"Write It When I'm Gone," by
Little more then a year ago I wrote an obituary for Gerald R. Ford. "Remembering Gerald Ford - Before And Beyond Watergate..." was about how the media likes to boil down someone's whole life into a short paragraph, or just a sentence. Worst of all, just a phrase. I illustrated that there was more to Gerry Ford then just "The Man Who Pardoned Nixon," Mr. Ford had a history before History.
I thought I knew President Ford. I thought I knew most of what there was to know about his life, being on The Warren Commission after the assassination of John Kennedy, Watergate and his time after The Oval Office. I was wrong. There was a lot that I didn't know. And there's a lot you didn't know either unless you've read this book, too.
"Write It When I'm Gone" begins with the author Tom DeFrank working for Newsweek covering Gerald Ford, following him from Capitol Hill to The White House after Mr. Ford's assent to becoming the Vice President. Mr. DeFrank sets the tone of the book by chronicling the conversation the two had about Richard Nixon who was in the midst of the Watergate scandal.
The two were talking about how it seemed clear at that point that Nixon was throwing Mr. Ford 'under the bus,' (a term, not used in the book, but one that I've used before and fits here..) and was sacrificing the Republican Party to save his own legacy. One of Nixon's supporters, Bill Safire, wrote a scathing article about Mr. Ford's almost neurotic behavior, one day supporting Nixon and then grumbling about the distance between the two men the next.
Then Vice-President Ford asked Mr. DeFrank a 'put away your note book,' off-the-record question about what he thought of the piece. DeFrank offered his opinion that Nixon's supporters were jealous of Mr. Ford, since it was just a matter of time before Mr. Ford would become President with out having been a part of Nixon's inner-circle.
"You're right," he said. "But when the pages of history are written, nobody can say I contributed to it."
After saying that, Mr. Ford quickly added: "You didn't hear that," and the two had a heated argument about how Mr. DeFrank couldn't publish what Mr. Ford had just said, even though it was one of the most iconic sentences he had muttered in public or private. In the end, the two made an agreement: "Write it when I'm dead," Mr. Ford said.
Mr. DeFrank was granted special access to Mr. Ford, from throughout his period as Vice President, to taking The Oval Office, and then throughout his post-White House Years. Mr. DeFrank offers an in-depth view of who Mr. Ford was and the evolution of his opinions on some issues, and includes some of the dirt that was dished out by his predecessors, his successors, and those who worked with him in The White House, many of whom who moved on to other positions in The White House as members of other President's cabinets.
Some of the best parts of this book are the pages where Mr. DeFrank goes into great detail about what it was like to be a member of the press-pool following the then Vice President around.
Most notable is the stories about "Slingshot Airlines," the name that was dubbed those in Mr. Ford's entourage. While Mr. Ford was the VP, Henry Kissinger was serving under Nixon as both National Security Advisor and Secretary of State and had his choice of airplanes that were in service to the White House. Meanwhile, Mr. Ford often had less desirable choices including cargo-carriers used by the Military. There are two passages in the book that elude to this as mistreatment of Mr. Ford via the type of aircraft he was given was a means of putting the Vice President in his place for not throwing his full support behind Nixon.
Not all the jets Mr. Ford used while he was Vice President were in the worst of shape. And one of those planes Gerry Ford used was the same "Air Force 26000" Boeing jet that Jack Kennedy used to fly to Dallas and his body back after his assassination while Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as President.
The period of traveling done by Gerry Ford with the Press Pool in tow were regarded as some of the best years of their lives because of the sense of camaraderie between the Vice President and the reporters. After Mr. Ford would settle in the private quarters of the jet (when the accommodations made that possible,) he would move to the section of the jet where the members of the Press sat and take questions. It was clear that no question was off-limits, and if Gerry Ford couldn't answer it he would say so.
After the question and answer period, everyone would kick back and share jokes and stories with Mr. Ford. Some of what occurred there was published since Gerry Ford let some things slip and didn't catch the error. If he did, Gerry would corner the reporter as he did with Mr. DeFrank and explain why what just happened couldn't be used.
Mr. DeFrank chronicles this period to illustrate the great rapport Gerry Ford had with the press and how this man could have been one of the nicest men ever to eventually take the Oval Office. Mr. Ford was perhaps one of the most down to earth politicians with hardly a trace of Machiavellian in him. Tom DeFrank keeps referring back to this period of his life, being the best for both of them.
Life After Slingshot Airlines.
From the impression that I got from Mr. DeFrank's book, the rest of Mr. Ford's life in politics was down hill (meaning less enjoyable) once Gerry was in the Oval Office. The life of the President was a complicated mess of controversy and inner-party intrigue as he tried his best to heal the country after what had happened with Johnson and Nixon.
President Ford had to walk this fine balance of cleaning out the White House of deadwood and Nixon-loyalists such as Harry Kissinger who was appointed to two of the highest cabinet positions and became more powerful then the Vice President with out being vetted by the American people via an election.
Mr. DeFrank offers an insiders view to President Ford's world leading up to his final decision about granting Nixon a pardon and his rationalization, to the aftermath of the pardon and the eventual realization that his political career was over. The chances of President Ford's re-election became worse with the economy heading deeper into a recession, the energy crisis and the former Governor of California and actor named Ronald Regan running against him in the 1976 Primary.
"Write It When I'm Gone" also chronicles President Ford's battle of wills between Jimmy Carter during the debates and the eventual defeat to a man who Mr. Ford then regarded as being just a stupid and inept peanut farmer from Georgia.
It's hard to put into words Gerald Ford's feelings about losing the election to Mr. Carter with out directly quoting the book. While there wasn't a sense that Gerry was self serving or painting himself as a martyr, he felt betrayed by the American People and that the country deserved someone better then the man they picked over him. He reconciles with his feelings as he remembers that he was the President who presided over the country's Bicentennial celebrations and that once the American people see Mr. Carter for who he was, Gerry could win back the Oval Office in 1980.
Ford's Second Wind,
Once Gerry Ford settles into his post-Presidential life in 1977, a new phase of his life began. Mr. Ford was now doing more of what he loved; skiing in the winter, playing golf as much as the other three seasons would allow. Gerry Ford also jumped in head-first in the consulting game, lending his name to corporation's letter-heads as a paid consultant without bending any ethics rules such as divulging secret information the former President knew or insider Washington DC gossip. Much of the money he made was given to charitable organizations and trusts - doing so out of duty to make the world a better place and to deflect some of his criticism.
Being financially secure and traveling as much or even more then he did while he was President, Gerry Ford was able to devote more time offering insight and advice to anyone who asked, but never volunteering his services to sitting Presidents with out being asked first.
Mr. Ford made the tough decision early in 1980 to not run for President and challenge Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan for The White House. He instead offered his support to the Republican party and it's Presidential candidate despite his strong feelings against Mr. Reagan stemming from his sense of betrayal since the 1976 primary and how he felt Mr. Reagan just wasn't Presidential material, period.
It's this period in Gerry Ford's life, according to Mr. DeFrank's book, was his most productive since World War II, he felt as if he was fulfilling a higher calling and given a new lease on life. With his wife Betty helping many people through out the country fight addiction with her center, quitting his daily drinking regime and eating better, many claimed that he was actually healthier in the decades after his White House Years. Despite the pain in his joints and knee replacements he was as still active as many men half his age.
It was during the period between 1991 and 2004 that Gerry Ford and Tom DeFrank sat down and had their interviews and discussed current events and Presidents - former and present.
It's hard to imagine that this part of the book would be just as entertaining as the first part. How can you beat political intrigue and back-stabbing? It's very easy with interviews from beyond the grave, as Gerry Ford was able to confide in Tom DeFrank what he really thought about his fellow former Presidents and the men who occupied the Oval Office as they were there.
Gerry Ford was a kind and a true gentleman who wasn't afraid to lay the other President's out and knock some of them out with verbal punches that were both fair and accurate. It would have been easy for him to be cruel and harsh knowing that these interviews would be released posthumously, but he offers praise with his condemnations.
His critiques aren't from a man who was bitter and felt left out because of the Nixon pardon, these aren't words from a man trying to get in his just revenge with these jabs. As Mr. DeFrank transcribed them, they come from a man who genuinely loved The United States, continuing with the theme related to the 1976 election that the people deserved better then what they were getting. Americans are good people for the most part. They want to elect decent people to run the country while they go about the business of living and raising families. The people shouldn't have been hassled with folks who got into politics with out a sense of duty and were in it because of the thrill and attention.
The most intriguing aspect of this book comes when he talks about Bill Clinton, then the men who served with him in The White House and who later returned during George W. Bush's administration.
Gerry Ford tells the story about how he knew Bill Clinton had a problem with his wandering eye when Mr. Clinton and his wife, Hillary, had dinner with the Ford's. Mr. Ford described how he observed Mr. Clinton as his eyes wondered around the room taking notice of every other woman in the room while sitting at the table with his own wife. It was that moment, as Mr. Ford said to the author, that he knew Bill Clinton had a real problem that would eventually ruin his political career.
Better then Nostradamus, Mr. Ford predicted that Clinton's wandering eye would get him into trouble when he did more then just look. As Mr. Clinton faced impeachment, he reached out to Mr. Ford asking to speak on his behalf, trying to invoke the same feelings of "healing" in the American people that Mr. Ford did back during the Nixon controversy.
Mr. Ford agreed to do just that, being his soul witness for his defense during the impeachment hearings - on the condition that Mr. Clinton admit to his wrong-doing with out parsing his words. Mr. Clinton declined because of his pride and his fear of what that might do to his lasting legacy...
There's a lot more to this story than what I've shared, the best being his thoughts about Hillary Clinton running for President and the obstacles her opponents would face. That alone makes the book a timely read and worth the price.
This Dying Is Hard Work.
Towards the end of the book, Tom DeFrank begins the slow process of saying goodbye to a man that was to many others a lesser known and frequently misunderstood politician who eventually became his good friend.
The two of them spend much of their time in the end reminiscing about the early days of their acquaintance on "Slingshot Airlines" and the troubling events that lead to his assent into the Oval Office which in turn would eventually lead to his eventual loss during the campaign in 1976. It's clear to both of them that these are the memories they'll cherish the most. There's this awkwardness that his time in he White House was the epilogue to that period and that for Ford to do the most good he had to be there in only a few short years.
This section is riddled with Mr. DeFrank coming to terms with his friends declining health and eventual death. There's a sentimental passage when Tom goes to see Gerry for the last time in his study. The former President in a hospital bed where a big easy chair used to be. Gerry won't say goodbye, instead he insists that Thomas come back soon.
Just before leaving, Thomas takes a long look around the house where the two men had some of their best interviews and conversations, and the author evokes a passage from Larry McMurty's "Lonesome Dove," talking about 'the sunny slopes of long-ago,' as if to say that Gerry Ford was the Gus McCray of national politics. After all the honorariums, scholarships in Gerald R. Ford's name, the Gerald R. Ford School For Public Policy built on the grounds of his alma mater , the Gerald R. Ford Prize For Distinguished Publishing... the man himself is simply remembered as someone who cared for his country and the people in it, and as someone who struggled to find redemption in another former President who's name became synonymous with scandal and who's own misdeeds overshadowed what should have been a great American story of over-coming one's hardships and shortcomings.
While much of this book is tribute looking back at Mr. Ford's political life in office through Mr. DeFrank's eyes, it's also a thank you from this reporter who's career was made by a generous man and an agreement they made early on. His appreciation for the former President is clear, and some of his admiration rubs off on the reader, albeit for some only a short time.
It's hard not to read this book and feel choked up and misty-eyed during the final pages.
Uva Uvam Vivendo Varia Fit*
The question remains, why should readers of The Fedora Chronicles partake of Thomas DeFrank's sentimental journey "Write it When I'm Gone: The Remarkable Off-The Record Conversations With Gerald R. Ford?" It's a tough question to answer with out looking at the history and backgrounds of many of the characters.
Many of the members of this cast in the Shakespearian tragedy that was Nixon's Watergate are veterans of World War II and members of the Greatest Generation. These political titan's fight and clash over the rule of law and concepts that are beyond the grasp of some but are embodied in others.
Gerald Ford had to reconcile with himself that a fellow World War II veteran broke the unspoken and unwritten rule about trust and honesty - "One Veteran Must Never Lie Or Cheat Another Veteran." Nixon lied to him and was willing to sacrifice their political party for his own self preservation. Gerald Ford was also personally victimized by Nixon's misdeeds, being fed misinformation and outright lies and what I discribe as "back ally back-biting." Despite this horrific behavior on Richard Nixon's part, Mr. Ford fights on to make sure people remembered the good that Nixon did in the areas of foreign policy and the environment through the formation of the EPA... Mr. Ford sought redemption in everyone even when they themselves denied the fact that they needed it.
"Write It When I'm Gone" is either a companion piece to Gerald Ford's autobiography "A Time To Heal," or as a stand alone book that's should be regarded as the essential book for those who want to learn more about Watergate and understand it from President Ford's perspective.
This book might be considered to be one of the many post-scripts of Tom Brokaw's "The Greatest Generation," outlining the mindset of many who came of age during that era. Gerald Ford could be regarded as the quintessential mid-western veteran of World War II who went on to achieve remarkable and almost unbelievable things.
Thomas DeFrank illustrates how Gerald Ford was a genuine man who was forced into a difficult place where he had to make tough decisions that would be unpopular to most fellow citizens. He made the best of the situation, hardly grumbling about how unfair it was and the raw deal he was given. In his youth he turned hardships in his life at home into fuel to fire his ambition to become a better person, becoming a pillar in his community and eventually his country. He used those lessons to help us wake up from our national nightmare. He was simply a good man when we needed one the most.
For a brief time, I feel better knowing Gerry Ford through this book, and he and his generation are an inspiration for those of us who aspire to something better.
*"A Grape Ripens In The Presence Of Other Grapes."
National Museum Of The USAF - Fact Sheets : Boeing VC-137C SAM 26000 : Boeing VC-137C SAM