Congressman Gerald Rudolph Ford slowly raised his head and looked into my face. I returned the gaze and saw red surrounding his blue eyes. Ford had been crying. We met on the driveway in front of the West Wing of the White House. We were alone on the asphalt. It was the late afternoon of October 11, 1973, and I had just left the press office with details of President Richard M. Nixon's plans to announce a replacement for the fallen Vice President Spiro Agnew. Ford, I knew, was a candidate and had probably just met with Nixon.
Did Nixon pick you, Jerry? I asked. Ford lowered his eyes and shook his head. He was crushed. "No," Ford said. I suspected he was hiding more stinging tears as he moped away.
Later that night at a dinner party, the host rolled in a television set. Everyone looked my way when the host asked me, a White House reporter, who Nixon was about to announce. "I can tell you one thing--it won't be Jerry Ford," I said.
My chagrin was nothing compared with Ford's embarrassment the next day as he explained how he missed the tip that he would be in line to become the 38th president of the United States.
At their meeting, Nixon had called in the official White House photographer, Ollie Atkins.
"This will be an historic picture," Nixon told his friend of 24 years, patting Ford on the arm. Both men smiled for the camera. Nixon said nothing more, and the hint went right over Ford's head. Hours later--well after our driveway meeting--Nixon called Ford at his home in Alexandria, Virginia. With wife Betty on the line, Nixon asked Ford to be his vice president. "It wasn't until the phone call that I realized what happened," Ford said later.
That teary meeting came flooding back to me when I heard last month that Ford had died. Jerry Ford was not the sharpest tool in the shed. But at every juncture, he seemed an almost guile-free politician content with himself and comfortable with reporters when many Republicans were not.
He had no hesitation about taking me inside the super-secret deliberations of the presidential commission investigating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The panel was headed by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren and included Ford and other House, Senate and intelligence leaders.
After the Warren Commission's first meeting on December 5, 1963, I began calling its members from my desk at the Washington bureau of United Press International. Ford answered the phone at his home, and I identified myself as a UPI reporter. At the time, he was a member of the House GOP leadership after being elected chairman of the House Caucus.
Could you tell me anything about the commission meeting? I asked.
OK, Ford replied, but you can't use my name in any of this.
Fine, I said, I will attribute it to a commission source.
According to Ford, the first thing Warren had said was that no one should talk to the press. Then Ford laughed. From then on, after every development and after every commission meeting, I would call Ford at home for a debriefing. It soon became clear that panel members had doubts that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone.
At least five of the eight-man commission suspected there had been a second gunman. The problem, Ford told me, was the theory that a single bullet went through Kennedy's throat and then struck Texas Gov. John B. Connally, who was riding in the limousine jump seat in front of the president.
Before one of the last sessions, Ford told me there was a possibility of a minority report dissenting from the Single Bullet Theory. That UPI dispatch sent the Washington press corps scrambling. It led Walter Cronkite's broadcast on the "CBS Evening News."
It also led Chief Justice Warren's agenda at the next meeting. Ford told me how Warren opened his briefcase and waved my story in commission members' faces. "Who is doing this?" Warren demanded. Ford said he just lit his pipe and looked away.
Despite the misgivings, Warren managed to forge a consensus that Oswald had acted alone, that there was no evidence of a second gunman and that a single bullet wounded both Kennedy and Connally.
Ford later explained to me how the weight of evidence against Oswald overcame his doubts. He ticked off the names of eyewitnesses who saw Oswald with the rifle before and after, the palm print on the gun stock, the ballistics matching the bullet recovered--a precise and detailed list that he reeled off without any notes. It showed more intellectual heft than he ever displayed later.
Many of my colleagues dismissed Ford as a likable but lightweight Midwesterner, even after he seized the Republican leadership of the House in 1964. To some, Ford was a creature of the cunning Rep. Melvin Laird (R-Wis.). To me, however, Ford was always the friendly and forthcoming blue-eyed, square-faced politician who answered directly and often volunteered details that are vital to Washington journalists. But that pipeline was shut down shortly after he became vice president.
As I became more certain that Ford would assume the presidency, I carved out a week of travel with him. We wound up at a football awards dinner in New York City. Ford spoke but was overshadowed by former Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty, who performed better than most professional comics.
As president, Ford managed to change the political debate in the United States in dramatic fashion. By granting Nixon a pardon one month after succeeding him, Ford cut short what had become a national obsession over Watergate. Seven months later, in the face of North Vietnam's final attack, Ford ended the U.S. commitment to South Vietnam that had cost 58,209 American lives.
There were lingering complaints about letting Nixon escape possible criminal prosecution. But both the pardon and the Vietnam defeat had vanished as issues by the start of the 1976 presidential campaign. Instead, Ford was beset by soaring oil prices, runaway inflation and staggering interest rates. Unemployment hit 8 percent, and a nationwide recession eroded confidence in the White House. Worse still was the decision by Ronald Reagan, the most imposing candidate since Franklin Roosevelt, to challenge
his party's sitting president for the Republican nomination.
While Ford prevailed, Reagan's challenge exposed Ford as more caretaker than president. Next to Reagan, Ford was a ragged campaigner, with thin jokes and weak delivery. In the evening, Ford resorted to martinis before speeches. Instead of fire, the gin produced a slurred babble.
In a second debate with Democratic rival Jimmy Carter, Ford seemed to crack like Humpty Dumpty. Ford's assertion that Poland was not dominated by the Soviet Union--a statement challenged by Carter--primed me for the first post-debate question to Ford's national security adviser, Air Force Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft. "How many Soviet divisions are based in Poland?" I asked Scowcroft.
"Two," he replied. The answer was like a knife through the heart of Ford's chief aide, who was standing nearby. A young Dick Cheney winced notably.
The next day in Los Angeles, during the annual Hispanic celebration of Verdugo Days, there were signs in the crowd that read: "Ford Frees Poles, Carter Wins Polls."
A sweating Cheney was fumbling to put his man back together. After Ford's speech ("It's great to be here for Vertigo Days," he bumbled), Cheney got reporters together to hear Ford straighten things out. A carefully prepared statement made clear that the Soviets dominated Poland. At the end, Ford added: "That's not to say Poland is dominated by the Soviet Union." Cheney seemed to dissolve into
a puddle, sucking a Chesterfield. He routinely smoked two packs a day in those pre-heart attack days.
Another campaign swing through the Northwest included a rally in which a radio station mascot--a man in an elaborate chicken costume--embraced Ford. He laughed, and the crowd cheered. Jim Naughton, a New York Times reporter, later bought the chicken outfit for $100.
The next morning, Cheney staged an impromptu news conference to bring a serious tone to the campaign. Ford was doing his best until Naughton, in costume, joined the reporters.
Ford broke up. "I love that chicken," he said. Cheney frowned or sneered--it was always hard to tell which.
Despite the media pounding--and it was a pounding in 1976--Ford remained sunny and outgoing with me and other reporters. He was delighted to pose with me, my mother and brother during one campaign stop, joshing like we were the best of friends.
Years later, Ford showed up at a session with White House reporters in which one newsman sought to rile the ex-president with an edgy question. Ford's eyes twinkled, and he smiled. But there was a sharpness in his tone.
"You know, I don't have to take this anymore," he said.