Off-the-record conversations with the 38th President
Thomas DeFrank is perhaps the luckiest journalist in the United States. Not only was he able to cover Gerald Ford first as Vice-President and then as President, but he grew close enough to the man to produce this body of work, comprised of candid interviews and conversations during the president’s retirement years.
The seed of this book was planted in 1974, when Ford was still Vice-President, and the Watergate scandal was mere weeks away from bringing down President Nixon. After an unguarded comment by Ford, the journalist and Vice-President struck a bargain to keep that comment (about how likely it was that Nixon was going to go) quiet until after Ford died. Following Ford’s electoral loss in 1976, and almost two decades of close relations, DeFrank contacted Ford asking if he’d be interested in a series of candid interviews about politics and the people who make up the power elite, to be published after the president’s death. Ford accepted.
After a couple of chapters outlining DeFrank’s relationship with Ford during his Vice-Presidency and then the Presidency, and another chapter on Ford’s post-presidential buckraking, the book turns to the off-the-record conversations that are the main selling point of this book. The topics Ford discussed with DeFrank over the course of 15 years cover a wide range of political subjects, including:
- Nixon and Watergate – how he felt betrayed by Nixon and others involved for lying about what really happened. How he feels vindicated now that history has shown Nixon’s pardon as a good idea, but also his sadness that Nixon mishandled the situation so disastrously. He discusses his predecessor as VP, Spiro Agnew, who – despite living close to Ford – shares nothing in common with Jerry or Betty.
- Former Presidents – Ford speaks candidly and honestly about the other members of the world’s most exclusive club. He discusses his long lasting animosity toward Ronald Reagan: “a politician with a reputation for never holding grudges harbored such uncharacteristic bitterness against Reagan that he never really softened his disdain until November 5 1994 – almost two decades after their nasty 1976 primary tussle”, only tempering his comments when it was announced that Reagan was battling with Alzheimer’s. He speaks with disdain for his successor Jimmy Carter (“the weakest president I’ve ever seen in my lifetime”), who he tried to get kicked out of the White House, only for their relationship to thaw following a shared foreign trip during Reagan’s administration. He speaks with respect of “George 41”, who he believed was very successful in foreign policy, only seemingly blind to the domestic situation. He calls Clinton a “helluva salesman” on a number of occasions, but Ford is clearly appalled by Bill’s wandering eye and loose morals (though he speaks highly of Hillary). To begin with, he is also content with George 43’s conduct following 9/11…
- Politics today. Ford appears disappointed with the conduct of the Iraq War, but still relatively content with George W. Bush. His long-time respect and affection for Cheney is still in place (Cheney was one of Ford’s chiefs of staff), but he has some surprising things to say about whether or not Cheney should have been on the ticket in 2004. Ford also talks of his disappointment in the Gingrich Congress and partisanship-on-the-rise of today’s politics.
- Miscellany. Ford and DeFrank also discuss plenty of non-political topics, such as the trials of getting old, family, the ex-president’s wary approach and adoption of modern technology (he eventually bought a laptop), the occasional spot of gossiping. Sort of political, but also historical, Ford also laments the power the media has had at distorting his work on the Warren Commission, and how movies such as Oliver Stone’s JFK have made people obsessed with conspiracy theories.
To be honest, there’s nothing particularly shocking or stop-the-press outrageous in any of these interviews. But, this book’s major strength, and in many ways unique selling-point, is that these interviews were conducted in full knowledge that they would be published after any backlash or sense of impropriety could have any effect on Ford himself. For this reason, the candor and honesty, which would be unlikely from President George W. Bush or Bill Clinton at the moment, adds so much to the study of Gerald Ford’s time in office and also to understanding Ford the man – he’s actually got a pretty wicked sense of humour, and displays an acute understanding of the political environment of the years he met with DeFrank for their interviews.
DeFrank is an exceptional writer; his prose are constructed to pull the reader along with the interviews, which he weaves together to form a picture of Ford’s evolving and changing opinions on specific topics. He builds his narrative with plenty of context, helping to flesh out Ford’s observations and opinions with plenty of information and other amusing and/or endearing anecdotes from Ford’s friends and associates (though, considering the candid nature of these interviews, it’s ironic that many of these friends and associates are left anonymous…). DeFrank’s writing is so engaging, the content so fascinating, that I burned my way through the book in two sittings, staying up well into the wee hours.
A fascinating portrait of America’s only unelected president, unfettered by PR tyrants. A must-read for anyone interested in American politics.
Also try: Douglas Brinkley, Gerald R. Ford (2007); Gerald R. Ford, A Time To Heal (1983)