September Books 14) 31 Days

14) 31 Days: The Crisis That Gave Us the Government We Have Today, by Barry Werth

My obsession with Gerald Ford flagged up this book on its publication earlier this year, and I managed to find a half-price review copy in Chapters in New York. This account takes us from 9 August 1974, the day the Richard Nixon became the first US president to resign from office, to 8 September, the day that his successor, Gerald Ford, issued “a full, free, and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon for all offenses against the United States which he, Richard Nixon, has committed or may have committed or taken part in during the period from January 20, 1969 through August 9, 1974.”

The book has two real plot strands, first, Ford’s decision to issue the pardon and the subsequent negotiations over details with Nixon, and second, the scrabbling for office in the Ford White House, especially the decision to nominate Nelson Rockefeller as Vice-President rather than the other obvious candidate, George Bush the elder (or the last-minute dark horse alternative, Donald Rumsfeld – Ronald Reagan also fancied himself in the running, but Ford couldn’t even remember how to spell his name).

The first is, of course, the key to the failure of Ford’s presidency. Werth paints a convincing psychological and political picture of why Ford decided to do it so soon, against the advice of almost everyone he asked: the shock of realising, after his first press conference, that the issue of his predecessor’s fate was going to drown out attention to his own programme for government until it was settled, combined with his experience as a youth of concluding his relations with his absent biological father. There is no clear record that anyone said to Ford that the move would expend all his political capital and kill his moral authority stone dead; but it is abundantly clear that Ford felt he couldn’t live with himself until the decision was made, and would not have been swayed even if the argument had been put to him in those terms.

The second was a contributory factor to Ford’s inability to pull things round in time. Like John Adams and Lyndon B Johnson, he did not change enough of the cabinet, despite open treachery from his Secretary of Defense literally as he was being sworn in. His press secretary, one of his oldest friends, was out of the loop about the planned pardon for Nixon, and in consequence stole the headlines by resigning the same day. Having promised George Bush senior something decent in compensation for not getting the Vice-Presidency, all he could come up with was the post of Ambassador to China (this after Bush, as the US representative at the UN, had fought tooth and nail against the de-recognition of Taiwan). Al Haig was clearly a menace. The picture that comes across is of a very nice guy who simply lacked the killer instinct.

(Having said that, of course, he still came pretty close to re-election in 1976 – less than 2% behind in the popular vote, and closer than that in Ohio and Wisconsin which would have been enough to beat Carter).

Much else happening in this period as well, and given my own interests I would have liked more on the Cyprus crisis, which of course was in full swing that summer (including – a detail I had forgotten if I ever knew it – the assassination of the US Ambassador by a Greek Cypriot gunman in Nicosia), but I guess the fact that it appears mainly as background colour tells me most of what I would want to know. (In any case the Kissinger Archives have much more detail.)

There are lots of other charming details; the description of Jerry and Betty Ford dancing with the king and Queen of Jordan at the end of their first week, which reminds me both of this picture taken during the bicentennial celebrations a couple of years later, and also this one which overlooked our breakfast table in the Washington hotel we stayed in in May last year. The account of the impact of events on Betty’s life is cpmpassionate. (Though I do wonder if she has since regretted being photographed literally dancing on the Cabinet Room table.)

I can’t give the book full marks, unfortunately. I would have liked a judgement from the author, not just from quoted commentators, about the morality of some of the things that were done and decisions made – in particular the disposition of Nixon’s state papers, which at one point were piled so high on the third floor of the Old Executive Office Building that the Secret Service worried it might cave in. (Oddly enough, I was on the third floor of that building for a meeting two days ago – and it’s not in much better shape now, thirty years on.)

The other missing element for me was that, while we learn a gret deal about Ford’s own background, and a decent amount on the other older characters, Nixon, Rockefeller, Bush, Haig, we find out very little about the the new generation empowered by Nixon’s fall and Ford’s brief ascendancy – Rumsfeld, Richard Cheney, Richard Perle, etc. They appear pretty much out of nowhere in the narrative, and the book therefore fails to really deliver on its promise to explain how the crisis “Gave Us The [American] Government We Have Today”.

But still, a good read.

One thought on “September Books 14) 31 Days

  1. Wise Mr Whyte,

    In all honesty, have you ever read Sir Edward Maunde Thompson’s identification of Shakespeare’s hand in Sir Thomas More? And if so, how can you seriously rely on it? Or rely on it and still claim to be taken seriously? Thompson starts with remarking that signatures and holographs cannot be sensefully compared. Yet he proceeds. He then states that six signatures are too small a sample for comparison. Yet he proceeds. He then adds another qualification: one of the signatures under the Blackfriars deed obviously is from a nervously diseased person. Yet he proceeds. Three other signatures would be from a dying man. Yet he proceeds. And, finally, finds one letter, an “a” which is, he says, clearly Shakespeare’s “a”. Is this a representative sample or an example of grossest misrepresentation?

    Against this kind of arguing I call to witness the Bard himself, the last four lines of sonnet 152:

    And to enlighten thee, gave eyes to blindness,
    Or made them swear against the thing they see:
    For I have sworn thee fair — more perjur’d I,
    To swear against the truth so foul a lie!

    These lines could also be aptly applied to some passages in Shapiro’s Contested Will. Do you want to know which? I’m sure you don’t want to.


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