Most obituaries, eulogies, and lunch-table discussions in the days following Gerald Ford’s death focused on how history should portray the 38th president. As a major or minor figure? Courageous or cautious? National healer or calculating bargainer?
Ford’s Oval Office tenure, though brief, was controversial. His unprecedented ascension to the presidency, his pardon of Richard Nixon, and his decision to end the Vietnam War divided public opinion even as he sought to stitch up the gash rendered by Watergate.
Through it all, few doubted Ford’s basic decency. He hadn’t sought out the nation’s highest office, and upon attaining it, he retained a rare humility and sincerity. At his memorial service at Washington National Cathedral, former president George H.W. Bush said Ford had a heart “as big and as open as the Midwest plains on which he was born. And he imbued every life he touched with his understated gentility.”
Which is why many were surprised to read, in the December 28 Washington Post, excerpts from Bob Woodward’s 2004 interview with Ford, in which the president expressed ardent disagreement with the Bush Administration over the Iraq war; called Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, Ford’s former chief of staff, “pugnacious”; and said former secretary of State Henry Kissinger had “the thinnest skin of any public figure I ever knew.” That Gerald Ford seemed more fiery, blunt, and antagonistic than the composed, peaceable one in the retrospectives.
From his homes in Colorado and California, Ford gave several interviews in his final years to a cadre of reporters with whom he had developed friendships. As with his conversations with Woodward, the understanding was that they wouldn’t release his statements until after he died.
Thomas DeFrank, longtime Washington bureau chief for the New York Daily News, interviewed Ford dozens of times while eating butter-pecan ice cream with him, swapping stories about their travels on Air Force Two, and talking politics. This week, DeFrank signed a deal with Putnam to write a book disclosing the substance of those conversations. It’s due in the fall.
DeFrank said the book “will alter what history thinks it knows about the events that culminated in Ford’s becoming president.” As provocative as that statement is, the book’s greater accomplishment may be in the way we get a more complete and compelling picture of one of our most unlikely presidents.
Other Book Deals This Week
Riding the coattails of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink and The Tipping Point, Democratic pollster Mark J. Penn signed with Warner Twelve to publish Microtrends in the fall. For his work with the Clintons and other leading Democrats, the Post called Penn “perhaps the most powerful man in Washington you’ve never heard of.”
Also in the fall, PublicAffairs will put out Peter Jennings: An Oral Biography, which will contain an introduction by 20/20 correspondent Lynn Sherr and stories about Jennings from a wide range of public figures. Jennings, an ABC News correspondent and anchor for 40 years, passed away in 2005 from lung cancer.
Gary Ecelbarger, a Lincoln scholar in Annandale, signed with Thomas Dunne Books to publish Dark Horse: How Abraham Lincoln Beat the Odds to Win the Republican Nomination. The book focuses on Lincoln’s rise to the presidency after two failed senatorial runs and a single congressional stint.
Joshua Phillip cut a deal with Atlas Publishing for Under Duress: The Culture of Torture, which explores the circumstances that led US forces to resort to torture of detainees in the war on terror.
Cynthia Cooper, whose 2002 audit of WorldCom, the telecommunications company that merged with Virginia-based MCI in 1997, is set in September to publish Whistleblower Blues: How Faith & Ethics Prevailed Over Corporate Greed at WorldCom. The publisher is Wiley.