Notes on the Real Gerald Ford There are a number of public preconceptions about former President Gerald Ford, from his pardon of Richard Nixon to his athletic ability. Some are spot on, while others just don't capture the man, according to journalist Tom DeFrank.

Notes on the Real Gerald Ford

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Among the mourners at President Ford's funeral this morning is journalist Tom DeFrank. As a political correspondent for the New York Daily News, he had dozens of conversations with President Ford over three decades, including Ford's final interview last May.

I spoke to Tom DeFrank earlier about his article, debunking what he calls the myths of Gerald Ford, about the Nixon pardon and his nice guy reputation. Tom DeFrank, thank you for joining us.

Mr. TOM DeFRANK (Political Correspondent, New York Daily News): Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Why don't we start with the Nixon myth?

Mr. DeFRANK: Well, there's this notion about, recently, that he was extremely close to Nixon. They were not close. They were political friends and political allies. And the notion that they were so close that Ford bent over backwards out of friendship to pardon him, is - I will say as emphatically as I can -ridiculous.

MONTAGNE: The Lightweight myth - the idea that he was an intellectual lightweight, or even a political lightweight?

Mr. DeFRANK: Richard Nixon was always trashing Gerry Ford behind his back, and calling him stupid and a lightweight, but he's the only president whoever has conducted his own budget briefing. And normally, briefings on the federal budget, are extremely complicated - best left to experts. He did it himself. He was a master of the appropriations process, and he probably knew more about how the federal government worked - with the possible exception of Paul O'Neal, who later became secretary of the treasury.

MONTAGNE: Let's get to the clumsy myth. You write that he should be remembered as a graceful athlete.

Mr. DeFRANK: He was a graceful athlete. And the clumsy myth, I mean, you have to be honest here, Renee - that he kept hitting his head on helicopter doors -but he was a gifted athlete. He could have played professional football, but he wanted to go to Yale Law School. He was swimming laps twice a day well unto his 80s. As a matter of fact, in our last interview, when I asked him how he was doing, his first words were: the doctors won't let me back in the pool. It's an outrage.


(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: And this was - we're talking someone - in his early 90s.

Mr. DeFRANK: Well, at that point he was a couple weeks shy of his 93rd birthday.

MONTAGNE: Finally, the nice guy myth. And here, you would really be speaking pretty knowledgeably, because you spent a lot of time with him.

Mr. DeFRANK: I wrote that kind of tongue in cheek. He was a nice guy. This one wasn't a myth. But I was trying to make the point that President Ford, like most public figures, had a bit of a temper. One of his closest aides still says Gerry Ford was 98 percent koala bear and two percent grizzly bear.

MONTAGNE: Was there a moment in the time that you spent with President Ford, covering him, that would best sum up something that is generally said about him? And you write - he was an ordinary guy in the noblest sense of the word.

Mr. DeFRANK: This was a man with no guile, with no pretence. This was a guy who would walk his own dog and pick up his dog's waste from the South lawn of the White House because he felt like that no man should have to clean up after another man's dog - just a simple guy. One of my favorite stories, that I think makes the point, came at the very end of the 1976 campaign.

He and we were in Cleveland, and he got to his room and he saw that he had been booked in to the Emperor Suite. And he looked at the door that said Emperor Suite, and he pointed to it, and he said, I don't like that. Fix it.

So his army aide grabbed the piece of cardboard, got some tape and a felt tip pen and he taped over the Emperor Suite. Then he wrote on the piece of cardboard: Gerry Ford's room. That was Gerry Ford. That's the Gerry Ford that I'm going to remember.

MONTAGNE: Tom DeFrank, thank you for joining us.

Mr. DeFRANK: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Tom DeFrank is the Washington bureau chief for the New York Daily News.

And we close this segment of music from today's funeral service for President Gerald Ford, “America the Beautiful.”

(Soundbite of song, “America the Beautiful”)

The ARMED FORCES CHORUS: (Singing) And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea.

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