Michael Beschloss: An unlikely president, Gerald Ford steadied America and, in an unpublished interview, mused about her fate

Roundup: Talking About History

[Michael Beschloss is an award-winning historian of the presidency and the author of several books, including “The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945.”]

... In September 1995, at the suggestion of NEWSWEEK's then editor, the late Maynard Parker, I called on President Ford one afternoon in Beaver Creek for a conversation about his life and career. Our ground rules were that I would divulge nothing about our talk until after his death, which would allow him to speak more freely than normal. Reminded of these, Ford replied in lawyerly fashion: "I accept."

In hindsight, what stands out most from our talk was Ford's frustration that the Republican Party had lurched so far to the right. "If I'd been elected in '76," he told me flatly, "the party wouldn't be as far right as it is at the present time … I sure hope it comes back to the center." Ford went on to complain about the 1992 GOP convention in Houston, where Pat Buchanan—who had challenged President George H.W. Bush for that year's party nomination—demanded that conservatives "take back our culture."

Ford told me, "My wife and I are moderate Republicans. We felt uncomfortable at the last [1992] convention. And … unless things change, we'll feel uncomfortable in the next one—if we go." (They went.) Ford lamented that George H.W. Bush had not reversed their party's rightward movement: "I was disappointed that George didn't fight a little harder against the hard right." Asked to reply to the remark last week, the senior Bush said: "He never told me that, but that's not surprising. He was a much more moderate guy in his later years."

In Beaver Creek, Ford reminded me that he and Betty were "pro-choice." He criticized Bush Senior's public avowal that he had come to oppose abortion rights. "I know damn well that he and Barbara are pro-choice," Ford told me. "Why didn't they get up and say it? That really disappointed me more than anything." Ford's comment, Bush says, was off the mark. "That's wrong," he says of Ford's suggestion that Bush was secretly pro-choice. (Barbara Bush wrote about her own pro-choice views in her 1994 memoir.)

Bush 41 was not the only Republican successor Ford criticized in our talk. He complained that Ronald Reagan had cost him the 1976 election by challenging his nomination. Ford told me that in the spring of 1976, "we thought we would have a tough time [winning] anyhow, and then to get diverted for six months or more in a very rigorous [primary] campaign—it made it difficult to be president and campaign simultaneously."

Ford said that during his fall campaign against Jimmy Carter, "the only time [Reagan] appeared with me … was when … we had a nice, vigorous rally [at a fund-raising dinner] in Los Angeles … He made no other campaign appearances on my behalf … I never understood that. If he had made an appearance in Ohio … Louisiana and Mississippi, we would have won, I'm sure." Ford added: "I never asked him about it. There was no point … I can't imagine him wanting Jimmy Carter to be president. What went through his mind, I don't know." (In fairness to Reagan, the ex-California governor did make TV spots for the Ford-Dole ticket that fall.)

Despite what he considered to be Reagan's damage to his candidacy, Ford campaigned enthusiastically when Reagan was nominated against Jimmy Carter in 1980. "I felt that Carter had been so mediocre on domestic policy that we had to have a change," Ford told me. Foreign policy, too: Ford speculated that he and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger "could have gotten the shah to handle his problems differently" to prevent Iran's turn to Islamic fundamentalism.

After Reagan's election, Ford was disappointed that, despite his contribution to the victory, the 40th president didn't consult him "as much as I would have expected he would." In our talk, Ford inveighed against Reagan's budget deficits: "With all his pronouncements about needing to balance the federal budget, his eight years were about as bad as any in the history of the country." Still, he conceded that as president, Reagan "did a much better job than I expected."

Ford knew the best-known act of his own presidency would be Nixon's pardon. He insisted to me he had no second thoughts: "I felt so strongly that I had to get this damn thing off my desk." He admitted that "sure, I would have appreciated it" if, in return, Nixon had made a stronger statement confessing guilt for Watergate offenses, which would have helped shield Ford from the firestorm the pardon created.

In our conversation, Ford said he suspected that the reason Nixon had refused to sign such a confession was that Alexander Haig, the chief of staff he had inherited from Nixon, had tipped off his exiled old boss that Ford was going to pardon him. (Haig strongly denies this.) Ford said he was "shocked and saddened" when he discovered years later (from James Cannon's 1994 book "Time and Chance") "what the role of Al Haig turned out to be. At the time, I had no idea. I assumed he was totally loyal to me … I'm sure what Haig apparently transmitted to Nixon convinced Nixon that he didn't have to make an outright admission of guilt."...

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