December 27, 2006

Gerald Ford may have been the most genuine person ever to serve in the White House. He was basic, real, without guile or pretense.

When two deranged women made attempts on his life during his brief presidency, my editors at The New York Times began, responsibly, hassling me as the White House correspondent to prepare an advance obituary on President Ford. That was in 1975. It took two years to accomplish, in large part because the president really didn’t want to cooperate with what he called “the death story.”

Finally, after he had left office in 1977, I persuaded Ford to let me interview him for the advance obit. The ground rules were that nothing he would say in the interview could be published until his death. I prepared for the meeting with vigor, shaping and reshaping questions designed to elicit comments that he could not or would not make publicly while alive. I was determined to dig deeply and discover the real Jerry Ford.

We sat in the living room of his condo in Vail, Colo. He was gracious and responsive — and completely without deep insight. The questions produced nothing that President Ford had not said about his philosophy, his policies or his life while in the House of Representatives, or as vice president or as president.

At the time, I considered the interview a failure. But I’ve come to realize that it perfectly reflected the central characteristic of Jerry Ford: He was what he seemed to be.

That’s rare in a politician. The fact that he served after so devious a president as Richard Nixon made his straightforwardness all the more remarkable and valuable.

Don’t take my word for it. Consider this: The advance obit written in 1977 was virtually unchanged for nearly 30 years, except for some recent updating by Adam Clymer. Jerry Ford was what he seemed to be.

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Made a career out of covering politicians when people cared to read about that. Moved on to editing, managing and cavorting in newsrooms, often while…
James Naughton

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