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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
The new savagery peaked for me one fine day in August 1994 as I walked out of the Capitol of the United States. There was a gleaming black bus with a Star Wars look parked on Independence Avenue. Painted along the side of it was the legend “Impeach Clinton Tour ’94.” Below that line ran this list of real or feverishly imagined presidential transgressions: “Womanizing…Troopergate…Deception…Abortion…Adultery…Bribery…Sodomy…Fraud… ADFA…Abuse of U.S. Constitution…Obstruction of Justice…Document-Shredding…Drug Abuse…Tax Evasion…Gennifer Flowers…Paula Jones.”
Some list. At the same time I saw advertisements for a $19.95 video, produced quite professionally in California and promoted by Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, that explicitly accuses President Clinton and his wife of bigtime drug dealing and murder.
So it had come to that. Was I responsible?
I reread the Ford book written by a young man using my name. It was the first time I had ever done that with any of my books. It was pretty good, perceptive and better written than I had expected, if I do say so myself. Witty. “Sprightly” was a word William F. Buckley had used in the New York Times review. It was not wrong or stupid. It offered a coherent explanation of why politics and Washington were the way they were—and still are, only more so.
But it was also cruel, unnecessarily so. As a national leader President Ford was a man with many flaws and more inadequacies. But he had become President by accident, done the best he knew how, and, we now know, muddled through a very dangerous time.
This was my rationale in the introduction: “Jerry Ford is a pretty nice guy and a professional politician. This book is about the latter.… I do have a bias about politicians. I don’t feel any great obligation to recount their many and varied personal and professional virtues. That is what they, or the taxpayers, are paying for in salaries and fees of press secretaries, media advisers and advertising agencies. Believe me, there is nothing good about Jerry Ford, Nelson Rockefeller, or any of the Kennedys that the American people have not been told—these politicians and all the others have staffs that make sure we know they love their country, wives, children, dogs and fellow man.”
I could go on—and I did, back then. Today politicians and their media consultants say worse things about one another than I ever did, not realizing or not caring that the public does not keep careful score of charge and countercharge. If the candidates all call one another knaves and fools, we take their word for it and judge them all to be bums.
So they, and we, continue to poison the wells of democratic faith and our political dialogue. I wish I had not been part of the problem, and perhaps I will find a way to be part of the solution. I’ll begin by saying to Gerald Ford that I know he did his best and did what he thought he had to do: You have my respect and thanks, Mr. President.