Writer Changed His Tune on Ford's Place in History
: Or Why There Are No Leaders in Washington." Richard Reeves joins us now from Paris. Welcome back to the program.
RICHARD REEVES: Well, thank you very much.
: And in the 31 years that have passed, have you had occasion to reassess the presidency of Gerald Ford, which you assessed pretty low back in those days?
REEVES: I reassess it with great pain, but I was lucky enough, I thought, that Ford lived long enough that I could have the chance to think about it and also talk to him about it and apologize to him about it.
The thing I focused on was that I had asked him why he pardoned Nixon and he said something to me then. He said America couldn't be governed if Nixon was being dragged from courtroom to courtroom, which he certainly would have been had he not been pardoned. And if that were the case, a president could not gain the attention of the country. I laughed at that. I think a lot of people did.
Since then, having lived through say, O.J. Simpson and Monica Lewinsky and - I realized that Ford was right. And I mentioned that briefly once in a television interview. And the secretary to the editor of American Heritage gave me a call and said would you write a piece for us? I wrote a piece which they put on their cover called "I'm Sorry, Mr. President." Ford wrote to me, called me and we communicated back and forth over the years. And he said in public well, he thought I had always been fair. I'm not sure I was.
: What's his legacy? There actually are people who I guess were his legacy from his presidency.
REEVES: Well, his first Chief of Staff was Don Rumsfeld, and then Rumsfeld moved along and his assistant took over and his assistant's name was Dick Cheney. So he certainly had a number of young protÃ©gÃ©s, not so young now, in the party.
I think there were also a couple of other things that he never quite gets credit for that he should, particularly his pushing of the Helsinki Accords in 1975, which at the time weren't taken very seriously. The Soviets were glad to sign things saying they would be nice to their people and people would have civil rights and the right to trial and whatnot. But the dissidents in Russia, led by people like Sakharov, seized on that as a document that they could say we are not getting these rights and I think that was a significant step in the road to the end of the Cold War and I think that it happened because Gerald Ford was president.
: I'd like you to address the public figure that he cut, after a string of people who in various ways had been larger than life presidents. Gerald Ford, one thing we wouldn't say about him was that he was larger than life.
REEVES: No. The funny thing was, he was a big guy but he wasn't larger than life. He lived for awhile over in Virginia. He didn't move to the White House for a few weeks. And every morning he would swim and then he would go in and make English muffins and the country loved that. I mean, my God. He had a 75 percent approval rating and he was a normal guy.
But at the same time, he has to be one of the worst public speakers ever to get so quite so high in a democracy. And I was thinking about it today that I was once with him at Mesa College in Colorado. And before he got - I don't think he ever got it right. He pronounced it Mesa, Mesa. He had real trouble with the English language, and the way they try to clean up things in politics - I remember asking him once for - which I did with every politician I covered - a list of the books he was reading and he told me that he was too busy to read books, that he read reports and whatnot. And then three days later, the White House began a weekly listing of the books -
: I see.
REEVES: I'm sure they were on his night table, but that doesn't mean they were open. He had a hell a lot of common sense. He was a graduate of the Yale Law School. He was not a great man, but he was a good man and in many senses, he was an ordinary man. He lived a fairly ordinary life. And I don't think the power ever did to him what it did to so many of us of his peers.
: Richard Reeves, thank you very much for talking with us today.
REEVES: Thank you for having me.
: Political writer, journalist and author Richard Reeves talking with us about the late President Gerald Ford. Mr. Reeves spoke to us from Paris.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.