Image: Ronald Nessen, Jerry terHorst, Ron Ziegler
AP
In this Jan. 14, 1977 file photo, two former White House press secretaries, Ron Ziegler, left, and Jerry terHorst, right, chat with then-current press secretary Ron Nessen, center, at the National Press Club in Washington.
updated 4/1/2010 4:46:55 PM ET 2010-04-01T20:46:55

Jerald terHorst, who resigned as White House press secretary rather than defend President Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon, is dead at age 87.

A longtime Detroit News journalist, terHorst served for a month as Ford's spokesman in 1974 before quitting to protest the president's decision not to hold his predecessor accountable for any crimes in the Watergate scandal.

TerHorst told Ford in his resignation letter he could not credibly speak for him in defending the pardon while young men who evaded Vietnam military service as a matter of conscience had to pay for their actions.

TerHorst died Wednesday night of congestive heart failure at his retirement community in Asheville, N.C., attended by his grown children, according to his son Peter, who informed the Gridiron Club and Foundation in Washington.

Ford issued the pardon as a way to heal a nation badly shaken by the scandal that drove Nixon from office after the 1972 break-in at Democratic headquarters by burglars tied to Nixon's re-election committee.

The pardon itself opened a national rift but Ford said for the rest of his life that it was the right decision. Some historians have come around to that view.

TerHorst persisted in his belief the pardon "set up a double standard of justice." He said that in addition to quitting over principle, he realized his job with Ford had become untenable because he was one of the last aides to find out the pardon was coming.

In his Sept. 8, 1974, resignation letter, terHorst objected to the absence of pardons not only for draft resisters but other figures in the Watergate affair who ended up behind bars.

"These are also men whose reputations and families have been grievously injured," he wrote. "Try as I can, it is impossible to conclude that the former president is more deserving of mercy than persons of lesser station in life whose offenses have had far less effect on our national well-being."

Born in Grand Rapids, Mich., terHorst began covering Ford in the late 1940s as a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press, when the future president won his seat in Congress from Michigan. TerHorst joined The Detroit News in 1953 and moved to Washington in 1958, becoming the paper's bureau chief here in 1961.

He returned as a syndicated columnist after his short stint with the president and went on to serve as Washington public affairs director for another Ford — the automaker.

In a Detroit News interview last year, terHorst lamented that the job of White House press secretary has become less about telling Americans what the president is doing and why, than about peddling the presidential party line.

"You do a lot of spinning," he told the paper. "I did not want to do that kind of work. I wanted to be the connection between the media and the president on his policies. That gets to be very difficult these days. It's a shame in a way that it's evolved in that direction."

His wife Louise died last year and he is survived by four children. Memorial services were expected in Washington and Asheville.

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