Sam Cook sang “Don’t know much about history.” Churchill called all history biography. In his 1989 Farewell Address as President, Ronald Reagan warned that America couldn’t grasp what it is unless we knew what we’d been.
Today history is often deemed as old-timey as a corset zipper. Hopefully, a new book will abate that trend: Write It When I’m Gone: Remarkable Off-the-Record Conversations with Gerald R. Ford.
Hubert Humphrey called Lyndon Johnson “the history of the country. Really, it was all there” — for better or worse. This book tells much, if not all, of our history of the last third-century, tying joys, worries, and confessions of the heart.
Full disclosure: Author Thomas DeFrank, Washington Bureau Chief of the New York Daily News, is a long-time friend. From 1973-95, he was also Newsweek Magazine’s White House correspondent, lauded for fact and fairness: a throwback journalist who reports, not spins.
In 1973, Newsweek assigned DeFrank, 29, to cover accidental Vice-President Ford. Watergate had consumed Richard Nixon; increasingly, the Veep seemed poised to ascend. For nine months Tom and Ford crossed the country in tiny Air Force Two, fencing warily, then bonding, like two veins from a common mine.
Pollster John Zogby says that “ultimately, everything reduces down to Little League.” Write It shows how life reduces down to youth: how you were raised, and taught. Like Ford, Tom learned work, modesty, and fondness for the familiar. Jerry B. Goode worked odd jobs, was an Eagle Scout, and pined to become Red Grange. DeFrank found journalism in high school, went to in-state Texas A&M, and loved a folk song about Roy Rogers: “Memories, like heroes, they never grow old.”
DeFrank was younger. Ford was more conservative. Jerry became 38th President. In time, Tom became America’s nonpareil President-watcher. In 1991, he suggested recording Ford’s views on policy, politics, and Presidents: also, as it happened, life and love and faith and aging. Jerry agreed, stipulating publication “only when I’m dead.” Ford died December 26, 2006. This book is his coda.
Here Ford is shown prophesying Nixon’s August 1974 resignation four month before it happened, then, grabbing DeFrank’s tie, swearing him to secrecy. Here he dissects his friend and predecessor. To Ford, Milhous had “not acted forthrightly,” yet “had a terrific loyalty to people,” was a foreign policy titan, yet “the bad part of his character would take over.” riveting, even now.
As President, Ford rose at 5:15 A.M., worked 18 hours daily, and seemed constitutionally unable to utter an uncandid word. Write It bares envy and bile for Reagan; disdain-turned-affection for Jimmy Carter; more admiration for George H.W. Bush than son W. Bill Clinton “has got a [sexual] addiction. He needs treatment.” Wife Hillary is “a bona fide liberal with unlimited ambition”: e.g. recently backing illegal alien driver’s licenses. Don’t pick the book up, soon expecting to put it down.
No reader will agree with all of Ford’s, or DeFrank’s critique, (My missionary work re. Nixon has not converted Tom.) A larger critique endures. ”Truth is the glue that holds government together,” the uncommon common man said, memorably. “Our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule.”
In December 1973, confirmed as Vice President, the future President told Congress: “I am a Ford, not a Lincoln.” This splendid book helps explain what America has become since then. Reading, you may find Ford more a Lincoln than we supposed.
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