MORE than a personal tragedy for Richard Nixon, the Watergate scandal was a serious blow to American democracy.
That the republic survived intact was the result of the moral and political courage of many people. But one of the biggest heroes was the man who succeeded Nixon and restored Americans' faith in their government: Gerald R. Ford Jr.
In ``Time and Chance: Gerald Ford's Appointment With History,'' James Cannon, a former journalist and Ford aide, has woven into one cohesive volume the stories of Jerry Ford and Watergate and how the two intersected.
The Ford saga is the American dream defined: Ford's mother, Dorothy Gardner King, settled and remarried in Grand Rapids, Mich., after divorcing an abusive first husband, Ford's father. His stepfather, Gerald Ford Sr., was a small businessman who worked hard, paid his bills, and struggled in bad economic times.
``He drilled into me the importance of honesty,'' Cannon quotes Ford as saying of his stepfather. ``Whatever happened, you were honest. Dad and Mother had three rules: Tell the truth, work hard, and come to dinner on time. Woe to any of us who violated those rules.''
With financial help from friends, young Ford was able to attend the University of Michigan. His athletic ability got him a coaching job at Yale University, and before long he was able to gain admission to the law school there, where he finished in the top third of the Class of 1941.
After serving in the Navy in World War II, Ford returned to Grand Rapids and the practice of law. Soon he was involved in Republican politics, and in 1948, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives, a seat he held until Nixon and Congress made him vice president in 1973 following the forced resignation of Spiro Agnew.
During his congressional career, Ford earned the respect of Republicans and Democrats alike. The GOP members made him their leader in the House.
Democrats found him a man of his word with whom they could deal. President Johnson appointed him to the Warren Commission to investigate the assassination of President Kennedy, a personal friend of Ford. Thus he was a natural choice for vice president.
One of the many ironies of Watergate, according to Cannon, is that Richard Nixon knew for more than a year that he could not survive in office if it became known that he had obstructed justice in the Watergate coverup. He hid this fact from his staff, his lawyers, his family, his supporters in Congress, and Vice President Ford.
As much in the dark about Nixon's guilt as the rest of the American public, Ford found his position more and more uncom- fortable as it became clear that Nixon was not as innocent as he claimed. Ford could not continue to publicly defend Nixon, but at the same time he could not be seen as trying to make himself president.
Cannon labels as heroes in this saga, not only Ford, but also the Democratic congressional leadership. House Speaker Carl Albert of Oklahoma, Rep. Peter Rodino of New Jersey (the House Judiciary Committee chairman), and Sen. Mike Mansfield of Montana were careful to ensure that they had a vice president in place before moving further to impeach Nixon.
The author is much more ambivalent about the role of Gen. Alexander Haig, whom Nixon brought in as White House chief of staff after dismissing H.R. Haldeman in 1973. While Haig did manage to ease Nixon out of office, he apparently did not always faithfully represent his conversations with Nixon to Ford and vice versa.
The most interesting part of the book is the story of the transition and Nixon's attempt to negotiate a pardon through Haig as a condition of Nixon's resignation. When the White House tapes revealed the president's obstruction of justice, General Haig came to see Ford and review Nixon's options, one of which included a pardon by Ford.
But the vice president did not realize exactly the implications of what had been proposed. His frantic staff walked him back from the brink, and when he saw what was involved, Ford wisely made it clear to Haig that he would not deal.
``In the end Ford walked away from temptation,'' Cannon writes. ``Ford said no to the deal that would make him President. That decision, as much as anything he did as President, revealed Ford's strength of character, that rock on which he had built his life.''
While clearly a Ford admirer, Cannon is frank about Ford's missteps during his first few weeks in office. He did not make clear the lines of responsibility on his staff and was forced to turn back a Haig attempt to eliminate Ford's people and preserve the Nixon staffers' power. (By a minor miracle, a Ford aide prevented Haig's attempt to spirit Nixon's papers from the White House and fly them to San Clemente, Calif.) And he badly underestimated the uproar that would ensue over the Nixon pardon.
Ford pardoned Nixon for the reasons he stated at the time, Cannon says. He was convinced that the country needed to move on to other urgent business. Ford believed that both Nixon, who was quite ill at the time, and the country had been through enough: It was time to put an end to Watergate.
Cannon goes on to briefly relate the rest of Ford's presidency, reviewing the fall of Saigon and the Mayaguez incident in 1975, his attempts to hold the lid on federal spending, and the presidential campaign, in which Ford almost made a comeback from a 34-point deficit in the polls.
``Time and Chance'' is a readable, well-documented retelling of the intertwined tales of Ford and Watergate. It would have been better had Cannon indicated the footnotes in the text, and not just at the end of the book, which makes cross-referencing difficult. Yet for the mass of interviews conducted with the various players (not including Nixon or Agnew) and the material reviewed, this must stand as one of the better Watergate books.