Witness Recalls the Beginning of Ford's Presidency

Over the coming days, Gerald R. Ford will receive the final honors accorded an American president. Rep. John Conyers Jr. witnessed the very beginning of Ford's presidency. Despite his own starring role on President Nixon's "enemies list," he was allowed to be in the room when Gerald Ford took the oath of office.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, Host:

The state funeral of former President Gerald Ford is under way at this hour at the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.

In a moment we'll hear some of that event, one of the last rites in the life of an American president. But first we turn to a man who witnessed the beginning of Gerald Ford's presidency. Representative John Conyers, Jr. of Michigan watched Mr. Ford take the oath of office at a hastily arranged ceremony in the East Room of the White House on August 9th, 1974.

John Conyers's attendance may have held a touch of irony given his prominent position on President Nixon's short list of political enemies.

I spoke with him yesterday.

Representative Conyers, thanks for joining us.

JOHN CONYERS: It's a pleasure to be with you and to remember our great leader from Michigan, who worked with all of us in quite a bipartisan way during his career, I'd say.

ELLIOTT: Now, you are number 13th - you were number 13 on the condensed list of President Nixon's prime political enemies. And I'm going to quote now from the notes that were next to your name. It said you were emerging as a leading black anti-Nixon spokesman. And pardon me for quoting this part of it: has known weakness for white females. How did you feel when you first found out that this was something that people were saying about you and that you were on this list?

CONYERS: Well, I think I had to take it the way I take all other political attacks. I kept going forward. I did not change my opinion about many of the acts of President Nixon that I spoke up about. I kept the faith that I was doing the right thing and that it was me telling the truth, and not him.

ELLIOTT: Was there ever a sense that when President Ford invited you and others to the White House, that he was somehow reaching out to people who were at one time regarded with suspicion by the Nixon White House?

CONYERS: Yes, I do. I think that that was kind of typical of Gerry Ford's approach to things. Although he was a conservative Republican, he was not a person who took to vindictiveness. And he always tried to work as effectively as he could behind the scenes. As a matter a fact, that was more or less his mantra.

ELLIOTT: You were actually a member of the Judiciary Committee that voted the articles of impeachment against President Nixon, correct?

CONYERS: Oh, yes.

ELLIOTT: Now, we're reading reports this week from Bob Woodward in the Washington Post, who had several interviews with President Ford in the later years of his life, about what a close personal friendship he had with President Nixon. Was there ever any animosity directed at members of Congress who voted for impeachment from President Ford?

CONYERS: Absolutely not. I know that as far as I, myself, was concerned, that was not the case. And I think that if it had been involving any other members of the Judiciary Committee, I would have heard about it. But that's the way Gerald Ford operated. He was above the personal infighting and untruthfulness that characterized so much of former President Nixon and the Nixon administration.

Of course, he publicly disavowed the enemy's list, so that was his approach to this ridiculous attempt by the president to single out and punish his - who he considers his enemies.

ELLIOTT: You know, I saw an interesting quote in the New York Times this week saying that when Mr. Ford heard that the enemies list existed, he said to an aide, quote, "Anybody who can't keep his enemies in his head has too many enemies."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONYERS: Exactly. I remember that statement as well.

ELLIOTT: Representative John Conyers, Jr. of Detroit, Michigan. Thank you so much for joining us.

CONYERS: You're welcome.

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