PBS Roundtable: Former President Gerald Ford's Legacy Remembered

Roundup: Talking About History

RAY SUAREZ: We're joined by presidential historian Michael Beschloss; Ellen Fitzpatrick, professor of American history at the University of New Hampshire; Richard Norton Smith, presidential historian and former director of the Gerald R. Ford Museum and Library; and Ron Nessen, President Ford's press secretary from 1974 to 1977, and the author of the memoir "It Sure Looks Different from the Inside." Mr. Nessen currently is a journalist-in-residence at the Brookings Institution.

Richard Norton Smith, on the day he resigned, Richard Nixon said, "The leadership of America will be in good hands." Did Gerald Ford know what he was getting into?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: I'm not sure anyone really knows what they're getting into under the best of circumstances, and those were the worst of circumstances.

I mean, as we've heard all day, the worst constitutional crisis, certainly of the 20th century, soon to be the worst economy since the Great Depression, the last months of the Vietnam war, and a pervasive, I think, cynicism that had grown up -- not just because of the Vietnam and Watergate, important as they were -- but this was a country that had been in cultural upheaval, really, since the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963.

And all of this was dumped upon this, in many ways, unsuspecting -- although, in retrospect, perhaps ideally suited -- congressman from west Michigan.
Ron Nessen
Former Press Secretary
It wasn't that the work was so surprising to him, because he'd been in Washington for 25 years... But I think it was his personality that was really one of the contributions he made to healing and changing the mood of those times...
Restoring 'trust and faith'

RAY SUAREZ: Ron Nessen, as a network correspondent, you covered brand-spanking-new Vice President Ford, who hadn't even run for the job. Did you see a man who was ready to be president?

RON NESSEN, Former Press Secretary for President Ford: Well, I think what Richard says about him being sort of an ordinary human being was probably one of his best qualifications.

It wasn't that the work was so surprising to him, because he'd been in Washington for 25 years. He was a Republican leader of the House. But I think it was his personality that was really one of the contributions he made to healing and changing the mood of those times that Richard described.

He was like the guy next door. The imperial presidency of Richard Nixon and of Lyndon B. Johnson was passed, and this was like your next-door neighbor had become president. And I think that helped to restore trust and faith in the presidency.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Beschloss, that restoration, is that Ford's most enduring achievement?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: I think probably the biggest thing. And not only, you know, after this period, 11 years of assassination and war and political scandal, but also, you know, I was a sophomore in college at the time. And I can remember that, because you had a president and vice president resign to escape going to prison, Nixon and Agnew, a lot of people felt that that's what every politician was like, that if you investigated him or her enough, you'd find a crime and you could send him or her to jail.

And, you know, it gives you pause to remember that Richard Nixon's real choice for vice president, if he could have gotten him confirmed, was John Connally, his former treasury secretary. And had Connolly been nominated, what would have happened would have been, at just the moment that Connolly would have succeeded to the presidency, early August of 1974, that was the week that Connally was indicted in the milk fund scandal for perjury and obstruction of justice and bribery.

Can you imagine what it would have done to the system had that happened?

Ellen Fitzpatrick
University of New Hampshire
[Pardoning President Nixon] was a very difficult decision. In retrospect, he's been praised for his courage and foresight by many in making it; other people still feel that it was a mistake.
Pardoning Nixon

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Fitzpatrick, less than 30 days in came the pardons.

ELLEN FITZPATRICK, University of New Hampshire: Yes.

RAY SUAREZ: Talk about that time and whether that will be one of the most memorable days of the Ford administration.

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Yes, I think the pardon is crucial, because, as Michael and Richard and Ron have pointed out, Gerald Ford came into office with a great deal of goodwill, a feeling of great relief that the republic was going to endure this constitutional crisis, that the system worked, that we were a government of laws, rather than of men, and that law would prevail, decency and goodness.

One month into his presidency, Ford made the decision to pardon Richard Nixon of any crimes that he might be guilty of. And very rapidly that goodwill evaporated.

It was a very difficult decision for him to make. He wrote about it. It's been analyzed at length since, and it's a controversial one. His standing in the polls absolutely plummeted.

There was enormous suspicion that a deal had been made, that he had been -- you know, that Nixon's resignation had been extracted in exchange for this pardon. And all of the paranoia -- some of it based in real concerns -- that was part of Watergate settled upon Ford.

It was a very difficult decision. In retrospect, he's been praised for his courage and foresight by many in making it; other people still feel that it was a mistake.

RAY SUAREZ: Richard, was President Ford surprised by the reaction to that pardon?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I think he was. You know, he has said many times that he expected that it would be unpopular; I don't think he really had an idea that it was going to be as unpopular.

The next day he flew to Pittsburgh, and he spoke to a convention, and outside the hall were demonstrators chanting, "Jail Ford." He certainty didn't expect that.

But, remember, however, he had already gotten a taste of that. The pardon of Richard Nixon, in my opinion, should not be seen in isolation. It's the second act of a two-act drama, because two weeks before the pardon, he got in a plane and he flew to Chicago to the VFW convention.

And as part of this healing process, he basically unveiled a Vietnam amnesty plan that would, in time, allow 200,000 young men who had evaded the draft to, as he put it, work their way back into American society.

He said laughingly on the way out that at least he didn't have to worry about too much interruption by applause, and it turned out that the speech was not well-received.


RICHARD NORTON SMITH: But it was very much part of that -- you know, this was a guy who never expected to be president, who decided from the outset that, however long or short a time he was there, it was going to be a season -- if he could make it -- of healing, and he would draw the poisons out of the body politic.

RAY SUAREZ: Even if it meant his own political career was over?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yes, because, remember, at that point, he had no intention of running in 1976. So he could -- in a sense, he could offer himself up. Now, he very quickly decided he kind of liked being president, and he'd like to have four years on his own.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Beschloss, you wanted to say?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Yes, I wanted to say that I think it was noble, because he knew that this was the price of doing the two things that probably were most important for him to do as president, which were to wind up Watergate as quickly as possible, and do the same with the Vietnam era.

If that's what it cost, if it meant that he would have a hard time winning election in 1976, that was the price he was willing to pay....

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