When a President Adhered to the Truth

When you hear a president address the nation you often discern echoes of great speeches that have come before. Sometimes you hear phrases that remind you of Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt, or John Kennedy. The other night I was hoping I would hear a message that would be along the lines of that conveyed by Gerald Ford as he took over the troubled presidency left by Richard Nixon.

"Fellow Americans," the new president said, "our long national nightmare is over."

I heard nothing close to that from Mr. Clinton. He admitted to having an "inappropriate relationship" with Monica Lewinsky and expressed regret for having denied this for seven months. And then, without ever apologizing - to the public, to his wife, to those in his administration who have lied for him, to Ms. Lewinsky - he sought to place the blame for all his problems on the independent counsel.

The president was probably making a very effective political speech. Polls measuring his performance in office show him still in the 60s. A public that is well satisfied with the economy seemed ready to accept Clinton's explanation and turn the page. But the president did nothing in his speech to end the national nightmare for which he is responsible.

When Mr. Ford took over the nation's reins, many Americans expressed fears that the presidency, as an institution, had been permanently debased by Nixon. There was, indeed, a widespread anxiety that no president again would be able to be an effective leader because public respect for the presidency had fallen so far.

Yet Ford, with that historic speech, did much to pull the presidency together again. The remembered words are those that assure the end of the "long national nightmare." But the message, though brief, was mainly one of healing: "As we bind up the wounds of Watergate, let us restore the Golden Rule to our political process, and let brotherly love purge our hearts of suspicion and hate."

The next morning the folksy Gerry Ford was up before six, toasting his English muffins and putting the kettle on for tea. So his presidency began. The public took to this unassuming fellow. It was springtime in America. Ford wasn't in office long enough to accomplish as much as he'd have liked, and he was denied a second term in which he might have done great things. But Americans found his presence comforting (after the hectic Nixon period), and history is bound to say that this "accidental" president fulfilled the modest promise he made in his speech: "To do the best I can for America; God helping me, I will not let you down."

I knew Ford from the time he first ran for Congress. He wasn't brilliant. But he was a lot smarter than his critics would admit. He finished in the top third of his Yale law school class. And as president he was very well prepared for that assignment: During long years in the House he had mastered the intricacies of military and foreign affairs. Fellow congressmen on both sides of the aisle liked him. Thus, he was, as president, well positioned to work amicably with the legislative branch. The Ford I knew was a good man, an honest man - precisely the right man to restore confidence in our presidency when this was so sorely, so desperately, needed.

Ford's longtime aide and speech writer, Robert T. Hartmann, writes in his book, "Palace Politics: An Inside Account of the Ford Years," that Ford made it clear that in his opening speech to the nation "the truth" should be the guiding force - "the truth about himself and his aspirations for the presidency." "Truth is the glue" of that speech, Mr. Hartmann writes.

Was "truth" the glue of Clinton's speech? Or was it simply a president telling just that part of the truth he felt compelled to tell - and even that, grudgingly?

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