"That's Character" (December 29, 2006)
The dignity of Ford's post-presidency. By Robert Kaplan
At eleven o’clock on Sunday morning, September 8, 1974, one month after taking office, President Gerald R. Ford announced that he had granted Richard M. Nixon a full pardon for any offenses against the United States he might have committed while serving as the thirty-seventh President. With that act, Ford made a political blunder that would haunt his presidency and submerge his campaign two years later. The pardon immediately raised speculation that he and Nixon, working through Alexander M. Haig, Jr., the Army general who served as chief of staff to both, had struck a deal for the presidency.
Many of the aides who worked closely with Haig and Ford still assume that there was a deal of some kind. Whether there was may never be known, because the men involved have yet to give a full account. But defining the actual terms of the deal, if there was one, is no more important to an understanding of the pardon than knowing why Nixon made Ford Vice President and why he thought that he could rely on Ford to pardon him. Nixon and Haig thought of Ford as a proven commodity—a man who placed loyalty to Nixon and the Republican presidency above his personal ambitions and his political well-being. They assumed, according to the aides, that Ford would take care of his former boss as soon as he became President. That he waited so long to act was a disturbing surprise to Nixon.
Gerald Ford was a familiar, if not widely known, fixture in high-level Republican politics in October of 1973, when he was nominated to replace the disgraced Spiro T. Agnew as Richard Nixon's Vice President. He had served in Congress since 1948, representing a heavily Republican district in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His conservatism on foreign-policy issues and his hard-line stance against communism won him an appointment in 1956 to the House Appropriations subcommittee that controlled CIA funding and monitored, to a limited degree, CIA activities abroad. In 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson named Ford as one of two members of the House to serve on the Warren Commission, which investigated the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Ford was elected minority leader of the House the next year. During these years, Ford acquired a reputation as an amiable politician who followed his party's dogma with enthusiasm but with no malice; Democrats perceived him as a nice guy.
Ford's voting record, as of his 1973 confirmation hearings as Vice President, provided little basis for bipartisan endorsement. He had been a consistent supporter of aid to Vietnam since the 1950s. He repeatedly expressed concern, as did many other Republicans, about Soviet inroads in the United States: he had praised his fellow congressman Richard Nixon as early as August of 1950 for his fight against the "insidious Communist forces that would destroy our nation." Ford's record on domestic issues was similarly conventional. He voted against many of the important housing and community-development proposals. before Congress and to reduce proposed increases in minimum-wage laws. He did, however, favor increased government authority to aid the police in the struggle against crime, including wiretapping and preventive detention. Ford was known inside the Justice Department as a loyal supporter of the FBI and its director, J. Edgar Hoover. According to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, he served in late 1963 as an informant for the Bureau on the inner workings of the Warren Commission. In one internal FBI report, Ford was quoted by Cartha D. DeLoach, a senior aide to Hoover, as being "disturbed about the manner in which Chief Justice Earl Warren was carrying on his Chairmanship." DeLoach wrote, "Ford indicated he would keep me thoroughly advised as to the activities of the Commission. He stated this would have to be done on a confidential basis."
Ford's record on civil rights was, at best, indifferent; he remained mute during the great struggles of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and, after becoming minority leader, invariably sought to weaken civil-rights legislation during floor debate—before, in most cases, voting for the bills.
Nonetheless, alongside Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford looked very good late in 1973, even to some liberal Democrats. Nixon, desperately involved in his fight against the Watergate Special Prosecution Force and the federal court subpoenas for his White House tape recordings, was certain to face impeachment hearings in the House Judiciary Committee: there was a need for someone as Vice President who was well liked and widely considered to be acceptable, such as Ford. The attitude of many Democrats and Republicans was summed up by David Broder, the Washington Post's political columnist, in November of 1973, just after Ford's testimony before the House and Senate confirmation committees: "Whatever his shortcomings in intellect, oratory, or wit, Jerry Ford is one of the most decent human beings in Washington. He is not a hater, nor is he under a constant compulsion to prove his own worth by dominating and downgrading others…What Ford would bring to... government is the simplicity and honesty and openness and benignity that have been missing so long from the White House."
Richard Nixon and his men had evidence that there was another side to Ford. "In my opinion, he was a tough guy who knew how to play the game," Charles W. Colson, one of Nixon's closest advisers on political matters, recalled in a recent interview. "Nixon knew that Ford was a team player and understood how to work with a wink and a nod." Ford had led a much-criticized attempt in 1970 to impeach Justice William 0. Douglas of the Supreme Court. It was not a coincidence that Ford's campaign against Douglas began in the weeks following the Senate's rejection of Nixon's second nominee for the Supreme Court. Nixon's choices, Clement F. Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell, were the first presidential nominees to be rejected by the Senate since 1959. In the aftermath of the June 17, 1972, Watergate break-in, and before the November presidential elections, Ford was instrumental—at the urging of the White House—in disrupting an inquiry by the House Banking and Currency Committee, whose iconoclastic chairman, Wright Patman, a Democrat from Texas, was outspoken in his insistence that the financing of the break-in had its origins at the top of the Nixon Administration.
At that early stage in the Watergate cover-up, the White House understood that Wright Patman posed more of a threat than The Washington Post and other news media. Patman's thesis was simple: an investigation into the source of the brand-new hundred-dollar bills found on the team of men arrested inside the Watergate office complex, where they were re-installing a wiretap on the telephones in the Democratic National Committee headquarters, would lead directly to Nixon's re-election committee. This illicit financing (it had been arranged by Maurice Stans, finance director of the re-election campaign, and G. Gordon Liddy, a campaign counsel) eventually did lead to the unraveling of Watergate. Nixon's concern about the link between the Watergate break-in and the money was so great that one week after the Watergate burglary, he ordered the CIA to stop the FBI's investigation into the source of the money; his order, recorded in a June 23, 1972, tape that the Supreme Court forced him to release in early August of 1974, was the famed "smoking gun" disclosure that effectively ended his presidency. As of the fall of 1972, it was clear that Nixon had no intention of allowing Patman to subpoena witnesses, such as Stans, and perhaps learn the truth. Gerald Ford's role in stopping Patman was pivotal.
That Ford would cooperate was assumed, in the view of the men close to Nixon. Alexander P. Butterfield, the former Air Force colonel who, as a personal aide to Nixon, spent hundreds of hours in the Oval Office, said in a recent interview, "Nixon had Ford totally under his thumb. He was the tool of the Nixon Administration—like a puppy dog. They used him when they had to—wind him up and he'd go 'Arf, Arf.'" Butterfield was fired by Ford in 1975 as administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, a move that he believes was punishment for his revelation of the existence of the White House tape recordings to the Senate Watergate Committee in July of 1973.
"Ford was the consummate politician," says Colson, and was aware that the White House was always willing to repay its loyal helpers. Ford once approached Colson on behalf of Paul Hall, the president of the Seafarers International Union, who was indicted in 1970 with seven other senior union officials—none of whom was ever prosecuted—for making more than $750,000 in illegal campaign contributions between 1964 and 1968. The indictment charged that extortion was committed in raising the money from union members. Hall was a contributor to Ford's campaign; more important, he had arranged for others to contribute, according to a Ford associate. He was, as Ford wrote in his 1979 memoir, A Time To Heal, a longtime personal friend. (There is no evidence that Hall, who died in 1980, asked Ford to approach the White House.) "The Justice Department is screwing Paul Hall," Colson recalls Ford complaining. "You've got to take care of it." Such requests were considered all in a day's work in the Nixon White House, as the Watergate investigation later revealed. (Hall and the others pleaded innocent in September of 1970, and the case was dismissed in May of 1972 by a federal judge in New York City for lack of prosecution.) Ford gave loyalty in return by remaining fervent in his public defense of Richard Nixon's innocence until a few days before Nixon's resignation. "Nixon would talk with him like one of the boys," Colson says—although he adds that he does not believe that in late 1972, when Ford successfully intervened to stop the Patman Committee, Ford was told the full scope of Watergate.
Watergate was the predominant issue for the staff members of the House Judiciary Committee in the fall of 1973, as they prepared for their exhaustive hearings on Ford's vice presidential nomination. The committee's focus, inevitably, was not on Ford's past record but on the impeachment proceedings against Nixon—which, many in Congress believed, would get under way once Ford was confirmed and sworn into office. "All of the Democrats understood what we were doing," William P. Dixon, one of the senior Democratic committee investigators, said in a recent interview. "We needed to put him in so we could remove Nixon. We couldn't get Nixon out until we got Ford in. We weren't just making Ford President—we were saving the presidency." There were few illusions among the investigators about Ford, whose main asset was that he was not Richard Nixon. The staff's inquiry into Ford, Dixon says, produced evidence of unexplained cash transactions involving the Ford family's personal finances, some instances of double billing of airline flights, and what were considered to be technical violations of federal campaign-finance laws. Far more troubling to many committee investigators was a closely guarded Internal Revenue Service audit of Ford's finances for 1972, which showed that he and his wife, Betty, managed to live on between $5 and $13 per week in pocket money. "Ford couldn't buy his tobacco on $5 a week," one committee investigator says. "That was just total bull, as anyone who read the report knew." The investigator says that he and others shared many reservations about Ford, but viewed them as insignificant compared with the problems at hand. "We were saving the country. For God's sake, the other man was a lunatic. We had a thorough investigation of the guy and we didn't find any dead women or live boys. He was a known quantity: k-n-o-w-n; and let's get on with it.
Ford was most vulnerable, some members of the House Judiciary Committee believed, for his interference with the Patman inquiry. He was quizzed only cursorily about it during his confirmation testimony before the Senate Rules Committee and the House Judiciary Committee, but admitted without hesitation that he had worked diligently to upset the Patman investigation. It was, he claimed, a natural function of his responsibilities as House Republican leader, and not the result of any White House pressure. Ford was known to have repeatedly lobbied Republican members of the Patman Committee in the fall of 1972, and was instrumental in coordinating votes against Patman, whose request for subpoena power was defeated by a vote of 20 to 15 on October 3—effectively aborting the investigation. Ford arranged for two meetings with Republican members of the Patman Committee before the October vote, and circulated a critical letter to them. Patman, after the defeat, issued a prophetic statement: "I predict that the facts will come out, and when they do I am convinced they will reveal why the White House was so anxious to kill the committee's investigation. The public will fully understand why this pressure was mounted."
Ford specifically denied in his Senate testimony, on October 5, 1973, ever discussing the Patman investigation with Nixon or any of his key aides who helped with the Watergate cover-up—John D. Ehrlichman, his White House domestic adviser; H. R. Haldeman, his chief of staff; and John W. Dean III, a White House counsel. He further denied that his activities against Patman were motivated by any factor other than politics as usual. He had urged the Republican members of the committee to deny Patman the authority to issue subpoenas on the merits of the case, Ford said, and not out of fear that the investigation could jeopardize Nixon's re-election. Testifying in the House three weeks later, Ford also denied discussing the blocking of the Patman inquiry with William Timmons, the senior White House lobbyist, and said that he had no recollection of any such discussions with others in the White House.
One Democratic lawyer then on the House Judiciary Committee staff recalls the widespread belief that Ford had been less than candid in his confirmation hearings about White House involvement in his lobbying against Patman, but argues that there were clear reasons for not dwelling on the issue: "Agnew's left and Ford is coming in. What good is it to the country to go after him and find little nits? This was the first time the Twenty-fifth Amendment [which outlines procedures for the replacement of a dead or incapacitated President or Vice President] was being utilized. Let's not get bogged down in minutiae."
Such minutiae are essential, however, to an understanding of Ford's loyalty to Nixon, and the extent to which he was beholden to Nixon; he had chosen to provide misleading testimony in his confirmation hearings rather than embarrass or endanger the White House.
The loyalty went two ways. On April 30, 1974, the White House released hundreds of pages of transcripts as part of the President's frantic effort to forestall the impeachment process. Included were transcripts of a September 15, 1972, meeting between Nixon, Haldeman, and Dean, in which methods of putting pressure on the Patman Committee were discussed at length. Ford's name was repeatedly mentioned by the President and his aides. A clearer indication that Ford, contrary to his assertions, had discussed the Patman investigation with the White House did not appear until late June of 1974, when the House Judiciary Committee released its version of the same tape recording, in which many of the phrases and sentences previously marked "unintelligible" were restored. The committee's transcripts revealed that Ford was being called upon to play an active role in undermining Patman, and they provided dramatic evidence, not noted at the time, of how Nixon and the men around him consistently altered the dialogue to protect Ford. (The press focused its attention in June on those previously deleted portions of the transcripts that dealt with a series of presidential threats directed at The Washington Post, Edward Bennett Williams, the Post's prominent attorney, and the newspaper's television station, which was licensed by the federal government.)
The White House distortion of its transcripts was considered potentially a criminal matter by the Watergate Special Prosecution Force, which pursued the issue for at least a year after Nixon's resignation without recommending any indictments. Some of the most severe distortions occurred in discussions about Ford.
Nixon's suggestion that Ford had "to lead on this [action against Patman]" was deleted from the White House's version of the transcript, and a strong comment about the necessity of Ford's involvement was placed in the mouth of John Dean. Also deleted was Nixon's rhetorical question: "[Can Ford] do anything with Patman?" Missing, too, was Nixon's statement that "the game has to be played awfully rough... you'll follow through with... who—Timmons, or with Ford, or—How's it going to operate?" It was tentatively agreed that Haldeman would discuss the Patman issue with Timmons and that Ehrlichman would perhaps talk to Ford. Ford should be told, Nixon said in a comment that was deleted, that "I'm getting into this thing."
John Dean, in his second memoir, Lost Honor, published in 1982, printed extensive excerpts from White House memoranda indicating that he was in repeated contact with Timmons and other White House congressional lobbyists on the Patman issue between September 15 and October 3, when Patman was denied the subpoenas. Dean wrote that he was being assured of repeated contact by the Nixon aides with Ford. Charles Colson similarly recalls discussing the President's desire to stop the Patman investigation with Ford and enlisting his aid. "I talked to Ford directly," Colson says. "It was pure politics. We—the White House—wanted to stop the Democrats from having congressional hearings that would be politically embarrassing." Colson recalls attending meetings in the White House with Timmons and others, as did John Dean, at which specific conversations that had taken place with Ford were discussed in the context of killing the Patman inquiry. "There was no question in my mind that this was a routine political operation," he says.
Ford's direct involvement in blocking the Patman inquiry was not surprising; as a loyal Republican Party leader with close ties to the White House, he could hardly have been expected not to do his best to turn the vote against Patman and prevent him from gaining subpoena power. Yet he went far beyond political routine in his confirmation hearings, testifying that he had neither been in direct contact with the White House nor received direct pressure from the President's men on the issue. Ford chose to mislead the committees to preserve his standing with the Republican Party and the White House. He understood that personal and political loyalty would get him further in Washington than complete testimony. Ford's actions in blocking Wright Patman were far from remarkable, but the risk he took in his testimony—at a time of continued White House leaks—in denying the high-level pressures was an extraordinary one. Any hint in the press of Ford's obedience to Nixon's men would have evoked Watergate and jeopardized his confirmation.
The Nixon White House was rife with intrigue and distrust on December 6, 1973, when Ford, after his overwhelming confirmation by the House and Senate, was sworn in as Vice President. Ford's ability to step into the power vacuum and exert influence was limited by his awareness that he had not been Nixon's first choice as Vice President. Nixon had insisted initially that John Connally, the former secretary of the treasury, who was himself under investigation for alleged bribery, be nominated as Vice President. Connally's self-confidence and his success as an attorney in private practice were powerful attractions for Nixon. Charles Colson says that Nixon, in their private talks in the Oval Office, would literally "design" the sort of law practices he thought Colson and Connally should have after they retired from public life. (After Colson left the White House staff, in early 1973, Nixon urged him to bring his potential law clients to the Oval Office, so that they would be impressed by Colson's close relationship with the President. Colson says that in one chat, Nixon complained about his years as Vice President under Dwight D. Eisenhower. "After eight years, Chuck, I left the White House with $38,000 in my savings account and a four-year-old Oldsmobile. Don't you make that mistake.") Nixon had reluctantly accepted Ford as an alternative to Connally only after extensive pleading from J. Fred Buzhardt, a White House attorney, and Melvin A. Laird, Nixon's former secretary of defense. Nixon had reservations about Ford's abilities, Colson says; after Ford's confirmation, the President once described him to Colson as his "insurance policy" against impeachment.
Haig shared Nixon's ambivalence toward Ford, according to his aides, but he apparently found it easy to suppress his feelings. He understood that Ford had an excellent chance of becoming President: he must have known, as Buzhardt, with whom he spoke often, knew, that Nixon was guilty of most of what his enemies were claiming he had done. Such knowledge was a closely guarded secret in the White House. One of Haig's first moves after being named chief of staff was to recruit Buzhardt to serve as Nixon's primary Watergate attorney. Buzhardt was Haig's closest confidant in the White House, but his loyalties were complex. He served the President well—at one point, he himself was under investigation by the Watergate Special Prosecution Force—but he also had allegiance to Melvin Laird, for whom he had worked in the Pentagon as general counsel. Laird had resigned as Nixon's secretary of defense late in 1972, but was induced to join the White House staff after the April 30, 1973, resignations of Haldeman and Ehrlichman by a promise of full control of social, welfare, and education programs. Another factor in his return to the Administration was solemn assurance from Buzhardt and Haig that Richard Nixon was not guilty. "After I'd been back about three or four weeks," Laird recalled recently, "Fred came to see me. He told me he had misled me. 'I was wrong,' he said. 'The President did have knowledge, and I've just got to level with you.' I was shook up."
If Haig and Buzhardt understood that Nixon was guilty, they also understood that the burden was on the Watergate Special Prosecutor and the legal system to prove it. Haig was careful to protect himself: he began, almost immediately, to curry favor with Gerald Ford.
Ford had turned to an old friend, Benton L. Becker, a Washington attorney, for help during his vice presidential confirmation hearings. Becker was a former Justice Department prosecutor who, after leaving the government, had worked at Ford's direction on the private impeachment investigation of Justice Douglas in 1970. Becker learned immediately, as he recalled in a recent series of interviews, that Ford was responding to the wishes of Nixon's men in his condemnation of Douglas. John N. Mitchell, the attorney general, who was among Nixon's most trusted advisers, "pumped up" Ford during that inquiry; Becker says. When Ford summoned him again during the confirmation hearings, Becker had his first contact with Alexander Haig. Ford had been approached early in the confirmation process by Peter W Rodino, Jr., the New Jersey Democrat who was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Rodino offered access to the reports of the FBI investigation of Ford's background, according to Becker. It was clear that none of the Democratic leaders in the House wanted anything to stand in the way of Ford's confirmation. They knew, as did Ford, Becker says, that Nixon would be forced to leave and that Ford "was going to be President." Becker rejected Rodino's offer, to protect Ford, and was thus all the more surprised one afternoon, while he and Ford were conferring on income-tax matters, to hear Ford, who had taken a telephone call from Haig, suddenly begin discussing FBI information. "I heard Ford saying, 'One hundred and thirty FBI agents investigating me?'" After a moment's pause, Ford said, "They found him?"—referring to a minor colleague of years past. There was more talk, about a trip Ford took to China in 1972. At that point, Becker says, "I walked around Ford and grabbed the telephone out of his hand. 'General Haig, my name is Benton Becker, and I'm Gerald Ford's personal attorney.'
"'I know who you are,' Haig says.
"I explain—and I'm angry—that Ford is going to be asked at some point during the confirmation hearings whether or not the White House provided him with any information from the FBI background investigation. And I want Ford to be able to say no. 'Therefore, you and no one else in the White House are to have any contact with Ford during confirmation. Is that understood?'"