He was listening, mulling it over and thinking it through, and then he would come up with the right answer. He was smart--not clever, not quick, but smart."

Ford learned how to keep secrets. After the war, running for Congress, he proposed marriage to a beautiful divorcée and former professional dancer named Betty Warren. He told her they had to keep their engagement a secret, and that he couldn't say why. The reason: his political advisers had convinced him that marrying a divorcée would cost him votes among conservatives. The couple was married after the Republican primary.

Ford entered congress in 1949, just two years after a wave of young World War II veterans, including John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, who understood that America would have to stay on the world stage to contain communism and spread freedom. But Ford was happy to take a less lofty assignment on the Public Works Committee. He understood that Public Works was the place to learn to make pork-barrel deals. When a seat on the Appropriations Committee came open, Ford went for it. "Appropriations was where the power was," he later wrote. "I said to myself, 'That's going to be my specialty--how the government spends money'."

Ford was intensely ambitious: his goal was to become Speaker of the House. To curry favor and votes, he was a relentless fund-raiser for the party coffers, traveling some 200 nights a year. He rarely saw his young family. "I was resentful of Jerry's being gone so much," Betty later said. "I was feeling terribly neglected ... The loneliness, the being left to yourself at night, is what makes marriages crack, makes liquor more attractive." Their marriage did not crack--Ford always counted on his smart and outspoken wife for political advice--but Betty did begin to drink more and more (and ultimately became dependent on painkillers for a stiff neck). "I'd have my five o'clock drink at a neighbor's house," she recalled. "Or even by myself, while talking on the phone with a neighbor. I'd have another while I was fixing dinner, and then, when the kids were in bed, I'd build myself a nightcap."

Though he may not have played the sort of mean-spirited hardball that characterized the GOP-controlled House under Majority Leader Tom DeLay in recent years, Ford was a down-the-line party man. As minority leader in the 1960s, he tangled with President Lyndon Johnson, attacking the president for not doing more to win in Vietnam and for wasting taxpayer money on social-welfare programs. Johnson called Ford "dumb" and cracked, "Jerry played football too many times without a helmet."

Ford was a close ally and admirer of Nixon's from their days together in the House Chowder and Marching Society, a band of hard-charging GOP congressmen who voted, logrolled and played together. As the GOP House leader after Nixon's election in 1968, Ford faithfully did the bidding of Nixon's attorney general, John Mitchell, by leading a clumsy attempt to impeach Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. Ford attacked Douglas as "senile" and for allowing his writings to be published in a "pornographic magazine" called Avant Garde. The impeachment effort collapsed after a couple of weeks; Ford later admitted the whole thing had been a "mistake."

When the first flames of Watergate began to singe the White House, Ford remained loyal. At Nixon's urging, Ford was instrumental in making sure that the House Banking and Currency Committee did not investigate the source of freshly printed $100 bills that turned up on the Watergate burglars. He was rewarded when Vice President Spiro Agnew pleaded no contest to accepting payoffs and was forced to resign in October 1973. Recognizing that Ford was the safest bet for congressional confirmation, Nixon chose him to replace Agnew.

As the Watergate scandal deepened, Ford had to walk a fine line between supporting the president and not going down with him. He was careful never to ask Nixon if he was guilty of covering up the Watergate break-in. But the vice president's suspicions were growing. His way of dealing with them in the spring of 1974 was to get out of town. "He deliberately fled Washington, very deliberately," recalls Ford's former House speechwriter and close aide Bob Hartmann. "He just told me to accept every invitation he possibly could. His travel itinerary was nearly continuous. He was not being devious. On the other hand, he was nobody's fool." In his public appearances, Ford began to "zig-zag--to be intentionally inconsistent in his comments," writes former Ford adviser James Cannon. "One day the tilt would be favorable: Nixon is innocent of an impeachable offense, he would say. The next day he would tilt against him."

Ford's deft balancing act during Nixon's fall drew little attention as investigators and reporters stalked bigger game. Sympathetic White House aides protected Ford by distancing him from the scandals, deleting his remarks from the edited transcripts of meetings or marking them "unintelligible." But Ford and Nixon were heading toward a high-stakes drama that is one of the most intriguing--and still somewhat murky--acts in the whole Shakespearean tragedy.

Without ever explicitly acknowledging what they were doing, Ford and Nixon began a private dance concerning the delicate question of whether Ford might pardon Nixon if the president stepped down and Ford took his place. Neither man could be seen participating in such a crude transaction. That does not mean, however, that there weren't some clever machinations and manipulations--on both sides.

The go-between in this shadow play was former Army general Alexander Haig, Nixon's chief of staff. Haig had been acting as a kind of regent, running the government while Nixon withdrew to the White House residence to brood while listening to "Victory at Sea" before roaring fires. At once scheming, dutiful and imperious, Haig was trying to protect the president--but, at the same time, get Nixon out of office before the president could be impeached in the House and convicted by the Senate. And if Nixon could be persuaded to resign, Haig wanted to insulate him from being prosecuted in the courts. Hence the call Ford received shortly after 8 on the morning of Aug. 1, 1974.

Haig wanted to know if he could come to Ford's office at the Old Executive Office Building. "It's urgent," said Haig. "I want to alert you that things are deteriorating. The whole ball game may be over. You'd better start thinking about a change in your life." That was not all Haig wanted to tell Ford. But according to Ford's memoirs, "A Time to Heal," Haig seemed reluctant to talk in front of Bob Hartmann, who was also in the room.

Haig decided to come back in the afternoon. This time he caught Ford alone in his office. Haig explained that the White House was turning over a tape recording--later known as the "smoking gun" tape--to the courts. On the tape, Nixon could be heard obstructing justice by trying to get the CIA to head off an FBI investigation of the Watergate break-in. Haig began to lay out various options before he got to the ones that mattered. He had brought two pieces of paper with him. Nixon's chief of staff explained to Ford that the president could resign and be pardoned by his successor. One piece of paper summarized a president's authority to grant such a pardon; the other was an actual pardon form.

"Al," Ford said, "I need some time to think about this." As Haig left, Ford sat back, he later recalled, and thought to himself, "I am about to become president. It's going to happen."

Hartmann came into the veep's office, and Ford told him that Nixon would resign if Ford would pardon him. Hartmann burst out, "Jesus! What did you tell him?" "I didn't tell him anything," Ford responded. "I told him I needed time to think about it." "You what?" Hartmann asked. "That's almost the worst answer Haig could take back to the White House. You told Haig you are willing to entertain the idea of a pardon if he resigns--that's probably all Haig and Nixon want to know."

Ford told Hartmann that he was overreacting. That night, as he lay in bed with Betty, Ford pondered what to do. In his memoirs, he wrote that Haig called him at 1 a.m. to tell him that "nothing had changed" and that the situation "remained fluid." Ford recalled that he told Haig, "I've talked with Betty, and we're prepared, but we can't get involved in the White House decision making process." But according to Barry Werth's "31 Days," the most authoritative retelling of Ford's roller-coaster first month in office, Ford told a different story to his aides the next morning. According to Hartmann, Ford told him: "Betty and I talked it over last night ... We felt we were ready. This just has to stop; it's tearing the country to pieces. I decided to go ahead and get it over with, so I called Al Haig and told them they should do whatever they decided to do, it was all right with me." Aghast that Haig and Nixon might interpret Ford's words as a signal that a pardon would follow a resignation, his aides--including Hartmann, John Marsh and Bryce Harlow--implored the vice president to call Haig right away. Ford should tell the president's chief of staff, unambiguously, that nothing they had discussed should be construed as a deal. Ford agreed and made the call, reading from notecards.

In later years, Haig would deny that he had offered Ford any kind of deal, denials he publicly repeated last week. Ford, for his part, professed a kind of wounded innocence. In 1997 he told Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward: "Well, I guess I was naive. I was naive that anybody would offer a deal because all my political life people never came to me, 'I'm going to give you a political donation. I expect something in return.' People never came to me that way, because they knew damn well I wouldn't be part of it." In any case, "it never became a deal because I never accepted," said Ford. The fact that he did agree to par-don Nixon 31 days after assuming the presidency, Ford always insisted, was unrelated to his discussions with Haig before Nixon resigned.

It may well be that in his political life Ford had never been approached with such a naked blandishment. But his personal history contains, at the very least, a foreshadowing of his decision to end what he called "the long national nightmare" of Watergate with a presidential pardon. In 1937, when Ford was at Yale, his delinquent father turned up again--this time with a quid pro quo. For years, Leslie King had been embroiled with Ford's mother regarding unpaid alimony and child-support payments. Now King was offering Ford a deal: if he would get his mother to back off her legal claims, King would make sure his son was not forgotten in his will. Ford was cool to his father's approach, but ultimately worked out a settlement that won his mother $4,000. She sent her son a check for more than $2,000, which he promptly returned to her. "I was simply acting as a peacemaker," Ford testified in a 1939 court proceeding.

Duke history professor Peter Wood has speculated that when Ford pardoned Nixon, he was re-enacting the drama of trying to bring peace between his mother and father. This interpretation may be stretching the bounds of psychohistory. Still, Ford's language, when he announced the pardon that September Sunday in 1974, does suggest that he was obeying what Wood calls "a submerged but controlling personal logic." Ford told the nation: "My conscience tells me clearly and certainly that I cannot continue to prolong the bad dreams that continue to reopen a chapter that is closed ... My conscience tells me it is my duty to not merely proclaim domestic tranquillity but to use every means that I have to ensure it."

The Nixon pardon did go a long way to ensure "domestic tranquillity" in the American family. But Ford quickly found himself ensnared in a web of problems, from an energy crisis to high inflation to the final collapse of South Vietnam. Ford has sometimes been portrayed as a feckless leader. His whip inflation now buttons made him seem like a small-town booster trying to use bromides to beat back the worst recession since the Depression.

But Ford was not afraid to make tough decisions. He vetoed 66 bills sent him by the Democratic-controlled Congress, and he ruthlessly unloaded anyone who did not meet his needs--starting with Haig. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger gave up his title as national-security adviser, opening the way for Brent Scowcroft. Ford fired Defense Secretary James Schlesinger. He dumped his vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, from the GOP ticket in 1976. (And though it pained him to be portrayed as the first American president to lose a war, he did not try to intervene when Saigon finally fell in May 1975.)

Battered by bad news and public discontent over the Nixon pardon, Ford began the 1976 campaign 25 points behind the Democratic nominee, Jimmy Carter. But partly by getting rid of his campaign manager, Rogers Morton, and replacing him with James A. Baker, an emerging force in national politics, Ford almost caught Carter in the last days of the campaign.

Ford was not done with politics. Though he burned with anger at Ronald Reagan for mounting a costly and diverting primary challenge for the Republican nomination in 1976, he nearly agreed to be Reagan's running mate in 1980. Reagan balked only when Ford insisted on being given enough power to be a virtual "co-president."

In retirement, Ford's principal cause was his pocketbook and his place in history. He had always liked to be around prosperous men since he was a scholarship boy invited to join the DKE house at Michigan. Going on as many as eight corporate boards and charging many thousands of dollars for speeches and corporate receptions (the latter now common practice among former presidents), he maintained houses on a golf course in Rancho Mirage, Calif., and at the foot of the ski slopes in Colorado. Over the years, he entertained a parade of visiting journalists and historians to make sure his story was properly told. Knowing that history is largely written by moderates and centrists, he made himself one, too, deploring the rightward swing of the Republican Party. In a July 2004 conversation with Bob Woodward, published last week, Ford said, "I don't think I would have gone to war" in Iraq. He criticized both Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld for "making a big mistake in justifying going into the war in Iraq."

One of the more peculiar legacies of the Ford era is the attempt by both Rumsfeld and Cheney to restore the power of the presidency. They were ambitious young men who served as Ford's chiefs of staff at a time when Ford was trying to dismantle what historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. has called "the imperial presidency." Ford was trying to create an atmosphere of openness and cooperation with Congress and the courts after Nixon's grandiose show of presidential power--from opéra bouffe uniforms for the White House guards to the shadowy Plumbers Unit. But Rumsfeld and Cheney felt that the Watergate reforms had gone overboard, and as members of the Bush war cabinet they have pushed hard to strengthen the executive.

Ford may or may not have been wise enough to resist falling into the trap of hubris that seems to have overcome the Bush White House. His suggestion that he would have been against invading Iraq must be considered in light of his strongly held position as a congressman attacking the Johnson administration during the Vietnam War: that the United States military should press harder against the communists, not back off. At the same time, Ford's record as president suggests that he would have been far more willing than Bush to change his mind and reverse course if he saw the war turning into a quagmire. He was always moving forward and not looking back. He knew when to cut his losses, and he was not afraid of taking chances to bring peace--whether to his family or to his country.