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Chapter 1: A Ford, Not a Lincoln
The Changing of the Guard
Gerald Rudolph Ford was an uncomplicated man tapped by destiny for some of the most complicated tasks in the nation's history. The first nonelected President, he was called to heal the nation's wounds after a decade in which the Vietnam War and Watergate had produced the most severe divisions since the Civil War. As different as possible from the driven personalities who typically propel themselves into the highest office, Gerald Ford restored calm and confidence to a nation surfeited with upheavals, overcame a series of international crises, and ushered in a period of renewal for American society.
A year before his inauguration, it would not have occurred to Ford that he was about to be thrust into the presidency. The highest office to which he had ever aspired was that of Speaker of the House of Representatives, and that had appeared out of reach because of the Democratic Party's apparently invulnerable majority in Congress. Ford had, in fact, decided to retire after the next election in November 1974. Suddenly, in October 1973, Richard Nixon appointed him Vice President in the wake of Spiro Agnew's resignation. "I'm a Ford, not a Lincoln," Ford said modestly when he assumed that responsibility on December 6, 1973.
Having never felt obliged to participate in the obsessive calculations of normal presidential candidates, Ford was at peace with himself. To a world concerned lest America's domestic torment impair its indispensable leadership during what was still the height of the Cold War, he provided a sense of restored purpose. On his own people, Ford's matter-of-fact serenity bestowed the precious gift of enabling the generations that followed to remain blissfully unaware of how close to disaster their country had come in a decade of tearing itself apart.
The ever-accelerating pace of history threatens to consume memory. Even those of us who experienced firsthand the disintegration of the Nixon Administration find ourselves struggling to reconstruct the sense of despair that suffused the collapsing presidency and the sinking feeling evoked by seemingly endless revelations of misconduct, by the passionate hostility of the media, and by the open warfare between the executive and legislative branches of our government.
In my dual role of National Security Adviser and Secretary of State, my constant nightmare as Watergate accelerated was that, sooner or later, some foreign adversary might be tempted to test what remained of Nixon's authority and discover that the emperor had no clothes. Probably the greatest service rendered by the Nixon Administration in those strange and turbulent final months was to have prevented any such overt challenge. For even as it approached dissolution, the Nixon Administration managed to navigate the Arab-Israeli War of 1973, diminish the Soviet position in the Middle East by sponsoring two disengagement agreements, and conduct successfully a complicated triangular diplomacy with Moscow and Beijing.
The disintegration of executive authority in the democratic superpower did not lead to a collapse of our international position as any standard textbook on world politics would have predicted, partly because the sheer magnitude of the disintegration of presidential authority was unimaginable to friend and adversary alike. Together with the prestige Nixon had accumulated over five years of foreign policy successes, we were able to sustain what came close to a policy of bluff. In October 1973 at the end of the Middle East War, it even saw us through an alert of our military forces, including of the nuclear arsenal. But with every passing month, the sleight of hand grew more difficult. We were living on borrowed time.
As the impeachment proceedings gathered momentum, Nixon's personal conduct began to mirror his political decline. He kept fully abreast of the various foreign policy issues and at no point failed to make the key decisions. But, as time went on, Watergate absorbed more and more of Nixon's intellectual and emotional capital. As day-to-day business became trivialized by the increasingly apparent inevitability of his downfall, I felt enormous sympathy for this tormented man whose suffering was compounded by his knowledge that his tragedy was largely self-inflicted. Yet by early July 1974, I, like the other few survivors of Nixon's entourage, was so drained by the emotional roller coaster that I was half hoping for some merciful end to it all.
The brutal process of attrition seemed both endless and incapable of being ended. Even when, on July 24, the Supreme Court ordered the White House tapes to be turned over to the special prosecutor, I was so inured to daily crises that I doubted anything conclusive would emerge. On July 25, I escorted the new German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher to the summer White House at San Clemente for a meeting with the President. After an hour with a ravaged-looking Richard Nixon the next day, Genscher asked the question tormenting me as well: "How long can this go on?"
On July 31, Al Haig, then Nixon's chief of staff, requested an urgent meeting during which he informed me that one of the tapes the Supreme Court had ordered to be turned over to the special prosecutor was indeed the long-sought "smoking gun" -- the conclusive proof of Nixon's participation in the cover-up. Haig would not divulge the contents.
Even at the edge of the precipice, the surreal aspect of Watergate continued. The White House decided to release the tape on August 5 in order to be able to put its own "spin" on it. The day before, my friend Diane Sawyer -- at the time, assistant to Nixon's press secretary, Ron Ziegler, and now a national television personality -- came to my office to check some public relations detail on an unrelated foreign policy matter. She had not heard the tape, she said, but she was beginning to believe that a climax would never come and that we were doomed to bleed to death slowly. "As likely as not," she said, "the tape will be drowned out by the background noise."
Clever, beautiful Diane turned out to be wrong. On the tape, Nixon was clearly heard instructing his chief of staff, H. R. "Bob" Haldeman, to use the CIA to thwart an FBI investigation into the Watergate burglary. This proof of an attempted obstruction of justice provided the catharsis for the Watergate affair. I have elsewhere described in detail the outburst that followed its release -- the Cabinet revolt, the decision of senior Republicans to abandon the President, and my meetings with Nixon, including the melancholy encounter in the Lincoln Sitting Room on his next-to-last night in the White House -- all of it culminating in Nixon's decision forty-eight hours later to resign, effective at noon on August 9. In these pages, I will confine myself to my interaction with the President-to-Be, Gerald R. Ford.
On the morning of the tape's release, Nixon telephoned with a bizarre request: would I call the Vice President and ask him to invite key southern members of Congress to a briefing by me on foreign policy? Nixon did not explain his purpose, but obviously he thought it might persuade these representatives to vote against impeachment.
I had first met Gerald Ford some ten years before when, as a Harvard professor, I invited him to address a seminar on defense policy I was conducting under the joint auspices of the Harvard Law School and the Graduate School of Public Administration (now the John F. Kennedy School of Government). Ford discussed congressional control of the defense budget, a subject he knew well from his service as the ranking Republican on the Defense Subcommittee of the House Committee on Appropriations. Although (and perhaps because) his presentation was delivered in the unassuming style of Grand Rapids rather than the convoluted jargon of the academic world, he left an extremely favorable impression on students who, in the prevailing atmosphere of the incipient anti-Vietnam protest, were anything but benevolently disposed toward advocates of a strong defense.
After I became Nixon's National Security Adviser, Ford, in his capacity as Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, attended occasional White House briefings. His interventions were sensible, supportive, and good-humored. For the eight months of his vice presidency, Ford conducted himself with dignity and loyalty to the President. He remained aloof from Watergate controversies and displayed no designs on the highest office. Roughly once a month, I would brief him about major foreign policy developments. General Brent Scowcroft, then my deputy, saw him more frequently. Ford would limit himself to asking clarifying questions -- the appropriate course of conduct for a Vice President, who, since he has no clear-cut area of responsibility, should make any suggestions he may have directly to the President and not to a subordinate.
I have never asked Ford what went through his mind when I called him on that fateful morning of August 5 with Nixon's request that he invite the southern congressmen to a foreign policy briefing. And he has never volunteered a comment. By then, we now know, a small group to advise him on the inevitable transition had already been formed. Did he think I was trying to bring myself to his attention? Did he believe Nixon was seeking to embarrass him? Whatever he may have thought, Ford played it straight. He would do what the President asked, he said, but -- demonstrating that he had seen through Nixon's stratagem -- he added that it would have little influence on the impeachment vote (which I had not mentioned). Matters had gone too far foreign policy issues would not affect the decision of the House of Representatives.
The tape having been released, Ford took the unprecedented step on August 6 of dissociating from the President at a Cabinet meeting. He would no longer defend the President's position on Watergate, he said, and indeed he would not have done so in the past had he known what was on the tape. Publicly he would maintain silence on the matter on the ground that he was a "party in interest" -- pointedly reminding everyone that he was next in line for Nixon's office. But Ford stressed that even though he was dissociating from the President, he would continue to support Nixon's policies:
Everyone here recognizes the difficult position I'm in. No one regrets more than I do this whole tragic episode. I have deep personal sympathy for you, Mr. President, and your fine family. But I wish to emphasize that had I known what has been disclosed in reference to Watergate in the last twenty-four hours, I would not have made a number of the statements I made either as Minority Leader or as Vice President. I came to a decision yesterday and you may be aware that I informed the press that because of commitments to Congress and the public, I'll have no further comment on the issue because I'm a party in interest. I'm sure there will be impeachment in the House. I can't predict the Senate outcome. I will make no comment concerning this. You have given us the finest foreign policy this country has ever had. A super job, and the people appreciate it. Let me assure you that I expect to continue to support the Administration's foreign policy and the fight against inflation.
I did not speak with Ford at that meeting or, indeed, until Nixon had decided to resign. It was now certain that Ford would become President. In that turbulent week of Nixon's resignation, I had no time to speculate on how it would affect my own position. Before I could address the subject, Ford took the decision out of my hands by telephoning me on the morning of August 8 after Nixon had informed him of his plans to resign. Ford asked me to come to see him and, in his unassuming way, left the time up to me. In the course of the same conversation, he asked me to stay on and in a way that made it sound as if I would be doing him a favor by agreeing. The conversation went as follows:
Dramatic events are not always ushered in by dramatic dialogue. As I reread this conversation from the perspective of two decades, I am struck by its matter-of-fact tone and concerns. At the time, I was affected by the understated way in which Ford conveyed Nixon's decision which would make him President, without rhetorical flourishes and without mentioning the emotional impact on himself. And I was moved by his tact in so swiftly putting an end to any personal uncertainty I might be experiencing.
The atmosphere of the conversation carried over into our meeting that afternoon. It took place in the Vice President's large office in the Old Executive Office Building, which, before World War II, had been assigned to the Secretary of the Navy. This gingerbread edifice is physically separated from the White House by a narrow passageway incongruously named West Executive Avenue and much more so by the nearly unbridgeable chasm of difference in actual power. As a general rule, the policymakers have offices in the White House supporting staffs are installed in the Old Executive Office Building. In that respect, the location of the Vice President's office accurately reflects his real power.
In less bureaucratic times -- until 1947 -- the Old Executive Office Building used to house the State Department as well as the Army and Navy Departments earlier. Each of these alone would today overflow its patrician corridors. No building in Washington has offices better calculated to stimulate reflection. The ceilings are high, the proportions vast by contemporary standards. The larger offices have exterior balconies, many with views of the White House lawn.
During my meeting with Ford in the afternoon of August 8, I sat on a sofa near the balcony, Ford on an easy chair with his back to the window. He seemed casual and calm, neither grandiloquent nor pretentiously humble. He opened the conversation by saying that he intended to announce even before he had taken the oath of office -- in fact, that very evening -- that I would be staying. Ford added that he had felt comfortable with me ever since our first meeting at Harvard. Artlessly, he added that he felt confident we would "get along." I replied that it was my job to get along with him, not the other way around.
With this, we turned to the practical problems of the transition. To avoid confusion abroad, it was important to establish a sense of continuity in our foreign policy, at least for an interim period until the new President could determine what changes, if any, he wished to make. To this end, I had brought along a transition plan, the essential feature of which was to put before every government around the world a personal presidential message. In addition, I recommended that the new President meet with all the ambassadors accredited to Washington so that they could report their personal impressions to their governments. These two steps were designed to prevent the various capitals from basing their initial judgments on rumor and speculation. Since it was physically impossible to see each ambassador individually, I proposed that Ford meet them in regional groups, allotting about an hour to each. The first group would be NATO ambassadors, followed by Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Since the nations of Northeast Asia did not fit any grouping, and since Japan was an indispensable ally and China a key element in our triangular diplomacy, I recommended that their diplomatic representatives be received individually. (Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador, was on home leave he would be received as soon as he returned.) Finally, there would be separate meetings with the ambassadors of South Korea and South Vietnam -- two countries on behalf of which American blood had been shed. Their ultimate safety depended on making sure that their adversaries understood the new President's commitment to their security.
Ford took some time to look over the various documents. He invited John O. "Jack" Marsh, Jr., a longtime associate whom he was to appoint counselor, to join our meeting. After some desultory discussion, Ford agreed to the draft letters and to the meetings with the ambassadors. He demurred only when I handed him another document listing outstanding commitments, including some sensitive understandings with other governments. One of these had not yet been implemented and was, in fact, somewhat ambiguous. I told Ford that, if he felt uncomfortable with it, I could delay carrying it out: "They will blame me, not you," I said. But passing the buck was not a trait of this President-to-Be: "No, I will make that decision," Ford said.
Perhaps the most lasting impact of that first conversation was its aftermath. For the first time since I came to the White House, I left the presidential presence without afterthoughts, confident that there was no more to the conversation than what I had heard. Nixon was one of the most gifted of American Presidents, prepared to make tough decisions and courageous in doing so. But he needed solitude for such an act. Face-to-face, Nixon was obsessively incapable of overruling an interlocutor or even disagreeing with him, as I shall elaborate in a subsequent chapter. Since one could never be certain that Nixon might not undo what he appeared to have just decided, wariness occasionally verging on paranoia prevailed among his entourage.
With Ford, what one saw was what one got. Starting with that first meeting, I never encountered a hidden agenda. He was sufficiently self-assured to disagree openly, and he did not engage in elaborate maneuvers about who should receive credit. Having been propelled so unexpectedly into an office he revered but never thought he would hold, he felt no need to manipulate his environment. Ford's inner peace was precisely what the nation needed for healing its divisions.
The New President
The morning of August 9, 1974, witnessed one of the most dramatic moments in American history. At 9:30 in the East Room of the White House, President Nixon bade farewell to his staff, culminating the greatest rupture of the American domestic consensus since the Civil War. At 12:03 that same day, in the same room, Gerald R. Ford was sworn in as the thirty-eighth President of the United States. The seats had been rearranged so that when Ford spoke, he was facing in a different direction than Nixon had, symbolizing a new beginning.
Nixon's parting speech was an elegy of anguish. Usually so disciplined, he talked in a rambling, occasionally disjointed manner about the dreams of his youth, about his mother and family, and about the importance of putting into practice Theodore Roosevelt's injunction never to shirk the political arena. Having devoted so much of his effort to self-control all his life, Nixon seemed impelled to put on display the passions and dreams he had publicly suppressed for so long he even wore glasses for the first time in public. For a staff drained by the unraveling of the presidency, it was almost too much to have to witness -- in this, Nixon's last act as President -- such a baring of the inner self of this anguished figure refusing to admit defeat, even as his life's work was in shambles.
When, two and a half hours later, Gerald Ford took the oath of office, he declared calmly and confidently that "our long national nightmare" was over. And his audience, exhausted by struggling for nearly a year and a half against a premonition of catastrophe and by the emotional wringer of Nixon's parting speech, placed its hopes on this unpretentious man from Grand Rapids into whose hands an extraordinary twist of fate had placed America's destiny.
As it happened, I played a conspicuous if technical role in the two resignations that had made Ford's ascent to the presidency possible. At 11:35 A.M., General Haig handed me Nixon's formal resignation addressed to me in my role as Secretary of State in the National Security Adviser's office at the White House. All presidential appointments are countersigned. by the Secretary of State and, by the same token, resignations of the President and Vice President are made to the Secretary of State as well. This is a vestige of the days when the Founding Fathers had designed that position to include major domestic functions -- somewhat similar to the prime minister in the French Fifth Republic. When the letters of resignation of Spiro Agnew as Vice President on October 10, 1973, and of Richard Nixon as President on August 9, 1974, were formally addressed to me, I achieved what one must hope will remain the permanent record for receiving high-level resignations.
By the time of Agnew's forced resignation, Nixon's original entourage had been decimated, and the remnants were like shipwrecked sailors thrown together on some inaccessible island. In these circumstances, I became privy to the President's ruminations regarding the political choices before him -- a subject matter from which I had previously been excluded. He enunciated three criteria affecting his decision on the new Vice President: who would make the best President, who would be easiest to confirm without provoking further Watergate problems, and who would provide the least incentive for the advocates of impeachment to do away with Nixon.
Of the potential candidates, Nixon considered former Texas Governor and Secretary of the Treasury John B. Connally by far the best qualified for the presidency, with New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller a close second in ability though not in terms of his attractiveness to Nixon. Connally, of whose brash self-confidence Nixon stood in awe and the only person about whom I never heard Nixon make a denigrating comment, would surely have been his first choice had he not been the subject of an investigation (which ultimately led to his indictment). Still confident of surviving Watergate, Nixon wanted to make sure that, despite Connally's obvious handicap, the ultimate vice presidential choice would not blight Connally's prospects for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination -- by which time the latter's legal troubles would presumably be behind him.
Nixon's strong feelings about Connally would have been sufficient to eliminate Rockefeller's prospects even if Nixon could have brought himself to appoint the political adversary of a lifetime. Rockefeller's fatal handicap in Nixon's eyes -- at least the one Nixon stressed to me as Nelson's lifelong friend -- was that Rockefeller's nomination would utterly divide the Republican Party. (Nixon was to say later that he had also considered Ronald Reagan but had rejected him because he could not be confirmed. If so, he never mentioned it to me.)
Through this process of elimination, Gerald Ford emerged as Nixon's choice. He would prove easy to confirm and be, in Nixon's words, an "adequate" Vice President. In addition to being acceptable to Congress, Ford carried another benefit in Nixon's eyes: his lack of experience on the executive level would give Congress pause in any plan to impeach Nixon. On several occasions, the President mused that Congress would not dare to assume responsibility for replacing him with a man who had so little background in international affairs.
As it turned out, the choice of Vice President had no impact on Nixon's impeachment for, by then, Watergate had gathered its own momentum. Ford was nominated on October 13, 1973, and easily confirmed. And his elevation to President ten months later was welcomed with universal relief.
When Ford took the oath of office, no one -- not even the new President -- could know whether he would be equal to the monumental task bequeathed to him. Without any executive experience, he assumed the presidency at a moment as desperate as our nation has known outside of wartime. Lacking a popular mandate and in the wake of the traumas of Vietnam and Watergate, Ford was handed the responsibility for his country's renewal. And Providence smiled on Americans when -- seemingly by happenstance -- it brought forward a President who embodied our nation's deepest and simplest values.
In no other country are personal relations so effortless as in smalltown America nowhere else is there to be found the same generosity of spirit and absence of malice. The quintessential product of this environment, Gerald Ford performed his task of overcoming America's divisions and redeeming its faith so undramatically and with such absence of histrionics that his achievements have so far been taken far too much for granted. Only very recently have some journalists who used to mock him begun to reevaluate his period in office.
To a great extent, this neglect was because Ford bore so little resemblance to the prototype of the political leader of the Television Age. The media and many of his colleagues were at a loss when it came to fitting him into the familiar stereotypes. The modern presidential candidate ends up making a kind of Faustian bargain: a full-scale national primary campaign costs a minimum of $15 million for television and print media advertising. But the money must be raised within strict limits defined by law. To remain credible, a candidate feels obliged to devote most of his energies for the better part of three years to accumulating a war chest from fragmented and disparate constituencies. In that process, his principal incentive -- approaching an imperative -- is to try to be all things to all people. What starts as a tactic, over the course of the grueling campaign easily and imperceptibly turns into a defining characteristic. National recognition is achieved at the price of nearly compulsive personal insecurity.
The age of the computer and of television has compounded this insecurity. When the visual image replaced the written word as the principal means of understanding the world, the process of learning was transformed from an active to a passive mode, from a participatory act to assimilating predigested data. One learns from books via concepts that relate apparently disparate events to each other and require analytical effort and training. By contrast, pictures teach passively they evoke impressions which require no act by the viewer, emphasize the mood of the moment, and leave little room for either deductive reasoning or the imagination. Concepts are permanent impressions are fleeting and in part accidental.
The new technology has fundamentally altered the way in which the modern political candidate perceives his role. The great statesmen of the past saw themselves as heroes who took on the burden of their societies' painful journey from the familiar to the as yet unknown. The modern politician is less interested in being a hero than a superstar. Heroes walk alone stars derive their status from approbation. Heroes are defined by inner values, stars by consensus. When a candidate's views are forged in focus groups and ratified by television anchorpersons, insecurity and superficiality become congenital. Radicalism replaces liberalism, and populism masquerades as conservatism.
A curious blend of brittleness and flamboyance thus defines the modern political persona: brittleness verging on obsequiousness in the quest for mass approval, flamboyance turning into panic when the public's mood shifts. Far more concerned with what to say than with what to think, the modern political leader too frequently falls to fulfill the role for which he is needed most: to provide the emotional ballast when experience is being challenged by ever-accelerating change. The inability to fulfill these emotional needs lies behind the curious paradox of contemporary democracy: never have political leaders been more abject in trying to determine the public's preferences, yet, in most democracies, respect for the political class has never been lower.
In the United States, the dividing line between the new and old style of politics coincides roughly with the advent of the Kennedy Administration. A young and untested Senator achieved the presidency by eloquence and by his capacity to exploit the still novel medium of television. John F. Kennedy's presidency was too brief to require him to choose between heroism and stardom, or even to be conscious of the choice. Kennedy was able to practice both modes, unintentionally mortgaging the tenure of his immediate successors who fell prey to the illusion that no choice needed to be made.
Lyndon Johnson, well grounded in traditional politics, tore himself apart in his quest for the kind of adulation Kennedy had evoked but which was destined to be beyond reach for a President of Johnson's generation. Immortalized by his untimely death, Kennedy, for his admirers, served as the embodiment of dreams turned legacy. Johnson's vain attempt to play the same role lured him into craving approbation from those who would never accept him.
The case of Nixon proved even more stark. No modern president was more solitary, more studious, or spent so much of his time alone, reading or outlining options on his ubiquitous yellow legal pads. If ever there was a man from out of the age of books,
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Kissinger, Henry, 1923-Cabinet officers United States Biography, United States Foreign relations 1969-1974, United States Foreign relations 1974-1977, Statesmen United States Biography