Thomas DeFrank met Gerald Ford in 1973, shortly after Richard Nixon introduced the new vice president to the nation. Then a Newsweek correspondent, DeFrank was one of a handful of reporters who covered Ford as vice president and then as president. In his new book, Write It When I'm Gone: Remarkable Off-the-Record Conversations with Gerald R. Ford, DeFrank (now D.C. bureau chief of the New York Daily News), recounts the myriad conversations he had with Ford until his death in 2006. Many of those chats included the former president's musings on his embattled predecessor.
At eleven o'clock on the morning of August 26, 1991, I arrived at Gerald Ford's mountain hideaway in Beaver Creek, Colorado, a few miles from Vail, where he'd been going to ski for decades. We settled in for the first of sessions that would continue for sixteen years. I quickly reviewed the simple ground rules we'd already established: nothing he said could be printed until after his death. I also promised I wouldn't tell anyone else what he'd said.
Inevitably, we got around to what we both recognized was still Topic A seventeen years after the fact: Richard Nixon and Watergate. I asked him to explain about the tightrope he'd maneuvered between defending his former House colleague and growing increasingly suspicious that he was being lied to about Nixon's involvement.
"I never honestly hoped I would be president," he said. "I wanted Dick Nixon to survive, and therefore I was always trying to be protective of the presidency and to make it appear that I wasn't lifting a finger to undercut him and to become president; therefore I really never anticipated I would be president until the Thursday or Friday before I actually became president.
"Until I saw or heard the evidence of the smoking gun, I always hoped, and based on Nixon's assurance to me, I didn't think he would be impeached—and if he wasn't gonna be impeached, I doubted if he would resign."
After years of reflecting on his conduct, Ford admitted, he could be fairly faulted for giving Nixon too much benefit of the doubt. On some level, perhaps Ford may not have wanted to know the truth; that certainly would have made his defensive duties far more difficult to pull off. Regardless, he didn't press Nixon for a just-between-old-friends accounting of the facts, and regretted his timidity.
"All the time that this thing kept getting hotter and hotter and hotter, whenever I would see him alone, I'd try to find out whether I was being fully informed. To be honest with you, Tom, I never said, 'Mr. President, were you involved? Did you know?' In retrospect, I probably should have.
"But whenever I would be alone with him, and we would talk about what was happening, he would frequently say, 'You know, Jerry, I've been so involved in foreign policy trips abroad, with the Middle East, with Brezhnev, et cetera, I never had time to get involved in these domestic matters and things of this kind.' And the clear inference was he neither was involved in or knew about it. And I accepted that, because it was a clear statement from him telling me what he was doing and he was not involved in either the planning, the execution, or otherwise."
"So he lied to you, but he wasn't the only one," I suggested. "No," Ford agreed, distinctly remembering a meeting he and Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott had with John Mitchell and Jeb Magruder to complain that Nixon's 1972 reelection committee was cutting Republican campaign officials out of the loop. It was a breakfast meeting only two days after the infamous break-in of Democratic National Committee headquarters that launched the Watergate crisis.
Assurances. "I got there early, walked into Mitchell's office, and I said, 'John, that was a stupid thing that happened last Saturday night. Did you know about it, were you involved?' And John Mitchell looked me right in the eye and said, 'I didn't know about it; I wasn't involved.' So on the basis of that and the assurances from Nixon, I assumed the White House and the Department of Justice were in no way involved."
Mitchell's lying hardly exonerated Nixon, Ford readily agreed. That led him into a philosophical discussion whose centerpiece was the observation, hardly novel with him, that has become a fixture of Washington's scandal firmament: it's the covering up of political chicanery, not the original act, that usually dooms politicians.
"It was not a big deal," he said, referring only to the break-in of DNC headquarters at the Watergate Office Building. "Those kind[s] of spying on political opponents or political parties—that was kind of the atmosphere in those days.