The Ford School hosts an event as part of the long-awaited book tour for Richard Norton Smith's An Ordinary Man: The Surprising Life and Historic Presidency of Gerald R. Ford, with Richard Norton Smith and Hank Meijer. April, 2023.
0:00:02.9 Celeste Watkins-Hayes: I am Celeste Watkins-Hayes, the interim dean of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy here at the University of Michigan. I'm delighted to welcome all of you here and those tuning in virtually this evening to tonight's event hosted with our wonderful partners from the west side of the state at the Gerald Ford Foundation. As we near the end of our academic year here on campus, I'm so excited to take this opportunity to honor our school's namesake President Gerald Ford. Gerald Ford attended the University of Michigan as a pre-law student majoring in economics and political science. And as many of you may know, he was also a captain on the football team who worked two jobs, including waiting tables at the University Hospital. President Ford famously loved the University of Michigan. Some of us remember that as he entered a room, the marine band didn't play hail to the chief.
0:00:57.5 CW: They played hail to the victors. In 2001, 65 years after his graduation from the University of Michigan, his beloved alma mater named its Outstanding Policy School for its most distinguished alumnus, the 38th president of the United States. President Ford's legacy is very much alive here at the Ford School, and we are so proud to bear his name. The values that distinguish him remain so relevant to Policy students, his lifelong commitment to principled public service, his integrity and his ability to reach across the aisle to forge consensus. I look forward to tonight's conversation and to learning more about the life and legacy of the school's namesake. I know that we all do. So to introduce our speaker, Richard Norton Smith and moderator Hank Meijer, please join me in welcoming the Gerald Ford Foundation, executive director Gleaves Whitney. Gleaves?
0:02:03.7 Gleaves Whitney: Thank you so much, Dean Watkins-Hayes. It's a pleasure to be back here with you at the Ford School and it's a pleasure to be back in Ann Arbor where I went to school eons ago and just to be here to kick off this very exciting event. So thank you for being here. Henry Kissinger reminds us that I'm quoting Kissinger here. "According to an ancient tradition, God preserves humanity despite its many transgressions because at any one period there exist 10 just individuals who without being aware of their role, redeem mankind." Gerald Ford was such a man. Now you expect monuments for somebody that rare. And in Gerald Ford's case, we have a whole lot of monuments, don't we? We have a presidential foundation, library and museum. We have a great academic institute right here, great academic center named for the president that he put his heart and soul into. You have a statue in the US Capital. You have a freeway, an airport, an aircraft carrier. You have now a magisterial biography by the independent scholar, Richard Norton Smith, which at 700 narrative pages is indeed a monument.
0:03:27.4 GW: In fact, I like to say it's a monument to Gerald, our Ford 'cause that's the way we feel about him here in Michigan, isn't it? Well, we've been anticipating this book for some time now, but I wouldn't have changed the timing of its publication one day for at the Ford, we are entering a host at the Ford Foundation, I should say. We are entering a host of 50th anniversaries between now and 2027, of Ford becoming America's first unelected vice president, of Ford then becoming America's first unelected president, then of, Ford becoming, needing the task, to meet the task of his administration, to clean up after America's first major defeat in a war. Of President Ford, leading Americans in the bicentennial celebration of 1976, 1776, which means in 2026, we're looking at the 250th anniversary of our nation. All these legacy anniversaries give us admirers of Gerald Ford, an unparalleled opportunity to draw American's attention to the 38th President's virtues and values.
0:04:36.3 GW: His integrity, his bipartisanship, his compassion and his competence. Every one of these characteristics speaks powerfully to us today by their absence. This is Ford's time now more than ever. He was good then in the 1970s, and he is better now in our contemporary debates. His example and his message are exactly the example and the message that Americans need to study today. So I don't think it's an accident that Richard's book comes out now. In fact, I'm gonna use the P word here. I think it's providential. And no one was better fitted to write this book than Richard. He knew President and Mrs. Ford. He interned for President Ford. He wrote for President Ford. He directed the Ford Presidential Foundation Library and Museum. He's even lived over the Ford burial site and museum for over a decade, looking down on it from 21 floors. Down, not in the sense of pride or arrogance, but with humility. And he spent a lot of time writing this book. More than 10 years, reading thousands of source documents, conducting more than 170 interviews, writing 40 drafts to get it right and whittling the whole down to 700 narrative pages. Maybe, just maybe, this was the book that Richard Norton Smith was meant to write.
0:06:07.5 GW: Already before the birth of Richard's book, you could see it climbing in the Amazon polls. That in itself is an interesting phenomenon. Well, in addition to Richard Norton Smith on stage, we are also delighted and honored to be with Hank Meijer. Now everybody in Michigan and throughout the Midwest, knows who Hank is with his, you know, the, the 240 Superstores, Supercenters that I think make up one of America's largest family-owned companies. While Hank is the Executive Chair of Meijer, what makes this grocer different? What makes Hank the perfect interlocutor this evening? It is not just his long friendship with Richard, but also the fact that he is a first-rate journalist and historian in his own right. His book on Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg, is a quarter century in the making, and it's the best there is. He also is a long-serving vice chair of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation. So he's become somebody who's very instrumental in much of what we're able to do at the foundation. So ladies and gentlemen, are you ready to learn tonight?
0:07:12.0 S?: Yes.
0:07:14.7 GW: Okay, welcome Richard and Hank.
0:07:21.3 Hank Meijer: Well, good evening everyone. It's delightful to be with you all on a snowy spring evening. And and to have Richard with us. And we wanna leave some time for questions at the end, but there's so much to learn here. And Richard even as one of, as your opening chapter suggests this is a book of secrets, but I'm curious, what did you learn that was new or surprising that might change the way history views Gerald Ford?
0:07:50.5 Richard Norton Smith: The simple answer is it took 700 pages to answer that question. But let me, let me take one that maybe is not obvious, but should be particularly relevant to this audience in this place. Some of you may remember when Lee Bollinger sort of stuck his neck out in defense of affirmative action and the role that it played in the selection of students both in the law school and undergraduates. And as you know, it was under challenge in the courts and we're talking 1997, '98, '99. Anyway, Bollinger could not find a national politician who was willing to sign on to any kind of public defense of the university's position. The Clinton White House at that point you may remember, was in there, Mend it, Don't End it, whatever that meant. And Ted Kennedy was reluctant any event, to his semi-amazement, he was told that Gerald Ford was willing, in theory. Anyway, I was sort of a, a go-between in all of this. And it turned out President Ford was enthusiastically willing. The university had prepared an op-ed piece for him to sign, and he said, thanks, but we wrote our own. And he had a marvelous story to tell, which made the point. And of course, some of you know the story of Willis Ward, an African American student-athlete, star-athlete and a very good friend of undergraduate Jerry Ford's.
0:09:47.5 RS: In fact, they roomed together on the road. There's a story in the book. They got to Chicago at the Palmer House. And the Palmer House was not going to house an African American, anyone... And Harry, Harry, I think it's Harry Kipke, the coach, a remarkable guy, Harry Kipke, who had recruited Ward originally, he was gonna go to Dartmouth and he promised him that his playing time would be dictated by the talent and the skill he demonstrated, and not by the color of his skin. Anyway, in the lobby of the Palmer Hotel. I wish I'd been there. Harry Kipke informed the management that if they in fact said that... And went ahead with this notion that they would not house Willis Ward, that he would take the team to another hotel. He would make sure they would never return to the Palmer House. And for good measure, he would tell everyone he knew in the football world and make sure that they never came to the Palmer House. Well, anyway guess what? They had second thoughts.
0:11:01.6 RS: Willis Ward stayed at the Palmer House and he was told by an African American maid that he was only the second of his race ever to be allowed to stay. The great Marian Anderson was the other who they snuck in. In any event, Willis Ward is wrapped up in this whole story sort of then and now. President Ford was part of the incredibly difficult, you know, it was the 19, I guess, 1935 team, he was the best player on the team that won one game, which is not much of an honor. But the one game was historic. And of course, it was a game against Georgia Tech, which made it very clear they would not play if an African American player was on the opposing team.
0:12:03.8 RS: Fielding Yost, who was the son of a Confederate officer, was perfectly willing to accept those terms. Ford was not, a lot of other people were not, they were demonstrations. The NAACP weighed in, student union. I mean, it was a cause célèbre. Ford seriously thought about quitting the team. He was dissuaded probably by Willis Ward who, who basically wanted, if nothing else, he wanted his team to beat the guys from Georgia. And of course, that's what happened. It wasn't much of a game. They won nine to two...
0:12:48.0 RS: And the most memorable play was at the beginning of the second act. Some trash talking Georgia player approached Ford in the line of scrimmage and said, "Where's your, used the N word player?" And on the very next play, Ford and another linebacker managed to knock this guy out and send him off the field in a stretcher.
0:13:21.6 RS: And Ford later told Willis Ward, "That was for you."
0:13:26.3 RS: Well, he repaid the favor years later when Lee Bollinger asked him if he would publicly endorse and make the case in the New York Times for Michigan's affirmative action policy. He did, building this around the Willis Ward story. And he said, "Do we really wanna turn the clock back to the day when people, first of Willis Ward's character, and ability were turned away?" But equally important in this incredibly diverse, increasingly diverse world of ours, do we want to prevent people from having the experience of going to school and learning in and out of the classroom from people like Willis Ward?
0:14:17.9 RS: Anyway, the piece ran. Two days later, it was the 25th anniversary of Ford's White House inaugural. That strange, quasi inaugural in August, 1974. And President Clinton on that occasion, presented him with the Medal of Freedom. Now, what you need to know is that Mrs. Ford got the Medal of Freedom 10 years before he did. He was so proud of her. He said in his later years that when the history books were written, her contribution would outweigh his. And he believed that. He meant that very sincerely. But what was fun to watch, because I was there, was seeing all of the other recipients of the medal that day, and people in the audience, they all gravitated to Ford, most of them, to thank him for what he had said in The Times, and for being bold enough. It made me think isn't it a shame in this country that we only have elder statesmen? It sometimes seems as if you have to wait until your active political career is over to go out on a limb as Lee Bollinger did and as Gerald Ford did.
0:15:32.9 HM: Well, and the Willis Ward story, takes us to not only to Washington, but to the capital and soon to President Ford's post presidency.
0:15:42.0 RS: That's right. The reason why it's 700 pages is every story leads to another story, leads to another story. It's that kind of life. After the President passed away, there was an effort underway in the Michigan legislature to replace one of the state's two statues in Statutory hall with that of President Ford. It was Zachariah Chandler. And if you've never heard of him, don't worry, nobody has. But he was a gilded age politician, former mayor of Detroit, best known for helping to steal the 1876 election for Rutherford B. Hayes. In any event, it isn't as if there was a great contingent of Zachariah Chandler fans who wanted to preserve his place of honor. There were, however, a number of Republican senators, some of whom had never quite gotten over the Reagan, Ford contest, more who took offense at Ford's post presidential support of affirmative action.
0:16:51.1 RS: And of course, his position on a woman's right to choose. Which, as you might expect, echoing Mrs. Ford's, was supportive. So anyway, they were counting on inertia, which may be, as you undoubtedly learned in your classes, the single most compelling force in the legislative process. It was, nearing the end of the session, literally the last day of the session. And the governor said she was fine with this. Everyone was fine with this except this critical mass of frankly conservative Republican senators. And so, it's like a Frank Capra movie. You don't believe these things happen in real life, but they did. At a critical moment, Buzz Thomas, who was then the democratic leader, minority leader in the state senate, got to his feet and said, "I wanna tell you something about Gerald Ford." And he proceeded to in effect to narrate the Willis Ward story. And Ford's subsequent efforts, for example, in support of affirmative action and the like. But then what cinched the deal was, Buzz Thomas told everyone he knew what he was talking about because he was Willis Ward's grandson.
0:18:21.2 RS: And there was a momentary, kind of people were stunned, which is how you get legislation through.
0:18:30.0 RS: The Gavel came down. There's a statue in the rotunda of the capitol, appropriately, as I write in the book, a short walk away from a bust of Martin Luther King. Four million people a year walked through that space. And at its best, what it reminds us is that America is very much a work in progress. And in their own way, Gerald Ford and Willis Ward and Dr. King were part of that.
0:19:05.8 HM: When President Ford was here, there was no Ford School, but the Ford School in its origins was very... Is and continues to have a real strength in its emphasis on really substantive policy and the data that supports it and has added a leadership component to that to have a richer experience, but President Ford was singular among modern presidents in his intense policy wonkery I guess you would say... [laughter] It would really do a Ford School student proud, I think.
0:19:44.9 RS: No, it's absolutely, there's a real bridge there. Ford got into politics, I like to say for the right reason. He was an insurgent. He and his dad had taken on the political machine that controlled not only Grand Rapids, but for a while, the state of Michigan headed by Frank McKay, a fascinating character who was not above, it is widely believed, and they're all gone now. So, I can say this. Authors have said this. Not above murdering a state senator three days before he was to testify before a grand jury about McKay and his corruption of the state legislature. So Ford, the one thing that bothered Ford in his later years, he said, I keep reading, I'm a plotter that, I'm a party man. That is not a label that he ever would've applied to himself.
0:20:46.9 RS: He was an insurgent who took on the Republican organization in Grand Rapids. He came back from the war as an insurgent who took... Who had had a conversion just like Arthur Vandenberg, who had been a pre-war isolationist, and indeed he was a founder of the America First Group, which in its original form, which has very little to do with the modern use of the term, was a student campus group across America. Young John F. Kennedy, young Gore Vidal were both members who basically believed that World War I, they were disillusioned like many other Americans, all sorts of things had been promised as a result of the war that hadn't happened. It now appeared that Europe was stumbling toward yet another configuration, and that's why they wanted the United States to stay out of it. Ford got into politics on the national level.
0:21:46.4 RS: He was in Philadelphia at the convention with those thousands of people in the convention hall screaming, we want Wilke. Well, Wilke was the ultimate insurgent, a lifelong Democrat who had just changed his party and quite frankly, an internationalist, someone who agreed with FDR about the need to provide assistance to England and eventually the other allies during the war. So in 1948, this former isolationist turned internationalist runs for Congress against a Republican entrenched kind of mossback Republican, who believed that the... His responsibilities in terms of the world ended around the Indiana state line and astonishingly, Ford won. He goes to Congress. He's endorsed, by the way, by organized labor, which helped his, well, his victory margin. He goes to Washington as a young, aggressive liberal. First major vote he casts is to overrule the rules committee on what they call the 21 day rule, which... I dunno if they still had the 21 day rule, something that may still exist by any event, it allowed the rules committee, which was a packed with old Southern, mostly conservative foes of the new deal, foes of the Fair Deal.
0:23:24.7 RS: But anyway, Ford found himself opposing in effect his own party's leadership, voting against the old bulls who commanded the legislative channel through the Rules committee. He was very proud of his pro civil rights record. One of the first things he did was introduce legislation needless to say, it didn't pass, to federalize, in effect, child support payments. Now, this is 1949. He knew wherever he spoke. Lots of people don't know Gerald Ford, of course, was not born, Gerald Ford. He was born Leslie King Jr., in Omaha, Nebraska, In 1913. His parents had a disastrous marriage. It was really over with the honeymoon. Two weeks after the baby was born, Leslie King Sr. Walked into the bedroom, clutching a butcher knife, threatening to kill mother and child. Two days later, Dorothy King, later Dorothy Ford, a remarkable woman, remarkable woman, so ahead of her time, slipped out of the house and made her way across to the Iowa State wide and got a train for Chicago where she had family.
0:24:48.7 RS: There was a divorce, the court needless to say, sided with her, ordered child support payments which were never made. Not by the father, his father, who had some sense of responsibility stepped up, but the father, Leslie King never did. Well, anyway, this needless to say was part of Gerald Ford's history and undoubtedly it played a part in his introduction of legislation, what went nowhere. Fast forward 25 years, early 1975, he's president. One of the first pieces of legislation that crosses his desk remarkably, is a variation of what he introduced a quarter century earlier. It basically would federalize child support payments. Well, needless to say he signed it, but being Gerald Ford, any other politician would take advantage of the situation, obviously, to personalize the issue to quite frankly, exploit the issue. Ford never mentioned it, never said a word. The same day that he signed that legislation, he vetoed a bill that would place his name on the new federal building in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
0:26:14.2 RS: And his explanation was he thought presidents should be remembered in the legislation they pass or the programs they initiated. They shouldn't be worrying about physical monuments to themselves. That's one reason why, and this is not an uncritical biography. I want to make it very clear. I remember something David Kennaway said, and he knew the Fords better than any of us. "If you're not critical, you're not credible," and there's much to criticize, much to take issue with. But I found so much that I didn't know, and I thought I knew him pretty well and one reason why so much of that is unknown. Apparently, there has not been a great deal of scholarly curiosity, but it goes back to the beginning. Gerald Ford was the most self effacing man, I think, to be president. Of course, he was the only one in our time who didn't aspire, who didn't build his life around the ambition to be president. So maybe his goal in life was to be speaker of the house. And well, there's a lot we don't know in part because some of it he didn't want us to know. Those are some of the secrets in the book, but a lot because he didn't promote it. He didn't promote himself.
0:27:51.4 HM: Well, and you talk about covering every aspect of his political career. One of the things that comes to mind today, we're contentious about Supreme Court Justices and one of Ford's campaigns for which he was most noted before he ascended to the vice presidency was the prospective impeachment of a Supreme Court.
0:28:15.1 RS: That's right. And it's interesting and it was some of the criticism, but actually fortunately, Ford was self-critical. Later years, he said, I wish I hadn't done that. The proposed impeachment of William O. Douglas was in some ways foisted off him. You have to remember, he'd become House Republican Leader in 1965. He had a caucus even then. One of the things we haven't talked about was his time on the Warren Commission, which is perhaps the least understood. But in any event, even while he was on the Warren Commission, they were right wing members of his caucus who wanted him to go after one of the staffers on the commission supposedly for being too left wing, etcetera, etcetera. He was always under that. I mean, it was almost a dress rehearsal in milder form for what more recent Republican House leaders/speakers confront every day of the job.
0:29:18.7 RS: But anyway, they were after Douglas for the forethought, for the wrong reason. They wanted to avenge the failure of Nixon's appointees, Clement Haynsworth and Harrold Carswell. And Ford had been interested in Douglas, long before Nixon became president, but not obviously for those reasons, Ford was an Eagle scout. And I say that, it's a key. He really was an Eagle Scout. And I think what really bothered him about Justice Douglas in the first, well, what 150 years of the United States Supreme Court, there had never been a divorce. There had been three in the his... No, now four. But in 1970, there were three divorces in the history of the court. All of them involving Justice Douglas [laughter] And every time he remarried, the young woman became progressively younger [laughter]
0:30:30.3 RS: So wife number four was 23 year old waitress in Washington state, and oh, by the way, went on to become a first-rate lawyer. And by all accounts, just a great human being, Kathy Douglas. But in any event Ford was offended by that, there was a little bit of the prude in him. And he took a lot of heat, some of it justified, not all of it, but anyway, for going after Douglas. He, of all people should have known whatever his personal motive was that at coming as it did in the wake of the Carswell and Haynsworth nominations, etcetera, etcetera. The fact of the matter is today, and I don't want to get into controversies about current Supreme Court Justices [laughter] who justify the need for a code of ethics at the Supreme Court. But let's just say the code of ethics was as necessary in 1970 as it is today...
0:31:38.8 RS: If you remember one, Abe Fortas, Justice Fortas, who had been nominated by Whitney Johnson to be Chief Justice and had been prevented by a Republican in effect filibuster, and then subsequently resigned when it was revealed that he was taking $20,000 a year from the Louis Wolfson Foundation. Mr. Wolfson having some highly questionable contacts in Las Vegas, fill in the blank. That was enough to drive a sitting Supreme Court Justice off the court. And at that point, Ford wondered about, Douglas. What turned out Douglas was taking more money from equally dubious sources, but Douglas survived. Someone asked him why? Well, he said, Manny Celler, Emmanuel Celler, the long-term chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. He said, "Manny Celler is a good friend of mine," and they managed while Ford was on the floor. This is a great sort of technical story, how to un-impeach the Supreme Court Justice, Ford's on the floor of the house making his speech and very shrewdly a member of the Democratic side, knowing that a motion to impeach takes precedence over anything else.
0:33:09.6 RS: While Ford is speaking, Ford's idea was let's create a bipartisan committee of three Democrats and three Republicans to conduct a responsible investigation. Fine, before he could finish, this member of the house dropped in the hopper a motion formally proposing the impeachment, which meant it went to the Judiciary Committee, forget Ford's idea. It was in Manny Celler's hands and the rest as they say, was history. Ford got to compensate in some ways while he was president on New Year's Eve, 1974, '75, he found out Justice Douglas and Mrs. Douglas were in The Bahamas for the holidays, and the justice suffered a severe stroke. And as soon as Ford heard he called, I've found the phone logs. First time he didn't get through. Second time he did to Cathy Douglas to see if there was anything that the government could do.
0:34:17.4 RS: And in fact, Ford saw to it that a government plane flew the justice's personal physician to the Bahamas and then brought him back to be hospitalized. And later when he had recovered enough, he never really recovered. But Ford saw to it that he was invited to a state dinner. And everyone was on their best of behavior. It is said from a reliable source that back at the court, Ford, not Ford, Douglas said his reason for not retiring was that Ford would nominate some idiot in his place. Well, even Douglas must have been pleasantly surprised when Ford nominated John Paul Stevens, very distinguished, jurist from Chicago. I remember years later when Justice Stevens came to Grand Rapids and Ford flew all the way from California to introduce him. And I said to the President, when's the last time you talked to Justice Stevens?
0:35:23.1 RS: He said, when I nominated him, and I said, did you interview him? He said, no. I read his opinions. The remarkable thing, you should go back and take a look. Do you know how much time passed between the day that Stevens was nominated in December, 1975 and hearings at which nobody asked him about abortion. And this is three years after Roe. He was approved 98 to nothing, 19 days after he was nominated. Now he went on to... Ironically he served the longest tenure, second only to William O. Douglas. Most people, most scholars of the court would tell you that he moved gradually to the left. He certainly reconsidered his view of things like affirmative action, although he never ever wavered on flag burning. But, in any event, there were people around Ford who had been involved in the original selection process, who thought, gosh, he changed on us, and assumed that Ford like many other presidents, wish they could have a do-over.
0:36:45.7 RS: And Ford made it very clear. He made it clear in writing and he made it clear publicly. He said, I'm perfectly willing to have my entire presidency judged on the performance of John Paul Stevens on the court. And when I went to interview Justice Stevens for this book, the letter framed, occupied a place of honor in his chambers at the Supreme Court. So, I don't know if it makes up for the Douglas, but I'm not sure William O. Douglas would approve of anyone who replaced him, but he had to have at least respected the intellect. John Paul Stevens is one of the last Supreme Court justices who was chosen without regard to ideology or politics.
0:37:37.7 HM: Well, and the... Getting back to Justice Douglas, that was after Gerald Ford had served in Congress for a couple of decades. His hopes of becoming speaker appeared to be growing ever more remote. And there was talk in the Ford household of retirement.
0:37:55.4 RS: There was. In fact, it's interesting. In 1972, remember Nixon, that's the year Nixon won 49 States and Ford, who had 192 Republicans before the election. And by the way, one of the things that are revealed in the book, which has never been known, they had an understanding in writing, I believe with 17 Southern Democrats who were in theory, willing to switch parties, if that would make the difference.
0:38:28.8 RS: So Ford went into the 1972 election with high hopes that he would finally achieve his lifelong ambition to be speaker. In fact, on the election night, Republicans only gained five seats, so much for the deal. And it became clear to him that he was never gonna be speaker. So basically he cut a deal with Mrs. Ford, who had been very patient all these years. Some nights, some years, Ford was on the road, 200 nights a year, campaigning for other Republicans. And that obviously took a toll on her, took a toll on his family. And I think an element of guilt probably bred by that experience is something that influenced him later in life. But he made a deal with her. He would run one more time in 1974, step away from the house leadership and retire in 1976.
0:39:30.9 RS: He would be 63 years old, which was still young enough to have a second career as a lawyer lobbyist in DC splitting his time between DC and Grand Rapids. Well, he discovered... And this is probably the biggest historical bombshell in the book, and it wouldn't be in the book if I had only one source. I have two impeccable sources, who have never talked before. But the fact of the matter is, in February of 1973, Gerald Ford learned six months earlier than he ever acknowledged about Spiro Agnew's serious legal difficulties and the distinct possibility that the vice presidency would become vacant. And Ford wanted to fill it. And he spread the word where it would do the most good to some of his Democratic counterparts, because after all, they controlled both houses of Congress. They would be in a position as they were in October to go to Richard Nixon and tell him in effect, you cannot have the man you want to be Vice President, John Connolly, because we will not confirm him.
0:40:52.9 RS: On the other hand, we will gladly confirm Gerald Ford. Now Nixon mistakenly, and it was one of many mistakes he made at this time. He looked upon Ford as a kind of insurance, good old Jerry, the creature of Capitol Hill. Yeah, he could become vice president, but they would never impeach him, Richard Nixon, because they really didn't see Gerald Ford as presidential. It was probably the worst misjudgment that he ever made. So what did Nixon really think about Ford? The most honest appraisal I found is on a telephone conversation that he... One of many that he didn't know were being taped in which he refers to Ford, I would say ambivalently as an honest true man. Now, to most of us, that would be a compliment. Coming from Richard Nixon, I don't think it was intended as such. And he hated being vice president, by the way. He told Dick Cheney it's the worst job I ever had.
0:42:06.7 HM: Did he have a real sense of inevitability about it when he became vice president?
0:42:10.4 RS: No, that's the remarkable thing. It's hard to believe. I find it hard to believe. In the summer of 1974, the Ford family may have been the only family in America that was not sitting around the dinner table at night speculating about the likelihood of the President of the United States being forced from office. And that's because he wouldn't let anyone, he told his staff, he told anyone he came in contact with. There is one occasion when he slips with a friendly reporter and it's recounted in detail in the book, and he suddenly realized he had slipped and he came out from behind the desk and he grabbed the reporter by his tie and said, "You didn't hear that." And he finally said, "Write it when I die," and that was the understanding they had. And in fact, that was a seed for Tom Defrank's book, Write It When I'm Gone, which are conversations that he had with former President Ford.
0:43:13.8 RS: But stop and think, Mrs. Ford said afterwards, she said, "Most people get three months, at least between an election and inauguration. We had 24 hours." And that's true. On August 1st, Al Haig told Ford basically barring a miracle that Richard Nixon would be leaving and that Ford had to be prepared to replace him that night. [chuckle] Classic. The Fords had a dinner date that they couldn't break. And of course they couldn't say anything and it was with a Washington Post or Washington Star journalist. See, 'cause Ford liked reporters, that set him apart. He gave out his home phone number to reporters. He socialized with reporters. He invited them as guests to the White House when he was there. But anyway, that evening of all evenings, and it's interesting because the husband of this woman columnist said, "Mr. Vice President, you seem awfully quiet, tonight." And Ford said, "Oh, I think I've got a cold coming on." [laughter] Well, as soon as they got home, then he told Betty.
0:44:33.0 RS: And he basically she had been up to the, now, the vice presidential residence. Remember it was the old... It was the Admiral's house. The Navy owned it. And legislation was introduced to take it away from the Navy. It's up there on Mass Avenue up near the cathedral. And so Mrs. Ford had been working at the house thinking about drapes and wallpaper and all those things you need when you move into a house. And Ford said, Betty, we're never gonna live in that house. And he proceeded to tell Haig. Now, I found one of the things that I had access to that nobody has seen before, Ford did about 4000 pages of interviews in conjunction with his White House memoir, with a ghost writer, man named Trevor Armbrister. But to his enormous credit, Armbrister didn't stop there with Ford's support.
0:45:32.1 RS: He went out and interviewed 50 Ford cabinet members, White House staff, personal friends, journalists, you name it. Anyone who could embellish on the stories that Ford told or confirmed them. And one of those interviews was with Betty Ford. Well, anyway I got access to, of the 50, obviously people who are still alive, they remain sealed, but a majority have left us. And that meant that I was able to see the transcripts. And what's wonderful about these transcripts is, cross my heart, they were all promised complete anonymity when they were interviewed. Nobody would see the transcript except maybe Jerry Ford. But he wouldn't look at... He wouldn't bother to, and nobody has seen them until now. And they are really, really interesting and revealing. And one of them is a conversation. And Mrs. Ford talks about, "Oh, yeah, Al Haig... He came home and said, Al Haig," her words, "offered him a deal. And I said, Jerry, you can't do that." He said, "I know." So the whole question about the pardon, and even that only begins to open the doors, Ford had a right hand man, his conscience, he called him, a man named Phil Buchan from Grand Rapids.
0:47:00.1 RS: He was White House counsel, and Phil Buchan has been kind of overlooked or written off as a nice little gray-haired man with polio who really didn't leave much of a mark. Now Phil Buchan didn't believe in the pardon. And he understood Ford's mind was made up. Phil Buchan's wife, Bonnie, kept a diary, notes and I found them. And they're extraordinary because they put you in the Oval Office at the moment that Ford tells Phil Buchan, his conscience, that he is going to pardon Nixon. And the reason he gives is among other things that he wants to relieve Leon Jaworski, the special prosecutor of the burden of prosecuting Nixon. Well what he meant was, of course, of the whole country going through a prosecution of a former president. The fact of the matter is Ford never expected to be president. He finds himself burdened from day one with a declining economy. The NATO alliance by the way, is coming apart at the seams. Portugal already has a communist government. The communist parties in Italy and France are winning a quarter to a third of the popular vote. We've not extricated ourselves from Vietnam and Southeast Asia, you name it, and all of these things that he had not been allowed to prepare himself for because of the political constraints that he was under.
0:48:44.7 RS: So anyway, and then of course, every day he would try to address himself to these issues. By the way, a universal healthcare plan was before Congress. Arguably, if it hadn't been for the pardon and the backlash, we might have had it long before we got ObamaCare. But in any event, Ford decided to bite the bullet, as he said. And I quote him, "There's no way to rip off a bandage slowly," but even he underestimated the impact, the negative political impact that it would cause. So he has Phil Buchan, he delegates Phil Buchan to go to Leon Jaworski, the special prosecutor, and find out how long will it be before Richard Nixon can have a trial given, needless to say press coverage, et cetera, et cetera. And this is all new. Turns out that Buchan had a suite in the Jefferson Hotel, which is also where Leon Jaworski had a suite so they could conspire away from the television cameras and pass messages back and forth. Well, first of all, Jaworski said it would be at least a year and it could be two years before there could be a Nixon trial. Well of course Ford is looking at the calendar two years that takes him up through the next election. It means his entire presidency will be devoured by Nixon.
0:50:37.0 RS: So he decided to pardon Nixon, not to forgive him but basically to try to forget him, to change the subject to move the country and the media's attention. You can imagine. This was the greatest story. It was said of the abdication of Edward the 8th, that it was the greatest story since the resurrection. Well, this was at least the greatest story since the abdication. And people didn't want to let go of it, understandably. And what Ford decided to do in effect, was to fall on his sword. Although, again, he did not. Anyway, so Phil Buchan, who really does not support the pardon, who does he go to? He goes to his pastor in Grand Rapids, who's a very unusual man. His name is Duncan Littlefair. His critics called him Duncan Little Faith, because he made it very clear that he was not pushing any of this God business at the Fountain Street Church.
0:51:39.0 RS: It was non-creedal Christianity, which was really more about ethics and Christian behavior than it was about Old Testament allegiance. Anyway, Phil Buchan was very close to Duncan Littlefair. He brought him to Washington. I know, because I have his wife's notes, and I have the White House log that logged in Duncan Littlefair to the White House complex, I believe, to the old office building, the Eisenhower old executive office building. I do not believe, though I cannot prove it, that he never saw Ford face-to-face. I don't think Phil Buchan would've done that. But what he did do was write out a statement heavy on Christian mercy that Ford could use if he decided to go ahead with a pardon. And I do believe that Phil Buchan saw to it that much of that statement found its way. And the problem with that was, although Ford went along with it, after the fact, when the uproar arose and it was instantaneous, Ford tried to rewrite history and say it wasn't mercy toward Mr. Nixon, it was this hard political decision that he made to try to move on, to relegate Nixon to the sidelines.
0:53:20.5 RS: By the way, for whatever it's worth, he personally believed that Nixon would be indicted, tried and convicted at least on charges of obstruction of justice. I think he was personally willing to see that play out with the understanding that he would make sure that Richard Nixon never spent a day in jail. But even after all these years, whether it's the Agnew story or the pardon, the remarkable thing that I found was, and I don't... For any of you, all of you who are scholars who are digging, whether it's history, political science, whatever your subject, the remarkable thing is 50 years on, how much there is that we do not know. I think I found out a lot of things that we didn't know, but I have no illusion that Gerald Ford did not take secrets with him to the grave.
0:54:25.1 HM: Well, I know before we take questions, you're gonna wanna read an excerpt from the book. But before that, I would like to ask, your book is dedicated to someone that people may not be familiar with, Oliver Sipple.
0:54:38.4 RS: The first of the surprises is when you open the book on the dedication page is the name of Oliver Sipple. And it's kind of the Daily Double Jeopardy question at this stage in our history. But it's there for a reason. Very deliberately. On the 22nd of September, 1975, Gerald Ford was in San Francisco delivering a speech to the AFL-CIO, meeting with that city's World Affairs Council, doing a television taping. He was in the St. Francis Hotel and he was preparing to leave, and there was a crowd out front, about 3000 people, not terribly friendly. And the Secret Service said, Mr. President, why don't you go out the back of the hotel? There's a reason for this. Two weeks earlier, Ford, as some of you remember, had been the target of an assassination attempt in Sacramento on the State Capitol grounds by a woman named Squeaky Fromme, adherent of Charles Manson, sort of, that's all you need to know.
0:55:39.7 RS: So there were a lot of people in the White House who did not want Ford going back to California, Northern California. Right at the time, this is the Patty Hearst business, radical politics in and around San Francisco. It's like walking into the lion's den. But anyway, Ford, being Ford, he said, I'm not going to be a prisoner in the White House. So they went out, he's done everything, he's walking out. Oh, and the Secret Service insisted, by the way, this time don't shake any hands because there's... 40 feet away from the limousine, there's a smaller crowd. In that crowd was Oliver Sipple, 33 years old, honorably discharged Vietnam veteran, who was standing next to... Showed up out of the blue, out of curiosity, why there was a crowd, didn't know the president was there, decided to stay. Next to him, was a nondescript, middle-aged housewife with a handbag. Ford walks out, he appears, he waves to the crowd. And Oliver Sipple alone in this crowd notices this woman is opening her handbag and pulling out a 38 Smith & Wesson.
0:56:56.1 RS: He deflects her first shot and in fact, if you're in San Francisco, stop by the Saint Francis, you can still see the bullet hole in the side of the outside. The secret service, of course, they shove Ford into the car, they shove Donald Rumsfeld on top of him, and two agents get on top of them. The car takes off 80 miles an hour to the airport. Halfway there, this muffled voice from the bottom of the pile says, "Rummy, get off, you're heavy" [laughter] And gradually they realize, that's the president they're all sitting on top of. So anyway, he's fine couple San Francisco cops jump on this woman, they take her inside the hotel. Sarah Jane Moore is her name the rest is history, Oliver Sipple is the hero of the day. Gerald Ford, when he gets back to the White House writes him a thank you letter. The day before it arrives, the San Francisco Chronicle takes it upon itself to out Oliver Sipple as gay.
0:58:06.0 RS: Now this is 1975. Sipple 's family in Michigan disowns him and the rest of his life was pretty bleak. Alcohol was a significant factor. He died in 1989 at the age of 47, they found his body it was estimated he'd been dead for two weeks in a shabby rundown apartment. The walls of which were papered with the newspapers from the day that he was the story and the place of honor on the wall was occupied by his letter from Gerald Ford. Well, knowing the Fords, president Ford as an ex-president, became the first American president to publicly associate himself with a pro-gay rights organization. He signed a petition and he made it very clear privately before he died, that same sex marriage was coming, people should get used to the idea, etcetera, etcetera. And it seemed to me just appropriate, Oliver Sipple's name has been lost to history. I think the Fords would approve that his name is on the dedication page.
0:59:20.5 HM: I think so too. Would you like to share something from the book?
0:59:23.7 RS: Very quickly, you know what? Thank you. Gerald Ford is not known for his speech making abilities, I used to joke around him that he was charismatically challenged. [laughter] The wonderful thing is he laugh. You could say things like that around Ford but Ford gave a number of really good speeches and a cost of them right around the bicentennial. If you stop thinking about the mood of the country in the summer of 1976 compared with 1974 it wasn't all Ford's doing, but he was a significant part of it. Anyway, the best speech he gave I think the best speech he gave as president was the 5th of July, the day after he'd hopscotched up and down the East Coast on television. He got on a helicopter early in the morning and flew to Charlottesville, Virginia to Monticello.
1:00:22.8 RS: And there in front of Jefferson's home on his front lawn, he presided over a naturalization ceremony for 150 new Americans. And it seems that what he said that was timeless and in some ways incredibly contemporary. He told the crowd that he was reminded of his Sunday school teacher in Grand Rapids who told him the story about Joseph's many colored coat, which struck him as a metaphor for the United States at its best. This is what Ford said on July 5th, 1976. "Black is beautiful, was a motto of genius which uplifted us far above its first intention. Once Americans thought about it and perceived its truth, we began to realize that so are brown, white, red, and yellow beautiful. I believe Americans are beautiful individually, in communities and freely joined together by dedication to the United States of America. I see a growing danger to this country in conformity of thought and taste and behavior...
1:01:42.8 RS: We need more encouragement and protection for individuality, the wealth we have of cultural, ethnic, religious, and racial traditions are valuable counterbalances to the overpowering saneness and subordination of totalitarian societies". And this is how he concluded to the newest Americans on Jefferson's front lawn. "You came as strangers among us, and you leave here citizens equal in fundamental rights, equal before the law with an equal share in the promise of the future. Jefferson did not define what the pursuit of happiness means for you or for me. Our constitution does not guarantee that any of us will find it, but we are free to try".
1:02:39.3 HM: Thank you.
1:02:40.0 RS: You bet.
1:02:47.4 HM: I believe we have a little time for questions and we would certainly welcome them and we have microphones at both sides of the room.
1:02:56.4 RS: Questions, comments, even constructive criticisms will be entertained. [laughter]
1:03:02.1 RS: Yeah.
1:03:02.3 Speaker 5: Who wrote the...
1:03:02.9 RS: Yeah. I think do you have a microphone?
1:03:10.0 Speaker 5: Who wrote the speech you just read, was that...
1:03:12.1 RS: I don't know, he had... I'm able to trace the origins of a number of what... I'll tell you a great story about Ford and speeches after he left office. David Gergen, everyone's favorite, I guess, wise man. He told me this story 'cause Gergen wrote speeches at the Ford White House and had some really interesting experiences. But anyway, this was probably 10 years after Ford had left office, and one day Gergen got a speech from the president's office and he read it over and he thought, "This is really kind of elegant, but it's a little overwritten for Ford." Somebody, kind of... The vocabulary's a little bit more sophisticated than you would think. And the turning of... I mean, this is sort of Kennedy-esque and Ford called him and Gergen assumed he wanted some help in kind of toning down the Kirk Killian rhetoric, [laughter] And Ford laughed and he said, "David, all these years I have been so busy that I haven't had time to write my own speech. So I decided I'd take a crack at it." And that's what he came up with. [laughter] Now that's a surprising Gerald Ford.
1:04:45.3 HM: You know while we're thinking about it, that we're in Ann Arbor, which meant so much to President Ford. But much as he identified as a Wolverine, he really spent more time on another campus.
1:05:00.9 RS: Well, yeah, I have a chapter to prepare you for the shock, but chapter three, chapter four, whatever opens with a line which is intended to shock. "Gerald Ford spent more time at Yale than he did at the University of Michigan." And I think it's interesting, he didn't really talk about this, but I think there deep down, I think he had to be bothered. He did talk about, as I said, it bothered him that people thought he was a just a party man. The fact of the matter is, he was a lot more sophisticated, dare I use the word. Now, one reason is because his first girlfriend, PB Brown for Perfect Body Brown, as she was known by her contemporaries, the word supermodel and Gerald Ford do not seem to belong in the same sentence. But the fact is, his first serious love affair was with this gorgeous, intelligent woman who modeled among other things.
1:06:07.9 RS: And who was his sort of Pygmalion in reverse. She said, "I took this hayseed and taught him New York." Well, he fell in love with New York. They went to the theater, she taught him skiing and sailing and he almost married her. And I remember reading the interview that he gave, which has obviously not been publicized, and her name comes up and he goes, he just sort of... He's 90 years old at this point, and he's sort of talking about what a remarkable gal she was, pause, thank God I didn't marry her, she would've three husbands. And when she was in her mid eighties and he was 90 and she was living conveniently enough in Reno, Nevada, not all that far from Ford's home in Rancho Mirage and Ford's an earlier biographer, Jim Cannon, who by the way, his first volume is... I think the best book I've ever read about Watergate.
1:07:18.6 RS: But anyway, the president said to Jim Cannon who was gonna write a Ford biography, "You gotta go talk to Phyllis." And so he said, "Okay." So he flies to Reno, and on the taxi ride to her condo, he's thinking to himself, "Okay, now what can I do to ingratiate myself with this woman?" So he stops at a florist, gets a dozen roses, gets to the condo, knocks on her door she opens the door. And he said, "Here, president Ford wanted you to have these." And she said, "No, he didn't, he never gave me flowers." [laughter] So he knew right away and he cut to the case, this is a woman who's gonna tell it like it is and they spent several hours together and when it was over, this is interesting. Jim told me this, it did not find its way into his book, but he knew someday it would find its way into mine. [chuckle] He said, Phyllis said, "Would you take a message to Jerry?" And he said, "Yeah, sure." Would you tell him? I still think about him. I still dream about him. I still love him."
1:08:31.8 RS: And Jim Cannon got back to Rancho Mirage and thought, "How do I deliver that message?" But anyway, you could tell anything to President Ford. And so he relayed it, and there's this... And Jim thought, "Oh gosh, maybe I've overstepped the bounds." No, no, no, Ford was just... Ford of all people was being careful. And what he said, and classic Ford response, he said, "Well, she was a wonderful gal... But Betty and I have had such a marvelous marriage." And I thought, "Okay, that's a congressman, two compliments in one sentence of... " And needless to say, Phyllis's name was not one that you brought up around Mrs. Ford. Years later after this incident, Phyllis invited herself to the office and the word went out, no. [laughter] Now the president's schedule was too busy. And she figured out what it was but in any event... Ford credited her with sort of polishing a lot of the rough edges, but he also knew he'd married the right woman and I mentioned guilt earlier. All those years he was on the road, he tried to make it up and he did in his later years.
1:09:58.4 RS: He and Mrs. Ford traveled a lot. Their honeymoon was in Ann Arbor in Detroit [laughter] one night because he had to get back to campaign for Congress. And one night, the night of their marriage, was spent in Owosso, Michigan listening to Thomas E. Dewey Orate in the town of his birth on a cold mid-October night. Well, anyway, it was kind of a preview of coming attractions for Mrs. Ford, and she was warned by her sister-in-law. She said "Jerry's mistress will never be a woman, but his work". And that turned out to be very much the case. But, fortunately how things turned out so well. I mean, it's a very harrowing story about how she came to terms with her alcoholism, which by the way was genetic, her father and her brother were both alcoholics. And it's obviously a triumph story that ultimately she creates the Betty Ford Center, which has become synonymous and which removed a lot of the stigma. First from breast cancer. We tend to forget people didn't talk about breast cancer in 1974.
1:11:24.8 RS: And then of course, one reason why in later years, the other final surprise that comes as a surprise to most people is that Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter became very good friends and so did their wives, which is a bigger accomplishment [laughter] 'cause if you know anything about political wives, usually they're the ones who kind of foster some of the hostility and the staff. Well, the whole Carter family and the whole Ford family became very close, and they had an understanding whichever survived the other, would eulogize his friend at his funeral, which is exactly what President Carter did in Grand Rapids. And Mrs. Carter and Mrs. Ford became a formidable lobbying team. They would go up on Capital Hill and testify jointly before Congress on behalf of funding for mental health issues and alcohol and drug abuse. And by all accounts, they were probably more persuasive than their husbands would've been. Listen, thank you so much, one last question.
1:12:45.8 Speaker 6: I'm curious, you said earlier that president Ford was told that a trial of Nixon could play out for over a year or two. Did you ever find anything whether Ford personally, believed Nixon was guilty of anything in Watergate?
1:13:03.0 RS: Well, yeah, I'm sorry. Implicit in what I had said earlier Nixon, Ford believed that Nixon would be indicted, tried and convicted at least of obstruction of justice. I believe that Ford believed that Nixon was guilty of that. One last mild surprise, maybe not, Leon Jaworski died in 19... I wanna say 1985. It was a decade after the pardon, 1984. Before he died, he told two people who have recorded it that he really never intended to indict Nixon. In effect the pardon. And another thing that isn't discovery, I found, one day I'm sitting at the Ford Library.
1:14:02.0 RS: It's a marvelous institution, by the way. And I'm going through Phil Buchan's papers, and suddenly this little scrap of paper about so big, kind of ripped off something falls out, it's a handwritten note. Sunday 8:00 AM from Phil Buchan to the president. He'd just been called by Leon Jaworski, who saw your press conference after the pardon, who was thought it answered the questions, basically. So you had this back channel between the Special prosecutor and Phil Buchan, and they were on the phone to each other and there were messages like that. So the irony is arguably Ford did not have to pardon Nixon if he had been willing to put up with a $64,000 question of when or if there will be an indictment, and he wasn't willing to take that risk. Thank you everyone.
1:15:12.7 HM: Richard Norton Smith, thank you.
1:15:22.0 CW: Thank you, Hank Meijer, and thank you Richard Norton Smith for a truly exceptional program. We wanna thank each and every one of you for coming out this evening. We wanna invite you into the Rebecca M. Blank Great Hall, for more conversation and books available. And I also wanna make a special thank you to Katie Cole and the special events team here at the Ford School of Public Policy. It's been great to host this event this weekend, this week. And we're just so honored to do it with the Ford Foundation and the institution. So thank you all so much, and please join us out in the hall, take care.