INTERVIEW WITH BARRY WERTH
Your previous books have addressed such topics as medical malpractice (Damages), pharmaceutical companies (The Billion Dollar Molecule), and a prominent morals scandal (The Scarlet Professor). Why did you decide to turn to political history for your next book? What drew you, in particular, to the thirty-one tumultuous days after Nixon resigned and Gerald Ford was sworn in as president?
I like to follow my nose. As a reporter, I’m compelled by stories that I think are important and original. I also want depth, drama, complexity, and–this is key–narratives that illuminate a larger world. When I wrote about malpractice, I followed one family through the torments of a having a brain-damaged child as a way of looking at the collision of law, medicine, and money in our society. When I wrote about a start-up drug company, I got to explore intimate interplay of Wall Street and the country’s biomedical labs.
On the summer night in 1974 that Nixon announced he was resigning, my girlfriend and I left our apartment and wound up celebrating amidst a cheering, snake-dancing throng of 2,000 people in Harvard Square, a few blocks from where George W. Bush was living while he attended business school. It was an intense time politically, and I always felt that if I could find a story from that period as a fulcrum, I’d have a terrific book. Then, decades later, after we’d invaded Iraq, I knew I had to do something political. I didn’t think I had the luxury of sitting on the sidelines while America took this dangerous turn. Inevitably, I think, I was drawn back to the period right after Vietnam and Watergate, which seemed, given our current problems, as if it might help explain some of what was happening now and offer some telling lessons for the future.
I was drawn specifically to the story of the transfer of power from Nixon to Ford because it’s fascinating, moving, historically rich material and because no one else had done a book about it.
How did you go about doing research for this book?
A very wise editor, Dick Todd, once told me: “Chronology is your friend.” Knowing from the start that all the action would be contained in the single month after Nixon resigned, I attempted to find out everything I could about what happened during those thirty-one days, not just in the White House, but in Congress, in the courts, out in the country, and in San Clemente, where Nixon was holed up in exile. I bought several shelves of used books from Amazon, and little by little I was able to reconstruct the month to a point where I began to see, day-by-day and sometimes scene-by-scene, how developments unfolded. And so I had the global shape of the book in my head before I started contacting sources, libraries, and archives, and well before I actually started traveling.
The story really came to life for me at the Ford Library, in Ann Arbor, where I spent a week working with documents and, especially, viewing hundreds of old newscasts. Part of the reason I became so animated while sitting in front of a TV was that the press itself was such a powerful force in the Watergate and Vietnam stories, although mainly I think it was the images themselves, which at the time I had found so riveting.
For the next six months I traveled to Washington, New York and several other places to speak with as many of the principal players as I could. Given the age and general unavailability of these people, this proved to be difficult, but in the end I believe I was able to account for what all of them were doing, saying and trying to do during that month.
There have been numerous books on the Nixon administration, but very few on the Ford administration. Why do you think little attention has been paid, until now, to the Ford administration?
I believe there are two reasons, chiefly.
First is the contrast of the two presidents and the two presidencies. Psychologically and historically, Nixon is more fascinating, but Vietnam and Watergate were profoundly traumatic events for the nation, and Ford’s goal was a return to order and tranquility — to ratchet down the volume. With Ford’s short-term rule and low-key persona, you can’t really compare the two administrations for drama.
The other point is that the seventies in general, and the mid-seventies in particular, have been widely dismissed, until recently, as “a kidney-stone of a decade” (in the words of one Doonesbury character). Given where we are today, mired in events that remind us increasingly of Watergate and Vietnam, I think it makes good sense to pay close attention to what happened right after those two traumas, as the country tried to recover and move ahead.
Why do you call 31 DAYS the “crisis that gave us the government we have today”?
Well, the simple answer is that the Bush administration’s beliefs about America and its mission in the world were born in the lessons that Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and other neocons took home from the end of the Nixon years and the early days of Gerald Ford’s presidency. Also, the struggle now playing out in Washington over presidential power had its origins in the tumultuous month that I write about, which starts with Nixon’s resignation and ends with Ford’s decision to pardon him. We’re seeing history repeat–and negate–itself at the same time. It would be fascinating if it weren’t tragic.
Why was that month so crucial?
These were deeply traumatic times in America. We had lost the war in Vietnam, and though the final communist takeover remained a few months away, the wounds were visceral. Watergate had sparked the worst constitutional crisis since the Civil War. And America was reeling from its first energy crisis, which signaled the end of the great thirty-year boom after World War II. The country was back on its heels. If you take today’s situation–Iraq, Katrina, a besieged White House, mounting dangers in the Arab and Muslim world, and a growing alarm over the direction the country has taken since 9/11–and look a year or so into the future, you’ll get some idea of what we were facing back then.
Thrust, literally, into the middle of all this was Gerald Ford–unelected, unprepared, and having to contend against Nixon’s holdover staff with only a small cadre of his own people. Nixon’s departure left a vacuum, and every Republican with aspirations for power vaulted in. In the end, the people who prevailed were Rumsfeld, Cheney, and George H.W. Bush.
How do you mean?
I’ll give you an example. We now forget that the big story in the weeks after Nixon left was Ford’s choice for Vice-President. Every top Republican from Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan to Elliot Richardson and Howard Baker campaigned, for the most part quietly, for consideration. At the time Bush (the father) was the Republican Party chairman, having been rescued and brought to Washington by Nixon after he lost twice for the Senate in Texas. Rumsfeld was in Europe as Ambassador to NATO, a junior member of Nixon’s inner circle. And Cheney, a mid-tier investment consultant at age thirty-three, had been Rumsfeld’s deputy when he worked in the White House.
As Ford made his decision, Bush campaigned most publicly and aggressively of any potential nominee. Rumsfeld, back in the White House temporarily to run Ford’s transition team, meanwhile positioned himself as a dark horse, with he and Cheney whispering to reporters that he was in contention. Both Bush and Rumsfeld–somewhat incredibly, given their lack of qualifications–made it onto Ford’s short list. And while the job went to Nelson Rockefeller, the pair emerged at the end of the month as the sole Nixonites with a future claim to national office–and not incidentally, as each other’s chief rival. In fact, it appears it was Rumsfeld who doomed Bush’s selection, by leaking a story to Newsweek that connected Bush to Watergate finance abuses. Two weeks after Ford pardoned Nixon, Rumsfeld became Ford’s chief of staff and Cheney became Rumsfeld’s deputy, the second most powerful person on Ford’s staff.
So what were the lessons that Rumsfeld and Cheney drew during their time in the Ford White House?
There are two chiefly, both involving the uses of power. Many Americans concluded from the disaster in Vietnam that the country had overreached badly and that it needed to learn the limits of its power. But that wasn’t the lesson that Rumsfeld, Cheney, and the neocons learned. They concluded that America had gone wobbly and that American power had grown provocatively weak.
The other lesson had to do with presidential power. Much has been said lately about the parallels between the Nixon White House and the current administration. Nixon went to extraordinary lengths to concentrate power in as small a circle as possible. He made foreign policy a secretive two-man operation–him and Henry Kissinger–marginalizing Congress, the State Department and even the Joint Chiefs to the point that the Pentagon actually spied on him. He believed, literally, he was above the law. “When the President does it,” he famously said, “that means that it’s not illegal.” Watergate was a swamp, but its key components were illegal surveillance, obstruction of justice, and abuse of power, all results of a failing and misguided war.
Eventually this all came crashing down, and by the time Ford came into office, Nixon’s so-called “imperial presidency” had been reined in sharply by Congress and the courts.
Now, as becomes clearer by the day, Cheney and Rumsfeld, who for five years have constituted THE power center in the White House on national defense, have made taking back executive power and using it unilaterally a thirty-year joint mission.
Did Ford draw the same lessons as Rumsfeld and Cheney?
Not at all, at least not at the beginning. Ford envisioned a kind of national unity government after Watergate and Vietnam, where Americans pulled together after a divisive and traumatic decade, putting aside their differences to heal the country’s wounds and work for the common good. He was very canny about this. In his first address to the country he asked Americans to vote for conservatives, liberals, Republicans or Democrats, so long as the candidates were willing to keep down federal spending and fight inflation. He chose Rockefeller for Vice President, knowing it would leave the right sputtering, and on his first presidential trip he went to the toughest audience he could find, the annual VFW convention, to announce that he wanted to offer a limited amnesty for Vietnam draft resisters and deserters. As David Brinkley put it, he “sought out friends to work with, not enemies to punish.”
Most offensive to Rumsfeld and Cheney was the fact that Ford retained Kissinger, whose so-called “realism” in foreign policy meant that Ford would continue Nixon’s efforts to preserve the balance of power between countries based on an understanding of their national self-interests. To the neocons, accommodating the Soviets was defeatism, not realism.
What changed Ford’s direction?
The Nixon pardon. On his 31st day as president, with his approval rating at seventy percent, Ford announced on a Sunday morning, without preparing the country, that he was pardoning Nixon. In just three weeks, Nixon’s chief of staff, attorney general, and top domestic advisor were about to be tried for obstructing justice–probably the most important criminal trial in the country’s history–and Ford’s decision to let Nixon go free on the eve of the trial looked instantly like the last, cynical act of the cover-up. His popularity, like his presidency, went downhill, and stayed there.
With the stroke of a pen Ford made himself vulnerable to a challenge by the right, which after the Rockefeller appointment became galvanized around Ronald Reagan. During his term, it was up to Rumsfeld and Cheney–who a year later, at age 34, became the youngest White House chief of staff in history after Rumsfeld became secretary of defense–to confront this threat.
And what did Rumsfeld and Cheney end up doing?
Much the same as they’ve done in the current Bush White House. They sought to get rid of the restraints on the Oval Office, especially its ability to do whatever they considered necessary for national defense. They opposed realism as soft-headed and liberal. They attacked standing alliances, treaties, and diplomacy as inimical to the country’s interests. They favored a more unilateral, preemptive foreign policy. They steamrolled their opponents and brought neocon ideologues like Paul Wolfowitz into power.
You mentioned that history was now repeating–and negating–itself at the same time. How so?
Let me start with the second issue first. We tend to forget that even as Nixon’s presidency was in free-fall, US influence and prestige in the Arab and Muslim world was at its height. Kissinger negotiated the first agreements between Israel and its neighbors, and despite the Arab oil embargo, every regime in the Middle East recognized the United States as the preeminent power in the region. Now, of course, with Iraq, America is reviled across that part of the world, and we are regarded, short of a nuclear attack, as powerless to stop Iran militarily from developing nuclear weapons. Terror is growing, even as we become more dependent on the region for its oil. We seem to be getting weaker and less secure while radical Islam is surging, threatening to overtake the Middle East government by government.
As for history repeating itself, less than midway through Bush’s second term, we now have an increasingly unpopular Republican president saddled with a war that goes from bad to worse, and with White House scandals involving intelligence leaks and unlawful surveillance. We also have a hamstrung leader, who has tried to put himself above the law, facing mounting challenges from within his own party, with rising speculation that his vice president will not last the term. It’s not hard to imagine impeachment proceedings against Bush if the Democrats win either house of congress in the fall, with Cheney stepping down ostensibly for health reasons and an appointed vice-president appearing in the wings.
At which point the historical parallels with the summer of 1974 would become, I think, not just staggering but chilling.
From the Hardcover edition.