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A Stranglehold on History

Alumnus Thomas DeFrank upsets the Conventional Wisdom on Gerald Ford

By Neal Karlen

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Tom DeFrank on Air Force One with President Gerald Ford. Courtesy of Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library.

Editor's Note: Neal Karlen worked for Newsweek at its New York headquarters as a reporter and associate editor for four years while Thomas DeFrank (M.A., '68) was in the magazine's Washington bureau. They shared one byline but somehow never met, Karlen thinks.

Summertime, and Americans were queasy. It was April 1974, and the entire country seemed to be suffering from a profound national nausea, brought on by sins infinitely more grave than that season's leisure suits, shag rugs, or water beds. The endgame of the Vietnam War was nearing. And South Vietnam wouldn't drop like a domino, but sank in the quagmire that had already swallowed over 58,000 American soldiers and millions of Southeast Asians.

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Photo by Bill Auth

On this side of the world, Watergate's shattering finale was only a few months away. Reporters were musing in print whether Richard Nixon was clinically insane, and/or willing to declare martial law rather than give up his chair to Gerald Ford, his handpicked vice president. Ford had already been dismissed by most Democrats, as well as an unhealthy percentage of his own Republican Party, as unworthy of the White House, a dim-witted political apparatchik who'd somehow forged a congressional career out of his own mediocrity.

Wrong-o, as college freshmen would have said back then. Yet it was only last fall that Ford's depth, intelligence, smoke-filled-room savvy, sense of humor, and taste for wicked political gossip were revealed in perhaps this year's most unusal bestseller, Thomas DeFrank's, "Write It When I'm Gone: Remarkable Off-the-Record Conversations with Gerald R. Ford" (Putnam, 272 pages, $25.95).

DeFrank, a 1968 M.A. graduate of the University's School of Journalism and Mass Communication, was naturally able to get much more from Gerald Ford in 2006 than he did back in 1974, when Ford replaced the burned-out shell that had once been Richard Nixon.

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Ford's handpicked pool of reporters on Air Force One.

"I was loyal to Dick Nixon," Ford says in those words not to be published until he was gone, but "I couldn't help but be sad about how ill-advised and just plain stupid he was in the way he handled the (Watergate) cover-up."

Ford implored George H.W. Bush to dump Vice President Dan Quayle in 1992 because his re-election campaign was "dead in the water," and he also thought Dick Cheney, his own White House chief of staff, should have been tossed off George W. Bush's 2004 ticket.

And then there's Ford on Bill Clinton: "He didn't miss one skirt at any of (our) social occasions. He isn't very subtle (and) I'm convinced that Clinton has a sexual addiction. He needs to get help--for his sake."

Still, Ford described the Big-Mac-munching populist president as "the best politician I've ever seen. This guy can sell three-day-old ice, he's that good."

Even famous Washington bylines like DeFrank's come and go--do journalism students these days know of Walter Lippmann, Arthur Krock or even Scotty Reston? Yet with "Write It When I'm Gone," DeFrank has earned a lasting legacy with that rarest of commodities: a book that not only sells, but reconfigures a valuable piece of American political history.

Before DeFrank, Ford seemed a lock to share the fates of Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan in the presidential dustbin-- long-forgotten faces remembered only as tripping stones for junior high school civics students trying to recite all of the presidents in order. (Ford was 38th.)

DeFrank credits the success of "Write It When I'm Gone" to the lessons he learned at the SJMC: the tools of a deadline journalist and the patience of a dedicated scholar. "The book marinated for a third of a century," he says. DeFrank can still tick off, without pausing, the names of four SJMC professors who honed and focused his skills as a reporter and thinker. "They were titans," he remembers. "Mitchell Charnley. Ed Emery. J. Edward Gerald. Don Gillmor. I loved the ambience."

DeFrank was only five years removed from his final jaunt down Murphy Hall's steps when he began tailing Vice President Ford for Newsweek. At 22, his 160-page master's thesis, on the censorship of college newspapers, had been accepted. And DeFrank's stint was over as the popular adviser to The Minnesota Daily.

Yet perhaps he missed the SJMC class where they taught young reporters what to do if you're being strangled by the vice president of the United States. It happened to DeFrank at the hands of Gerald Ford, who at that particular moment in 1974 was approximately one ten-thousandth of a heartbeat away from moving into the Oval Office.

Then, in the middle of an interview with DeFrank, the vice president tried to take back an on-the-record quote. Ford, over-fretting about his own fate while he waited for Richard Nixon to implode, thought he'd committed a horrifying gaffe that might cause his own Republican Party to rebel and replace him.

"You didn't hear that," Ford said about the words the reporter had just heard.

After a pregnant silence, Ford stood, grabbed DeFrank by the tie, and began pulling with what Washington spy novels refer to as "extreme prejudice." (Ford's press secretary/watchdog somehow had fallen asleep in the office next door, leaving the politico and his interlocutor completely alone.)

"I was terrified," DeFrank now says, chuckling at his younger self with the perspective of one who's spent the last 40 years covering the best and the stupidest Washington could dish out. "I'd agreed with the conventional wisdom that Ford was just a passive, dull and colorless political hack," DeFrank remembers. "I didn't think much of him--and obviously he didn't think much of me."

Back in the arena, Ford finally let go of the mortified reporter's tie, stalked to the office door and shut it tight. He then told DeFrank he wouldn't be allowed to leave the vice presidential office until they had an "agreement." Ford then presented him with the compact. DeFrank wouldn't use the quote now.

Instead, Ford said, he could "write it when I'm dead." That wouldn't happen until 2006, when Ford was 92.

It would still be a good deal. DeFrank thought the quote was rather innocuous, perhaps a middlin' scoop, relative to the headlines of the times. He calculated that the sentence might get play "in the national news for a few days, or maybe a week."

Yet DeFrank was nobody's spear-carrier, even if the star of the show was about to be promoted to commander in chief. "Any competitive reporter wants to use his best material immediately," he says. "But I also knew Ford would be much more candid with me in the future if I abided by the agreement."

So DeFrank agreed to terms. Having already forged a mutual un-admiration society, it was a bizarre and unlikely beginning to a beautiful friendship.

"I honestly don't know what I'd do now," DeFrank says today. The reporter's lasting payback began in 1991, when Ford allowed him access to hundreds of hours' worth of his most private thoughts, including material he'd even left out of his autobiography.

During his two-plus years as president, Gerald Ford was usually thought of as a company man defined by the company he kept. He was Mr. Betty Ford. Richard Nixon's Faust. Chevy Chase's doofus muse.

Wrong, says Thomas DeFrank. "He was much more substantial. He was smarter than he looked."

Oh, and the quote Ford thought was so potentially damaging that April 1974 afternoon that he was willing to garrote DeFrank to suppress it? The veep and DeFrank had been chatting about why staunch Nixon-ites still couldn't accept that their leader was a highly impeachable, convictable and felonious criminal; a grandiose liar; and a corrupt and doomed president.

"When the pages of history are written, nobody can say I contributed to it," young Ford said to young DeFrank, on-and then off-the-record.

Neal Karlen, an award-winning journalist, took a hard right turn at 180 mph into the SJMC's full-time master's program after two decades as a reporter, staff writer and associate editor at Newsweek and contributing editor at Rolling Stone. Karlen's seventh book, "The Story of Yiddish: How a Mish-Mosh of Languages Saved the Jews," will be published in March by William Morrow/HarperCollins. Since 1990, he has been a regular contributor to the New York Times and has written for publications ranging from The New Yorker, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Clio: A History Journal and the Indiana Review. He will begin as a columnist for The Huffington Post after he finishes his thesis, like DeFrank's, three months late.