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I’m Sorry, Mr. President
A VETERAN JOURNALIST reflects on how public discourse has been tarnished by the press’s relentless war against Presidents—including his own biggest offense
December 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 8
He was dead at the age of fifty-four, an extraordinarily talented man who probably could have made $100,000 in a good week as a well-connected Washington lawyer. But in a society where the first questions are usually about what you do and how much you’re paid for it, Brown was risking life and limb on another American fool’s mission. Like millions of his countrymen before him, he was trying to make the world a better place for people he did not know and probably misunderstood. For this he was being paid $99,500 a year.
He was praised and honored, posthumously. But on the day before he died he was being widely scorned as some kind of lowlife, a status bestowed on him twice over—as “a bureaucrat” and before that as “a politician,” the chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
I, of course, am part of the problem. I have found myself thinking more and more about the trashing of American politicians. Most particularly I have thought about a book I wrote twenty-one years ago called A ford, Not a Lincoln , about the thirty-eighth President of the United States, Gerald Ford. So it was no accident that on a late-night television show when the host, Tom Snyder, quoted something funny he remembered from that work, I mumbled, in passing, “I was too tough on him in that book.”
Maybe I figured no one was watching or listening at that hour. But the editor of this magazine, Richard Snow, wrote to me the next day and said someone on his staff had heard what I said. Exactly what did I mean?
I meant, in general, that Jerry Ford, perhaps the most accidental of American Presidents, had done a better job than I had predicted or imagined. I know better now than I did then that Presidents should be judged on the one, two, or five big things they do. The day-today politics and stumbling fade in memory, as it should, though poor Jerry Ford has had to live with endless reruns of the comedian Chevy Chase imitating his clumsiness week after week on “Saturday Night Live!”
Presidents are not paid by the hour. The job is essentially to react, and we pay them for their judgment— a word Ford routinely mispronounced as “judge-ament.” In retrospect Ford’s judgment turned out to be better than his pronunciation. His big job, as defined in a transition plan written by a group of young Nixon staffers working without the knowledge or permission of either Nixon or Ford, was simply: “Restoration of the confidence and trust of the American people in their political leadership, institution and processes.”
On balance he did that, producing more trust than confidence—or at least he checked or slowed the slide toward today’s foul public cynicism. To do so, Ford decided he had to pardon Nixon. 1 thought that was wrong then, and so did most Americans. I also had no doubt, as I documented to my satisfaction in the book, nor do I have doubt now, that the pardon was part of a deal, spoken or unspoken, brokered by Nixon’s chief of staff, Alexander Haig.
More specifically, I mean that Ford understood (or guessed at, it doesn’t matter which) something that I now realize was true. He told me something in 1974, or not too much later, that I can only paraphrase because I did not take it seriously enough: that it would have been impossible to govern the country if there had been open charges against Nixon, that the televisionfocused attention of the nation would have followed the disgraced President from courtroom to courtroom.
He was right. Whatever his failings as a leader, and they were many, he was right about the big one. We have turned out to be a television nation that has trouble focusing on anything else for months when we can watch a stone-faced old football player accused of murdering his wife.
As the years passed, I concluded that Ford’s pardon and the dissembling in which it was packaged for public consumption were not so different from a critical (and fundamentally cynical) decision by a leader of true greatness, Charles de Gaulle. It was de Gaulle, in 1944, who had to decide how France would purge the collaboration that had been common during the German occupation that began in 1940. Well, to simplify the story, the new leader of France executed Pierre Laval, the collaborationist prime minister, exiled Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain, the aged hero turned Nazi puppet, and threw some other notable collaboratetors in jail. C’est tout . He thus created and sanctified a national myth that everyone else had served in the resistance.