The inner workings of any White House are fascinating to Americans, which is why there are hundreds of books about each administration. They include contemporary history, bios by senior staff members who left on good or bad terms, and serious history by historians and journalists who benefit from a little space between the actual events and the moment they sit down to research and write.
Perhaps no administration was scrutinized as much as that of Richard Nixon, whose resignation still compels us to stop and gawk whenever it is discussed, even 40 years later. His successor, Gerald Ford, was the lead actor in the epilogue of Nixon’s story, and much of his Presidency is tied to the unfortunate fact that he took over for a President who had to resign and then was compelled to pardon that disgraced President, dramatically, on the 31st day of his own presidency.
Those 31 days are the subject of Barry Werth’s book of the same name, which was recommended to me by a friend who has worked in a couple of White House’s. A couple of reviews ago, I was somewhat critical of the Gilligan biography because it described his gubernatorial administration thematically rather than chronologically. Not so here. Werth goes day by day, with each day getting its own chapter. It starts on day one, when Ford assumes the presidency and ends on Sunday, September 8th, the day he announced Nixon’s full and complete pardon. That chronological organization is crucial to show how the White House is a different kind of animal, where anything can disrupt even the best laid plans. One staff secretary that Werth quotes observes: “The ball comes off the wall differently in the White House than it does anyplace else in the world.” And perhaps that is what fascinates us most about the goings-on at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Werth portrays President Ford as an honorable man, bound by his conscience, who pardons Nixon for all the right and non-political reasons. He notes appropriately at the end that Ford was vindicated; history gave him credit for making the most difficult choice of his presidency. The book carefully shows how the decision to issue the pardon developed, complete with details of secret missions by Nixon and Ford aides and lawyers. Those moments are the most intriguing pieces of the book. As the pardon comes together, Werth highlights the research into pardon history, the Burdick case, the meaning of the word “forthrightly,” and the mental state of President Nixon. It’s captivating presidential history.
While Ford comes off as decent, Alexander Haig comes off as the opposite. Conniving and manipulating, Haig played both sides and weakened Ford’s hand with Nixon while simultaneously trying to strengthen himself politically inside the government. As described here, he’s the perfect picture of the worst kind of political actor. It’s not hard to think of him fifteen years later attempting to run the White House after Reagan’s assassination attempt with the famous words, “I’m in charge here.”
Nixon is at his lowest low on these pages and Werth describes as many details of the disgraced President’s month in purgatory as any author can. Kissinger is hanging by threads to the power he has in foreign policy, and here he’s unlikable as Haig. Gerald terHorst is a journeyman press man, who becomes press secretary until he finds he can’t defend his own boss’s actions. And then there are two characters known to all of us: Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, both players in the Ford Administration and who both grace the paperback cover I have. I’ve got to say that though they clearly played an important role in Ford’s Administration, they were mostly minor players in Ford’s first 31 days. Seems that they are here because their presence might have helped this book be more relevant to readers in 2014. Rockefeller is more important to the story than these two, and the book would have been improved with more from his perspective as the VP nominee.
Werth concludes with an epilogue that traces various players to present day, including Cheney and Rumsfeld, but also Bush 41, Bush 43 and others who are neo-cons. I disliked this part quite a bit. It seemed like the author was trying to draw conclusions that didn’t come up during the bulk of the book. It detracted from the meat of the book.
At the core, this was a book about an unplanned transition, with the awkwardness of one President having to pardon another. It is about the personalities at play in this drama, about the external world events that a new President had to deal with immediately upon taking office, and about the internal politics of a White House experiencing a power vacuum. It’s about the mood of our country during our worst hangover.
As I said earlier, it’s hard not to give President Ford credit for doing what he did. He knew the country needed to move on, and once he made up his mind as to what he was going to do, he did it, without regard for the appropriate political timing. It was a tough call, but one that spared the nation further pain of seeing a former President stand trial. One advisor described his meeting with Ford during the decision making process as “watching someone commit hara-kiri.” Maybe Ford knew he wouldn’t win the election, or maybe he decided that the only way to try to win in his own right was to clear the Nixon issue off the table. Decades later he won the Kennedy Profiles in Courage award for his decision, but he lost the election as his popularity fell off a cliff in the instant he announced the pardon.
Werth quotes Eric Sevareid near the end of the first month of Ford’s Administration, as the President’s approval soared but as warning signs became obvious to the veteran CBS newsman. Sevareid reports, “Presidential popularity has to be thought of, especially by the president, as a capital fund to be used. It has to be spent, and sometimes, spent away, if serious things are to be done in the long-term national interest.” Indeed this is true for any political figure, and Werth does a fine job proving the point that Ford did something serious in the long-term national interest, spending every ounce of capital along the way.
Thanks for reading.