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How Ford stood by ‘real friend’ Nixon

Unpub­lished tapes, doc­u­ments shed light on the deep rela­tion­ship between them

Bob Wood­ward

Wash­ing­ton — Months before Richard Nixon set Michi­gan con­gress­man Ger­ald Ford on the path to the White House, Nixon turned to Ford, who called him­self the embat­tled pres­i­den­t’s “only real friend,” to get him out of trou­ble.

Dur­ing one of the dark­est days of the Water­gate scan­dal, Nixon secret­ly con­fid­ed in Ford, at the time the House minor­i­ty leader. He begged for help. He com­plained about fair-weath­er friends and swore at per­ceived rivals in his own par­ty. “Tell the guys, god­damn it, to get off their ass and start fight­ing back,” Nixon plead­ed with Ford in one call record­ed by the pres­i­den­t’s secret tap­ing sys­tem.

And Ford did. “Any­time you want me to do any­thing, under any cir­cum­stances, you give me a call, Mr. Pres­i­dent,” he told Nixon dur­ing that May 1, 1973, con­ver­sa­tion. “We’ll stand by you morn­ing, noon and night.”

This and oth­er pre­vi­ous­ly unpub­lished tran­scripts of their calls, doc­u­ments and per­son­al let­ters pro­vide a por­trait of an intense­ly per­son­al friend­ship dat­ing to the late 1940s but so hid­den that few oth­ers were even aware of it. Until now, the rela­tion­ship between the two pres­i­dents has been por­trayed large­ly as a mat­ter of polit­i­cal neces­si­ty, with Nixon tap­ping Ford for the vice pres­i­den­cy in late 1973 because he was a con­firmable choice on Capi­tol Hill.

But the tapes, doc­u­ments and two lengthy recent inter­views with Ford before his death this week, con­duct­ed for a future book and unpub­lished until after his death, show that the close polit­i­cal alliance between the two men seri­ous­ly influ­enced Ford’s even­tu­al deci­sion to par­don Nixon, the most momen­tous deci­sion of his short pres­i­den­cy and almost cer­tain­ly the one that cost him any chance of win­ning the White House in his own right two years lat­er. Ford became pres­i­dent on Aug. 9, 1974; he par­doned Nixon just a month lat­er.

“I think that Nixon felt I was about the only per­son he could real­ly trust on the Hill,” Ford said dur­ing the 2005 inter­view.

Ford returned the feel­ing.

“I looked upon him as my per­son­al friend. And I always trea­sured our rela­tion­ship. And I had no hes­i­tan­cy about grant­i­ng the par­don, because I felt that we had this rela­tion­ship and that I did­n’t want to see my real friend have the stig­ma,” Ford said in the inter­view.

That acknowl­edg­ment rep­re­sents a sig­nif­i­cant shift from Ford’s pre­vi­ous por­tray­als of the par­don that absolved Nixon of any Water­gate-relat­ed crimes. In ear­li­er state­ments, Ford had empha­sized the deci­sion as an effort to move the coun­try beyond the par­ti­san divi­sions of the Water­gate era, play­ing down the per­son­al dimen­sion.

A key win­dow into their close friend­ship and polit­i­cal alliance was that May 1973 call. It was the day after Nixon had gone on tele­vi­sion to announce the res­ig­na­tions of his two top aides, H.R. “Bob” Halde­man and John Ehrlich­man, and the Water­gate cov­er-up was unrav­el­ing. The pres­i­dent knew it and was eager for Ford’s reas­sur­ance that his polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion on Capi­tol Hill was not as grave as it seemed.

“You’ve got a hell of a lot of friends up here,” Ford told him, “both Repub­li­can and Demo­c­rat, and don’t wor­ry about any­body being sun­shine sol­diers or sum­mer patri­ots.”

“Well, nev­er Jer­ry Ford,” Nixon replied. “But if you could get a few con­gress­men and sen­a­tors to speak up and say a word, for Christ’s sakes.”

Ford was played a copy of that tape in 2005. Although the exis­tence of Nixon’s secret tap­ing sys­tem had been pub­licly dis­closed in 1973, no such tapes of Ford had come to pub­lic atten­tion, and the for­mer pres­i­dent seemed stunned. “I remem­ber vivid­ly that,” he said, recall­ing how Nixon often turned to him to get things done on the Hill. He added that he con­sid­ered him­self to be Nixon’s “only real friend.”

At times, their friend­ship was the gos­sipy sort, as two long­time politi­cians sort­ed through the Wash­ing­ton rumor mill. They were so com­fort­able with each oth­er that they open­ly trad­ed nasty per­son­al assess­ments of oth­ers.

On April 6, 1971, for exam­ple, Nixon called Ford to find out what was going on with House Major­i­ty Leader Hale Bog­gs, D‑La. Bog­gs had just tak­en to the House floor say­ing that FBI Direc­tor J. Edgar Hoover was reg­u­lar­ly wire­tap­ping mem­bers of Con­gress, and Nixon want­ed to know why Bog­gs was going pub­lic.

“He’s nuts,” Ford told Nixon in the call picked up by Nixon’s secret tap­ing.

“He’s on the sauce,” Nixon said, sug­gest­ing the major­i­ty leader was drink­ing. “Isn’t that it?”

In their per­son­al cor­re­spon­dence, extend­ing over decades, the two men con­veyed a sense of per­son­al bond that went beyond pub­lic niceties, demon­strat­ed in dozens of let­ters in Ford’s con­fi­den­tial files that he allowed a reporter to review and copy.

Their friend­ly notes to each oth­er con­tin­ued until not long before Nixon’s death in 1994. In 1978, for exam­ple, Nixon wrote to buck up Ford after Ford’s for­mer press sec­re­tary wrote a tell-all mem­oir, “It Sure Looks Dif­fer­ent From the Inside,” in which he gave details of Bet­ty Ford’s addic­tion to alco­hol and var­i­ous med­ica­tions. “Dear Jer­ry, I thought Ron Nessen’s com­ments on Bet­ty were con­temptible. Tell Bet­ty her many friends won’t believe him and for her few ene­mies — The hell with them. Sin­cere­ly, Dick.”


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