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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
Vive la France! He did what he had to do, and if he hadn’t, the French would still be chasing one another through village streets over things that happened more than fifty years ago. Ford did what he had to do too. “Close the book on Watergate” were the words he used in a taped television announcement on September 8, 1974, a Sunday, his thirtieth day as President. He was playing golf when the television networks ran the tape. He took a tremendous political hit. Not only did his approval ratings drop, but he lost the 1976 election because of his actions and words on that day.
He also ended, almost violently, a thirty-day honeymoon with the press. Mel Elfin, the Washington bureau chief of Newsweek , later said: “I stood on my balcony and watched that chopper taking Nixon away after he resigned, and it was like I was coming out of Buchenwald. In that mood even a thirty-five-cent hamburger tastes like steak.”
We had suddenly dared to trust—and felt betrayed again. Ford’s press secretary, Jerald terHorst, who had been a columnist for the Detroit News , quit when the pardon was announced. A newspaperman for more than twenty-five years and a press secretary for only thirty days, terHorst could not break the habits of a lifetime. None of us could, and one consequence was a lost opportunity to break a long and continuing cycle of press-politician hostility.
Ford had the guts to take the hit. I, for one, did not have the sense to calm down and get beyond the obvious and into what he might have been thinking. That was part of what was on my mind as I talked with Tom Snyder twenty-one years later.
I do not mean to say that President Ford was an innocent. When he was confirmed by Congress as Vice President, in December 1973—replacing Spiro Agnew, who had turned out to be a crook—he was asked about a pardon for Nixon and answered, “I do not think the public would stand for it.” He reiterated that sentiment, through the White House press office, on his first day as President, August 9, 1974.
I have been troubled not only by my shortsightedness but also by the impact of my own reportage in those days, its impact not on one President but on political journalism or the political dialogue of the country. I don’t want to exaggerate. A Ford, Not a Lincoln was no world-changing book. It was well reviewed and hung around the middle of bestseller lists for a few weeks, especially in Washington. Actually, my memory of impact relates more to a New York magazine article that included part of the book. The cover was a faked photo of Bozo the Clown in the Oval Office; the headline was LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES .
I also remember something very important about the book’s promotion tour in the fall of 1975. I did a lot of radio call-in shows around the country, which were mostly late-night affairs in those days. I was stunned by the hatred of Washington I heard and by repeated conspiracy theories I considered wacko. It was nothing compared with what goes on around the clock and around the dial today, but coming back home then, I thought and wrote that Ford was probably finished because he was seen as a Washington candidate. I said then that the men to watch were the anti-Washington candidates, Jimmy Carter of Georgia and Ronald Reagan of California.
Frightening was a word that had appeared again in the reviews of A Ford, Not a Lincoln. Newsweek said: “Frightening and provocative in its demystification of a President.” In England the Sunday Express said, “A totally amusing and frightening read.” The Times of London added: “Not the kind of book you could imagine a British political correspondent writing about Harold Wilson.”
Those words have a different meaning to me now than they did then. Were they and the book part of the buildup to acid-in-your-face “character” politics?