Gerald Ford, now gravely ill, appears likely to be remembered more as a punch line than as a President. This rendezvous with parody is thanks in no small part to Chevy Chase’s pratfall impersonations of the accidental President on Saturday Night Live, the only-in-the-70’s earnestness of Mr. Ford’s “Whip Inflation Now” and swine-flu crusades, and the general treatment of that whole scandal-besotted era as an extended acid-and-adultery hangover from the utopian 60’s.
Mainly, though, Mr. Ford lost serious purchase on a Presidential legacy when he issued a “full, free, and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon for all offenses against the United States which he … has committed or may have committed or taken part in” during his abortive term in office. Mr. Ford’s announcement, issued 31 days into his own term, was intended to salve the wounds inflicted by Nixon’s concerted effort to obstruct justice and conceal his total complicity in the Watergate scandal and the many abuses of power associated with it, from the Committee to Re-Elect the President’s underground squads of dirty tricksters and “plumbers” to the Presidentially ordered break-in of the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.
But news of the pardon was greeted with anything but relief: It stirred to life renewed speculation that Mr. Ford had cut a deal with Nixon at the time of the disgraced President’s resignation, and it roused a fresh mood of distrust in the national press corps, which had until that day played graciously along with the honeymoon conceit of Gerald Ford as a vigorous new chief executive, bringing desperately needed energy and “openness” to a White House too long darkened by Nixon’s paranoia and petty skullduggery. Congress, where Mr. Ford, a former G.O.P. minority leader, had forged his career and—unlike Nixon—retained warm relations on both sides of the aisle, launched a Judiciary subcommittee inquiry into the propriety of the pardon and called Mr. Ford to testify before it. (He thus became “the first president in U.S. history to answer lawmakers’ questions under oath.”)
In 31 Days, Barry Werth, author of The Scarlet Professor, a well-received biography of Newton Arvin, brings a refreshingly personal tone to the chronology of the Ford transition. A well-worn tale such as this sorely needs a sharp biographer’s eye; Mr. Werth, happily, is up to the job. His day-to-day, real-time narration effectively conjures up the prevailing atmosphere—new promise mixed with the lingering baleful influence of Dark Lord Nixon—that made the Ford interregnum a unique moment of extreme contingency in the annals of the American Presidency. Even today, in this grim moment for the Republic, it’s difficult to conjure the mood in which newspaper reports could plausibly suggest that top commanders of the U.S. armed services had taken measures to thwart a possible coup d’état.
Mr. Werth also makes a fairly convincing case for Gerald Ford as viable national leader in his own right. Within the one-month span of his short-lived Washington honeymoon, the stolid former center for the University of Michigan football team kept the lid on a potentially explosive conflict between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus; helped coordinate the shuttle diplomacy of National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger that would lay the groundwork for Israel’s historic diplomatic accord with Egypt; met with the Congressional Black Caucus—something his predecessor managed to do just once in five and a half years, and then to singularly bitter effect; and floated the first proposal to extend amnesty to Vietnam draft exiles in Canada and elsewhere.
Other departures from Nixon form were less successful, Mr. Werth observes. Mr. Ford, for example, opted out of having a proper top-down organization of the cabinet kept in line by a proper chief of staff; he adopted instead a “spokes from the wheel” management style in which the incorrigibly “open” figure of Gerald Ford occupied the wheel’s center. This arrangement, of course, created more than its share of managerial disruptions and confusion—most notoriously on the incredibly sensitive question of whether, when and how Nixon was to be reunited with his prodigious archive of documents and secret White House surveillance tapes. But more damagingly, it also offered many opportunities for the rival White House staffs (Nixon’s corps of hold-overs vs. Mr. Ford’s transition team) to contend for advantage, leak damaging information and generally plot to undermine each other.
It’s in this context that we meet two of the major players of the Bush II Presidency: then–chief of staff Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense (then and now) Donald Rumsfeld. (It’s apparent that their presence is supposed to help justify the book’s misleading subtitle, but if anything, the debacle of the Nixon pardon led to the Democrats’ “class of Watergate” sweep of Congress in 1974, as well as Jimmy Carter’s defeat of Gerald Ford in 1976—which most certainly do not bring to mind “the government we have today.”) It’s sadly instructive to meet Messrs. Cheney and Rumsfeld, 30 years younger, both cast decisively in the role of Machiavellian White House insider.
Mr. Cheney clearly drew from his Ford administration tenure the lesson that the American Presidency was insufficiently imperial: “Watergate and a lot of the things around Watergate and Vietnam served to erode the authority I think the president needs to be effective,” the power-loving, intelligence-cooking, torture-approving Veep has said in retrospect.
Yet it’s Mr. Rumsfeld—over whom the U.S. press inexplicably swooned in the initial phases of the 2003 Iraq invasion—who comes across in Mr. Werth’s account as the purest, most wretched exponent of D.C. insiderism. During the weeks when Mr. Ford was deciding whom to appoint as his Vice President, Mr. Rumsfeld, fresh from his stint as NATO ambassador, spearheaded a whispering campaign on his own behalf, and then plotted to dump the candidate Mr. Ford designated, Nelson Rockefeller, from the 1976 Presidential ticket. This prompted the usually sunny Rockefeller to issue a glum warning to Mr. Ford: “I have to say I have a serious question about [Rumsfeld’s] loyalty to you.”
Yet for all their crass venality, Messrs. Rumsfeld and Cheney don’t belong center stage in this drama. That dubious honor falls to Gerald Ford himself, who, on the 31st day, broke his carefully calibrated silence on the pardon question with the unproven claim that holding Nixon to full legal account would disturb the nation’s “domestic tranquility” and unloose all manner of “ugly passions”—“our people would again be polarized in their opinions, and the credibility of our free institutions of government would again be challenged at home and abroad.”
In 2006, reading those no-doubt-sincere sentiments, it’s hard to avoid concluding that Mr. Ford could not have been more wrong. The consequences he feared are, after all, very much the conditions that characterize our nation six years into the Presidency of George W. Bush, and they are the all-but-exclusive outcome of unchecked executive power. It’s hard to accept that a republic that had seen Richard Nixon delivered, like many another lawbreaking American, into an awaiting docket would have endured quite so docilely the many abuses, outrages and prevarications of the W. White House. A little polarization and institutional crisis would been a small price to pay (and maybe even a blessing) if the result had put us in a position to say, as Mr. Ford did in his first speech as President, “Our Constitution works. Our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here, the people rule …. ”
As Chevy Chase might say, tell me another.
Chris Lehmann is an editor at CQ Weekly and the author of Revolt of the Masscult (Prickly Paradigm).