A reporter's farewell to Ford

A member of the Ford-era White House press corps reflects on the 38th US president.

Of all the nice things said about Jerry Ford, permit me to add one more. He was one of those rare politicians, virtually extinct today, who actually liked reporters and enjoyed news people.

The Ford White House press corps seemed at times to be his own collection of fraternity boys. He delighted in reports of their pranks and revelry.

In the 1976 presidential race, when Ford seemed hopelessly behind, several White House reporters abandoned his press plane and joined the Carter campaign aboard "Peanut One." Ford later seemed wounded by what he felt was a personal betrayal by "his" reporters.

As House Republican leader in the mid-1960s, some of us would see him virtually every day when he dutifully left the floor to visit the House Radio–TV gallery, submitting himself to daily interviews for the hometown TV station in Grand Rapids, Mich. Ford fielded questions from reporters on Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, which he opposed, and LBJ's war in Vietnam, which in the finest tradition of the bipartisan foreign policy of the cold war, he supported.

Almost daily, especially after the Tet offensive, I badgered him with impertinent questions about the wisdom of the Vietnam War. He never flinched amid barbed questioning except to gracefully remind me, "We can all disagree without being disagreeable." The words were those of former Democratic House Speaker Sam Rayburn (D) of Texas, but minority leader Ford lived them and patiently urged them on others as he tutored young reporters like myself on the rules of civility on Capitol Hill.

After he left the White House in 1977, we occasionally got together to chat privately about world affairs in his hotel rooms around the world or in his chalet in Beaver Creek, Colo. I had become a foreign correspondent for ABC News based in Europe and the Middle East, and he would ask about the places ex-presidents rarely, if ever, were allowed to visit, such as Lebanon, the Soviet Union, and the Balkans. In these private, one-on-one chats, I came to see he was not quite the rigid Midwest conservative ideologue I thought I knew.

After the lethal bombing of the US Marine Corps barracks in the southern suburbs of Beirut in 1983, he told me he thought it was a crazy idea for Ronald Reagan to inject US forces into such an unprotected position. We would talk candidly about domestic US politics and politicos. Before others noticed, Ford knew Nancy Reagan was the dominating figure in the Reagan White House.

We had our last private chat in August of 1993. I wanted to tell him that, despite our arguments over the Great Society programs and Vietnam, I had come to believe 20 years later that he was absolutely right to have pardoned his predecessor, Richard Nixon.

His eyes began to well with tears. "You know Wally, that cost me a lot." He knew the pardon had cost him the 1976 election against Carter. His hurt was palpable. Trying to ease the tension, I replied, "I know, Mr. President, but you were running with a lot of handicaps not of your own making: Watergate, the CIA scandals, and Vietnam. And even then," I said, trying to comfort him, "you still darned near pulled it off."

It was a surreal experience sitting alone with a former US president, watching him weep unabashedly. The silence amid Ford's tears seemed time-without-end, and I struggled with what to do next. Leaning back in my chair, I found myself suddenly saying, "Yeah, but I was right about that damned war!" Just as suddenly, he laughed, even with cheeks streaked with tears. Almost paternally he said, "Yes, Wally, you were right about that damned war."

Next Christmas will be much poorer not getting that big Christmas card of the Ford family, which went for years afterward to "his" press corps. Future presidents might do well to borrow a page from Ford the politician, who genuinely liked his fellow man, and included journalists in that company.

Walter Rodgers is a former senior international correspondent for CNN.

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