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Write It When I'm Gone: Remarkable Off-the-Record Conversations with Gerald Fordby Thomas M. DeFrank
Synopses & Reviews
In an extraordinary series of private interviews, conducted over sixteen years with the stipulation that they not be released until after Ford's death, the thirty-eighth president of the United States reveals a profoundly different side of himself: funny, reflective, gossipy, strikingly candid-and the stuff of headlines.
In 1974, award-winning journalist and author Thomas DeFrank, then a young correspondent for Newsweek, was interviewing Vice President Gerald R. Ford when Ford blurted out something astonishingly indiscreet related to the White House, came around his desk, grabbed DeFrank's tie, and told the reporter he could not leave the room until he promised not to publish it. Write it when I'm dead, he said-and that agreement formed the basis for their relationship for the next thirty-two years.
During that time, they talked frequently, but from 1991 to shortly before Ford's death in 2006, the interviews became something else — conversations between two men in which Ford talked in a way few presidents ever have. Here is the real Ford on his relationship with Richard Nixon (including the 1974 revelation that, in DeFrank's words, will alter what history thinks it knows about the events that culminated in Ford's becoming president); Ford's experiences on the Warren Commission; his complex relationships with Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter; his startling, never-before-disclosed discussions with Bill Clinton during the latter's impeachment process; his opinions about both Bush administrations, the Iraq war, and many contemporary political figures; and much more. Here also are unguarded personal musings: about key cultural events; his own life, history, and passions; his beloved wife, Betty; and the frustrations of aging.
In all, it is an unprecedented book: illuminating, entertaining, surprising, heartwarming, and, in many ways, historic.
"'Nice guys finish last.' No one wants to believe that mean-spirited adage, but in American politics in the last third of the 20th century, it might have held true. When Richard Nixon, a man who has the reputation of being one of our most unpleasant presidents, chose to resign rather than face impeachment, his successor was the amiable, self-effacing Vice President Gerald Ford, who liked to present... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) himself to the public as nothing more or less than an ordinary, if honorable, man: 'I'm a Ford, not a Lincoln.' For a while the public was dizzy with relief to have gotten out from under the nastiness and criminality of the Watergate scandal. But when Ford pardoned Nixon unconditionally — to spare the ex-president the agony of indictment and possible conviction, and to spare the country a replay of the Watergate nightmare — voters turned against him. For a while they suspected him of conspiring to save Nixon, of being an extension of the creepy intricacies of Watergate. But more than that, Ford gave uninspiring speeches. He fell on his butt while getting off an airplane, TV footage that played over and over again, and bonked innocent bystanders with golf balls. He survived two assassination attempts, but those attempts were made by women — making them seem faintly ridiculous. He lost the next election to Jimmy Carter, who turned down the air conditioning in government buildings, lowered the speed limit on the endlessly long highways of the West, prevented American athletes from competing in the Moscow Olympics, and couldn't seem to cope with the Iranian hostage crisis. Not only that, he wore silly sweaters and told the public that he had lust in his heart for women other than his wife. 'Carter's so strange he makes Nixon look normal,' a senior aide to Ronald Reagan told Thomas DeFrank, the author of this engaging collection of interviews and a longtime political reporter. If nothing else, 'Write It When I'm Gone' reminds the reader just how terrific this country really is — to have survived, and keep on surviving, such a string of dubious leaders. DeFrank first began to cover Ford when it became clear that Nixon was headed for a fall. DeFrank's editor at Newsweek decided that 'the magazine wanted to have a leg up with the new guy when Nixon resigned or was impeached.' DeFrank, just 28, was 'ecstatic at my sudden good fortune.' But life on that particular Air Force Two was no picnic. Henry Kissinger had snagged the luxurious vice president's plane for himself, so the vice president flew slowly and humbly across American skies in 'the military version of the Convair 580 twin-engined propjet.' The journalists had so much fun that DeFrank (remember that reporters are supposed to be cynical and hardheaded by trade) sent this background dispatch to his magazine: 'Jerry Ford is a human being cum laude, a down-to-earth, earnest, genuinely likable guy with an infectious laugh and not the slightest hint of pretentiousness. He is a politician of great and genuine sincerity.' No offense to any politician of either party, but to whom, these days, might that description pertain? The Ford presidential years were over in a twinkling, but DeFrank made a bargain with the former president to do a series of interviews with him that were to be published only after Ford's death. Over the years Ford made a substantial effort to keep up his reputation as a nice person, but he did confide to DeFrank that Carter and Reagan had in effect ganged up on him in 1976; that Carter was 'the weakest president I've ever seen in my lifetime,' that he considered Reagan to be 'a lazy and unfit pretender,' and that he was appalled not just by Clinton's adultery but by what Ford considered to be his moral and ethical blind spots. 'I think he thinks he's sincere,' Ford said, a fairly subtle remark for a self-described ordinary man. And, of course, he considered Clinton to have 'a sexual addiction. ... He needs to get help — for his sake. He's already damaged his presidency beyond repair.' But Ford stays loyal to Nixon, saying the president he had served had 'a five to ten percent flaw in his character,' which came over him from time to time but that he was, in essence, sold out by Haldeman, Ehrlichman and, above all, John Dean, whom he calls 'a self-seeking, ambitious smarty.' And Ford believed to the last that he was right to pardon Nixon, even if it ruined his own career. He even found it in his heart to admire Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. (The latter was responsible for smuggling a sheep into DeFrank's hotel room. That anecdote alone should get you to buy the book.) In sum, even though the reporter doesn't say it, maybe Ford really wasn't the man for the job. He was decent, courteous, guileless. Overqualified might be one way of putting it." Reviewed by Carolyn See, who can may be reached at www.carolynsee.com, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"DeFrank remembers Ford as a likable guy and down-to-earth president who actually enjoyed reporters....This book radiates the warmth between Ford and DeFrank and contains enough enlightening and gossipy stories to maintain the reader's interest." Library Journal
"Mr. DeFrank's affectionate reminiscences provide a rare look at how presidents work, and they certainly make for good reading." Dallas Morning News
"[A] good read, it will appeal to all political junkies, and it should leave pretty much everyone with a comfortable feeling that the nation was in good hands during the 896 days of Jerry Ford's presidency." Providence Journal
Book News Annotation:
DeFrank, who was the White House correspondent for Newsweek for 25 years, documents his personal relationship with Gerald Ford from 1973 until May 2006, when the former president gave his last interview six weeks before his death. The content differs from conventional biographies of Ford in that the tone is kept casual and conversational, with a bit of gossip here and there. These personal interviews, which span the last 16 years of Ford's life, included the stipulation that they not be published until after his death. Annotation ©2008 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
About the Author
Thomas M. DeFrank is the Washington bureau chief of the New York Daily News, and was Newsweek's senior White House correspondent for a quarter-century and deputy chief of the magazine's Washington bureau for twelve years. He is also the coauthor of three books, including James A. Baker III's The Politics of Diplomacy and Ed Rollins's Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms. In 2006, he won the Gerald R. Ford Prize for distinguished reporting on the presidency.
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