Guests: Jon Meacham, Ron Nessen, Bob Dole, Patrick Butler, Brent Scowcroft, Tom DeFrank, Howard Fineman, Michael Beschloss
CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: He’s been the greatest jock to serve as president. In college, he played on two national championship football teams. An all-American center at Michigan, he then held and defended the center position in American politics at a time the country was tragically divided by the twin horrors of Vietnam and Watergate. Tonight, let’s pay tribute to our 38th president, Gerald Ford.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: President Ford was a great man serving the United States. During his time in office, the American people came to know President Ford as a man of complete integrity, who led our country with common sense and kind instincts.
Americans will always admire Gerald Ford’s unflinching performance of duty and the honorable conduct of his administration, and the great rectitude of the man himself. May God bless Gerald Ford.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: Good evening, I’m Chris Matthews and welcome to HARDBALL.
Tonight, we mark the passing of an all-American, Gerald Ford. Our longest-living president died last night, leaving a legacy of patriotic service, political healing, and the reputation for being one of the nice guys to serve as our president.
To bring us inside the Ford presidency, the person as well as the pardon, we welcome NBC’s Tom Brokaw, who was White House’s correspondent when President Ford was in office, and NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, another former White House correspondent who was very close to the late president.
Later, we’ll have some Ford insiders joining us: former Senator Bob Dole, who was Ford’s 1976 running mate; Ron Nessen, who served as President Ford’s press secretary after a distinguished career as a NBC correspondent;
Brent Scowcroft, who was Ford’s national security adviser; my friend Patrick Butler, who was a Ford speech writer; and Tom DeFrank of the “New York Daily News,” who has covered Gerald Ford for a third of a century.
Let’s begin with NBC’s Tom Brokaw.
Tom, I wonder whether the death of Gerald Ford isn’t this great man’s great sort of last Christmas card to the country, reminding us there was a time when a politician could be a man of unity and he could bring the country together.
TOM BROKAW, NBC NEWS: Yes, a man who had no demons so far as I can tell, Chris, and no hidden agenda. He was straightforward, no great complexities. We had already been through that with Richard Nixon.
People keeping asking me today what it was like covering Gerald Ford as president after covering Nixon. Metaphorically and truly, it was the difference between night, the darkness of Richard Nixon, and day, the Gerald Ford administration. He was open, candid. When he told us something, we generally could believe it.
And I was thinking earlier today of modern presidents in both parties. Before they’d do something like pardon Richard Nixon, there would be focus groups and polling and midnight skull sessions going on. He decided it was the right thing to do and went ahead and did it.
MATTHEWS: Let me bring in Andrea.
Andrea, you really kept in touch with the former president all those many years since he was in office. How did he use those years? What was he like when you got together over dinner and in front of the fireplace in locations of great intimacy?
ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: He loved politics. He cared deeply about it. He cared about issues. He cared about controversial issues. He thought, for instance, there were areas in which his political party had gone too far to one direction or another.
He was pro-choice, as Betty Ford was, very firmly, outspokenly. He believed that both political parties were not doing enough to reduce budget deficits. Tom knows this well, that in his later years, he was very free, felt free as he got older to speak out as forcefully as possible.
And starting in 1981, after traveling to the Sadat funeral with former President Carter, he got to know his former antagonist and the man who had defeated him in that rather battle campaign and a very closely fought campaign, as we all know, and they began working together on projects.
In fact, they were probably closer, among the very exclusive club of former presidents, than any of the others with each other. And there were times, I’m sure, when Jimmy Carter was a little bit stressful to Gerry Ford. There were areas on which they disagreed, but they got to be friends and liked each other.
MATTHEWS: Tom, when Ford took office, I’m reminded of those iconic events like being at home, getting up early before Betty got up, his wife, and when he was still living over in Virginia, making his own English muffins. For some reason, English muffins became an iconic breakfast for this guy. What was all that about? Was that a purposeful downgrading of the imperial presidency?
BROKAW: I don’t think it was purposeful at all. I think it’s just who he was. Gerald Ford reminded the rest of us who we are. The imperial presidency of Richard Nixon was just that, a lot of fanfare. The two daughters that Richard Nixon had, through no fault of their own, were treated by the White House staff and by the family as princesses.
And then along comes Gerry Ford from the suburbs, those handsome boys and that cute daughter who he couldn’t always keep in line, and he seemed like the guy next door that you’d turn to if you got in trouble.
You know, Chris, the best litmus test in politics is who do you want to have a beer with? Who do you want to have over for a barbecue? Gerry Ford would win that contest from the moment that he took office, first as vice president and then as president of the United States. He just didn’t know any other way. He was a truly humble man.
MITCHELL: And by the way, Chris...
MATTHEWS: The pardon—go ahead, Andrea. I’m sorry.
MITCHELL: I was just going to say, when you talked about the English muffin and preparing breakfast, the first time that I was privileged enough to have been invited, obviously because my husband was invited—to spend a weekend with the Fords in Beaver Creek, that very first Saturday morning, he was preparing breakfast and, you know, helping serve his guests.
That was not a photo opportunity. I mean, perhaps it served that purpose, but it was not a photo opportunity for political effect. That was the way the man was.
BROKAW: You know, he...
MATTHEWS: OK, I’ve got to get to it with Andrea, because I know you’ve thought about this. My sense is—tell us about this in detail, if you can. Betty Ford is the first real equal, even Steven partner a marriage in the American presidency. Someone—of course, you know, Eleanor Roosevelt was out there politically, but here was an intimate marriage where it seemed like Betty Ford and he were equals.
MITCHELL: They were equals, and they were estranged in that marriage in those years. I mean, obviously, she had her issues of dependency, partly because he clearly was spending so much time in the political field and on the road. And there were issues at those stages, but the family came together. They intervened.
They loved her so much that they were able to confront her with that issue, and boy did she rise to the challenge. She had already risen to the challenge of breast cancer while in office, and once they had left office, they came around her and circled her with their strength, their family’s strength.
And look at what that woman has accomplished. It’s extraordinary. The Betty Ford Centers, the millions of women and men who have been helped, and also the mammography centers, the breast cancer model that she created.
She made it far easier for her successors, for Nancy Reagan and others who have suffered breast cancer, and for a lot of less well-known women, women who got tested and were taken taking care of their bodies and were aware of their bodies and not ashamed to talk about it.
And think back to the ‘70s. It was a matter of shame. People kept that hidden. The first lady of the United States wasn’t ashamed, wasn’t afraid. It was natural for her to be completely upfront and honest. That was a remarkable marriage.
MATTHEWS: Did she, through her mental and personal strength with the president, Gerald Ford—we’re watching on the picture right now—did she move him toward a feminist view of the world? He seemed like he was pro-choice. Was he able to see the world through a woman’s point of view because of the strong woman he was with all those years?
MITCHELL: I think so. I think that she, as a partner and an intellectual and political partner, without being terribly off-putting, I think, to a lot of other women and men around this country, she had a style that was so fetching and affectionate and ingratiating and real and honest as his is and was, that their partnership was—rather than being threatening, was a great role model.
And I think that they were a team, and perhaps she did bring him along on the Equal Rights Amendment and other issues.
MATTHEWS: Tom, did the president—President Ford, did he pardon Richard Nixon because of the legal argument that was made at the time that if Nixon accepted the pardon he was accepting guilt?
BROKAW: No, I honestly think that he was just trying to put that issue behind him. You know, there’s been a lot of reading of the tea leaves on all of this, but if you read all the thoughts that he had that he shared with other people, my own conversations with him—and as a member of the White House press corps, I can tell you, it was unrelenting that drum beat.
All day every day, we were asking, because it was appropriate, what’s going to happen to Richard Nixon now? What about the disposition of the papers? Does he now enter the American judicial system? And President Ford, no matter what initiative he had in mind, the next question would be about Richard Nixon and his future.
So he felt strongly that he had to put that behind him. And I think he, in his own mind, did believe that by pardoning him, and Nixon accepting it, that it was that kind of pro forma acceptance of his guilt.
It was the most tightly held secret you can possibly imagine. As I said earlier, there were no focus groups or polling or going to the Hill. I always—I still feel to this day that he may have served himself a little better politically if he’d brought in a few people from the Hill and asked their judgment on this.
But he decided to do this, did it, and when it happened in Washington, it was about a 23 kiloton explosion on that Sunday morning. I was at a cabinet member’s house for a brunch, Carla Hills. There were other senior members of the administration there. We all went scrambling across town, trying to figure out what in the world was going on.
Can I just say one thing about Jerry Ford and Mrs. Ford? The first time they moved into that house in Rancho Mirage, I was just remembering this—he was so proud of it, I went down to interview him and he said, “Well, come on, I want to show you the house.”
And he walked into their bedroom as she was changing to go out for the evening, and so she was saying, “Gerry, get out of here.” That’s the kind of house it was.
MATTHEWS: Andrea, you spent a lot of time with him in recent years, and it’s been so many years since the Ford presidency, obviously, 30 years now. How did that decision to pardon Nixon sit with the former president all those years? Did he ever get Nixon to thank him? Did he ever feel he was gratified in any way by anybody personally saying you know, damn it, you saved that guy’s life for 20 years or so?
MITCHELL: You know, I think the gratification was that he felt the president was suffering, but most importantly, the country was suffering. And he was absolutely persuaded that he did the right thing. Perhaps he didn’t calibrate the effects to Stu Spencer, his campaign manager in 1975, was absolutely persuaded that that was the critical factor. They were, as you know, catching up on Jimmy Carter and regained 30 points and were closing fast at the end, but not enough because of the pardon, according to all of their polling.
MATTHEWS: Oh, I believe Stuart Spencer.
MITCHELL: I mean, I believe Stuart Spencer in certainly everything political, and everything else as well. A great guy and a great political mind.
MATTHEWS: So like Harry Truman—we have to finish up the segment.
Like Harry Truman, he’s a man who slept well after big decisions?
BROKAW: Yes. I mean, Brent Scowcroft and all the people around him, around Vietnam said he was just absolutely rock solid. He was not up in the middle of the night pacing back and forth. He was confident about what he was doing and where he was going. And at the time, a lot of people mocked that and thought that it was a manifestation of his limitations as president. Now we look back on it, we have a whole different view.
MATTHEWS: We’ve had so many presidents who’ve spent their midnight hours of course talking to Lincoln.
BROKAW: Or Lyndon Johnson, in the middle of the night, calling the Pentagon trying to get the casualty report.
MATTHEWS: Well, maybe we should wonder about how we pick our presidents, because here’s one who didn’t seek the office, but he was mentally prepared for it. More with Tom Brokaw and Andrea Mitchell after this break. We’ll be joined by “Newsweek” editor Jon Meacham. And later in the program tonight, former press secretary for President Ford, Ron Nessen, will be here to talk about his life inside the Ford White House and Bob Dole who ran for president with Gerald Ford in 1976. All going to be joining us on tonight’s special program, a tribute to Gerald Ford. You’re watching it on MSNBC.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GERALD FORD, DECEASED: Historians 50 years from now objectively write about the Ford administration. I hope they will say that President Ford healed the wounds of Watergate, ended the tragedy of the war in Vietnam, solved our economic problems that were serious, and restored public confidence in the White House itself.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
FORD: My fellow Americans. Our long, national nightmare is over. Our constitution works. Our great republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here, the people rule.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: That was an endearing moment in American history, just moments after Richard Nixon went to the helicopter and left the White House in disgrace, a good man took over as an appointed president.
We’re back with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell and Tom Brokaw. Also joining us is “Newsweek” editor Jon Meacham.
Let me start with you, Tom, and run through all three of you. There was an amazing transfiguration from being a Republican man, a man of the president, a supporter of Richard Nixon, a defender, if you will, right almost to the very end, to taking a sort of role of transition, where he came on just moments after Nixon, who had picked him, had left the scene. And yet he had to be a very different person politically from a Nixon man.
What did you make of that as a reporter, Tom?
BROKAW: Well, you have to remember, he came from a different Republican Party in those days. It was a more centered Republican Party, and some of his friends were Governor Scranton of Pennsylvania, the northeastern Republicans, who were much more moderate in their outlook, much more centered in their point of view.
And Gerald Ford was a manifestation of that in all of his years in Congress. So I think for him to move to the center and to have a sense of the moment was not at all unusual. He did have a little time to prepare for that moment.
It had been fairly clear during those summer months that Richard Nixon was not likely to survive. And the week before, of course, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously against him. We all knew that the clock was ticking now, much faster. Some of the president’s friends, President Ford’s friends, came to town to help him prepare.
I mentioned Governor Scranton because I saw him two days before the resignation on Pennsylvania Avenue, and when I spotted him, he just went like this to me. As if to say, don’t let anyone know I’m here, because it was pretty clear why he was there.
MATTHEWS: Andrea, what was his reaction to Nixon’s place in history. How did he connect or disconnect or both with Richard Nixon in the years after the White House?
MITCHELL: I think he was shocked by the disgraceful activities, but at the same time, the human side of Gerry Ford felt compassion and sympathy for the suffering of this man, whom he knew well, would campaign for him, and he for Nixon, and who had been in Congress with him for so many years.
He was so much a man of the House, and so loved that institution. And I think it was difficult for someone as decent and honest as Gerry Ford to understand what could have been going on in Nixon’s mind and certainly once the tapes came out, that was displayed for all of us to see and hear.
MATTHEWS: And the worst were yet to come. Let me ask Jon Meacham. You’re going to put a cover together this week, is it going to be Gerry Ford in his football uniform? The all-American. That would be my nomination. What are you going to do?
JON MEACHAM, NEWSWEEK: I appreciate your vote always, Chris.
MATTHEWS: That’s your cover right there.
MEACHAM: We are reporting away, as you might imagine. To me, the very interesting thing about President Ford, whom I saw three or four times in recent years was, he really seemed to take seriously what President Roosevelt once said when he called the presidency preeminently a place of moral leadership. And when you look at the drama of that month in August and September of 74, it was a genuine profile in courage. And I know for a fact, and Tom and Andrea probably do, too, that one of the things that meant the most to President Ford was receiving the Profile in Courage Award from the Kennedy family, the Kennedy Library, a few years ago.
I was talking to him right after President Reagan died, and he volunteered that one of the most important things that had happened to him had been to be recognized by the Kennedies for making a decision that hurt him personally and politically, but which ultimately was good for the country.
MATTHEWS: Well, that sealed the deal. Thank you very much, everyone
Tom Brokaw, Andrea Mitchell and John Mitchum—for joining us on this very important night.
Up next, press secretary for President Ford, Ron Nessen will be here to talk about his old boss.
And later, former Senator Bob Dole, who ran with Gerald Ford in that 1976 campaign.
You’re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GERALD R. FORD, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I, Gerald R.
Ford, do grant a full, free and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.
Ron Nessen worked for President Ford as his press secretary at the White House.
Ron, it’s so great to have you on tonight. I appreciate you coming over.
You know what nobody else knows. Reporters know these politicians at a distance. You know what it was like to walk into the Oval Office and chat with the president, get his marching orders.
What was he like?
RON NESSEN, FMR. WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, I think one of the most revealing things about President Ford and his attitude toward his staff and just his sort of down home, guy next door attitude was that the senior staff at the White House had what was called “peeking privileges”. And that means if you were one of the eight senior staff officers in the White House, you could go to the Oval Office, open the door a crack, peek in and if the president wasn’t on the phone or wasn’t talking to somebody in the office, you could go in and get your question asked or tell him something or ask him something. And I thought that was very revealing of his management style, but it also said a lot about him and the way he treated staff people, and that he didn’t consider himself to be an imperial president.
MATTHEWS: What was your batting average on getting warm receptions coming in?
How often was he not looking to answer a press question or deal with something unpleasant that you had to bring him?
NESSEN: Well, one of the most unpleasant things I had to bring him was an A.P. wire story saying that the House of Representatives had defeated a couple hundred million dollars in aid for Vietnamese refuges, people who had worked for America. And as the communists closed in and got ready to take over Vietnam, their lives were going to be endangered. And Congress—the House voted down the money to help them. And I never heard President Ford curse before. And he used a curse word that day.
And then he launched into a campaign of moral persuasion. And he went down to visit a refugee camp in Arkansas and one in Florida and campaigned in Congress. And he turned public opinion and congressional opinion around. And they did vote to help bring the refugees here.
MATTHEWS: Well, that’s a good move.
Was he as good a guy as he seemed?
How’s that for a loaded question?
NESSEN: No, I think he was the perfect person for the job after Nixon and after Johnson. He was the guy next door. I think you know that for the first ten days of his presidency, he continued to live in his little ranch house over in the suburbs of Alexandria, Virginia. And he was president of the United States and he lived right there in the neighborhood. And I always thought that was pretty symbolic.
I think in the early days, sometime he would get overbooked and he would have too many visitors and too little time to think and read. And he let people know in pretty firm tones that he wanted to—wanted to back off that schedule a little bit, give himself more time.
But other than that, he was very easy to get along with. And on Air Force One, he would come back and joke with the staff. In the White House, joke with the staff.
And, as you know, he took part in some of the Chevy Chase activities, showing that he had a good sense of humor.
MATTHEWS: Ron, you know what many people don’t know: what it’s like inside that room when the boss is there without the cameras on.
Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with Gerald Ford, our 38th president.
Up next, President Ford’s 1976 running mate, Bob Dole, with his first-hand account of what it was like to run for vice president alongside Gerald Ford.
Also, be sure to check out MSNBC.com for everything you need to know about the 2008 presidential election. That’s the one coming up. It’s already heating up.
Tomorrow, former V.P. candidate John Edwards is going to announce his candidacy for the presidency. And you can get the full low-down on johnedwards.msnbc.com, including my own take on Edwards and his campaign. I think he’s the guy to watch.
And as the rest of the field gets into the race, we’ll bring you more websites with more scoop and more analysis.
You’re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE H.W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We’re here to express our condolences at the death of Gerald Ford, to express our love for him and for his family, and one of the most decent, honorable men I’ve ever met in my life. We’re all familiar with his healing the wounds of the United States after Watergate, but he was typical Gerry Ford.
It never went to his head that he was president, and a truly remarkable man. And we send Betty and the kids and the rest of their family our family’s love and God bless the man. He was one of the very best.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL, and welcome, Senator Dole. Thank you. You ran for vice president with Gerald Ford. As a politician, I sense that he got the presidency the easy way, hard for the country. But somewhere in the White House, he got ambitious and he wanted to be elected.
BOB DOLE, GERALD FORD’S 1976 RUNNING MATE: He wanted to be elected.
MATTHEWS: What was that like?
DOLE: Well, it was tough.
MATTHEWS: Because he came to you to help him get elected.
DOLE: Well, yes, I think after the finally won the nomination, he had a very tough fight with Reagan, of course, Ronald Reagan. And I think about midnight in Kansas City when the smoke cleared, he said, we’ll we’ve got to had a running mate, and didn’t have much time to think about that. But I think I got a call about 6:00 in the morning.
But, you know, it was tough because the Nixon pardon, everywhere I’d go for rallies there’d be people were carrying signs, “pardon me,” “pardon me, Mr. President.” “Pardon me, Mr. President.”
And then the economy was in the tank and the Vietnam War, of course, had come to an end. But it was not the best political times for a Republican candidate. But President Ford, through his efforts, went from about a 30-point deficit to almost a dead heat.
MATTHEWS: Well, you gave him most of those 30 points because your job
I know you had to choose to accept it—was to rip open Jimmy Carter on what seemed to be at the time, I think fairly so, some inconsistencies in his appeal on farm issues, I remember. And I think you opened him like a can of tuna fish at one point.
DOLE: Well, we had sort of a strategy of—a Rose Garden strategy for Ford and a briar patch strategy for me. And I was the bad guy and he was the good cop. But yes, it was a pretty—you know, it was a good campaign.
And—but I think the thing that developed from it, you know, even after the defeat—I don’t know how long it took, but Carter and Ford became very close friends. They did a lot of great things together. That’s the kind of Gerald Ford was, who worked with Speaker McCormack, and then Tip O’Neill and Albert and all those old giants that served in the House.
MATTHEWS: What did you make of it when you were watching the debate between Ford and Carter, when President Ford, who was a smart guy—Yale law, et cetera, et cetera—said that the Soviets didn’t dominate Eastern Europe, which clearly they did.
DOLE: Yes, that was a big mistake.
MATTHEWS: What was he thinking? Was he just going by the people’s attitudes over there? Or what was he trying to say?
DOLE: He obviously knew better, because he’s a very smart guy. I mean, people—you know, he’s somebody who couldn’t walk and chew gum and all that stuff. He was in the top third of his class at Yale and, you know, a smart guy.
And he had a vast knowledge of Congress, and foreign policy because he was a Republican leader and he understood, as president, too. But he just slipped up. Of course, they put out a press release clarifying it, but the damage was done.
MATTHEWS: When you sat in the Oval Office with him and talked politics with him, but he a real pall? Did he really have a sense of—like you do—a sense of who’s up to what, what the contest is going to be about, how you have to turn it to win it?
You had to open up Carter, because he was Mr. Clean coming in. He had done nothing wrong because he had really done nothing. You guys had a record to defend. You had defend Watergate, Vietnam, et cetera.
DOLE: Plus rising unemployment and inflation was going—what did Carter—the misery index or whatever.
MATTHEWS: You had the gasoline lines too.
DOLE: Yes, we had gas lines. We had—everything was wrong. But President Ford, to his credit, did veto 51 spending bills. I think 39 of those were sustained.
MATTHEWS: You don’t see that anymore, do you?
DOLE: I think President Bush has vetoed one.
MATTHEWS: This president doesn’t do that.
DOLE: Yes, but anyway, most presidents don’t do it very often, but President Ford was trying to get a handle on spending which modern Republicans seem to have forgotten. But he was an old, traditional Republican. He didn’t weigh in as heavy on tax cuts but on the spending side, he was very strong.
MATTHEWS: Did you ever talk about the war days? I mean, you got beaten up pretty badly at Monte Cassino or one of those places in Italy...
DOLE: Yes, Italy.
MATTHEWS: ... trying to fight your way up the boot, which has got to be one of the worst bits of warfare the United States ever had to conduct. It wasn’t the easy way to Berlin.
MATTHEWS: What was it like? Ford was a South Pacific guy.
DOLE: Yes, he was a lieutenant commander—left as a lieutenant commander and served four or five years in the Navy. I don’t know whether he talked much. There were so many World War II veterans then, you know, there were about 350 in the House. Now there are probably eight, seven, six...
MATTHEWS: Of any war.
DOLE: You’ve got John Dingell and a few left but not many. Charlie Rangel—no, Charlie Rangel is Vietnam.
MATTHEWS: He’s Korea too.
DOLE: Korea, but no, we didn’t talk much about the war.
MATTHEWS: That’s interesting.
DOLE: Gerry Ford is the kind of guy you could walk on the House floor, and he was the leader, but you could sit next to him and talk about your family or where you were going to go that weekend and not talk about politics, and of course, he thought a lot of his family. His wife, Betty, was a partner in everything they did.
MATTHEWS: That was a pretty modern marriage, wasn’t it?
DOLE: Yes, modern. Yes.
MATTHEWS: She was pretty equal to him. It wasn’t a 1950s “Stepford Wives” thing.
DOLE: No, no. He was—they were together, they were a team. They were both proud of it and...
MATTHEWS: He did kind of a gutsy thing back there when he took on Charlie Halleck overthrew the Republican leadership. Were you in the House then?
DOLE: I was in the house. I was one of his leaders. In fact, three Kansas Republicans voted for Ford and he always thought we made a difference. And he remembered that. Maybe one reason in 1976 I was asked to be a running mate, but you know, it was a very close race. Charlie Halleck was a great speaker, but Gerald Ford was this young guy who had a lot of friends and...
MATTHEWS: Were you in the Chowder and Marching Society?
DOLE: I didn’t make the Chowder and Marching, but he made the Chowder and Marching which is a very fine group of, you know, good guys.
MATTHEWS: It’s kind of a booster isn’t it? What was that all about? What was that club about? Because ford was—he liked to wear those chef hats and stuff.
DOLE: I never made the grade, I don’t know. I couldn’t cook.
MATTHEWS: Well, you’re a great buy. I’m a big Bob Dole fan. Thank you very much.
DOLE: I’m a big Gerry Ford fan.
MATTHEWS: OK, thanks for coming on the show.
Up next, two members of the Ford White House, speechwriter Pat Butler and national security adviser Brent Scowcroft. And be sure to go online to hardblogger.MSNBC.com for my own thoughts on the passing of President Ford.
This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
FORD: And I must to you that the state of the union is not good. Millions of Americans are out of work. Recession and inflation are eroding the money of millions more. Prices are too high and sales are too slow.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.
We’re continuing to discuss the legacy of President Gerald Ford. And with me now are two people who worked very closely with him in the Ford White House, Patrick Butler, a pal of mine. He served as a speechwriter for President Ford.
I’ve got to talk to you about how that worked.
He’s now vice president of the Washington Post Company.
And General Brent Scowcroft was President Ford’s national security adviser.
Gentleman, you first, General. I was always impressed by the fact that other presidents talked about the loneliness of the Oval Office. You always have these austere pictures of the lonely president at nighttime, sweating out history. And I remember a set of chairs in front of the Ford desk, like people actually joined him, and helped him with his presidency.
What was that like, to sit in one of those chairs?
BRENT SCOWCROFT, FMR. FORD NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Well, it was (INAUDIBLE) because President Ford liked to make his decisions by listening to his advisers arguing back and forth. And you could just see the way he, “I like that a little bit.” “No, that’s not exactly right.”
And that’s the way he absorbed. Unlike his predecessor Nixon, who liked to take the papers up to his office in solitude...
SCOWCROFT: .. and make them.
MATTHEWS: So he was collegial. He was almost like a British cabinet member?
SCOWCROFT: Very much so.
MATTHEWS: Pat, your view?
I—well, I wrote speeches for another president, Carter. And we don’t like to brag about it, but it was a job. And it was very impressive. We loved that job.
What was it like writing speeches? Did he throw back drafts at you? Did he say, “I’m thinking about—make it really high toned, or make this practical.”?
Did he ever give you key advice about how to write something?
PATRICK BUTLER, FMR. FORD SPEECHWRITER: Well, he was pretty demanding about what he wanted. And in December of 1975, he reorganized his entire speechwriting staff because he wasn’t happy with the product that he was getting.
And so he thought words were important, and presidential words were especially important. And he wanted to choose them well. And at the same time, though, he wanted to be as plain spoken as he could be and to let everybody in this country and everyone around the world understand perfectly what he was trying to say.
So he was demanding. He sent back lots of notes on the drafts, “I don’t say things this way” and that sort of thing. So it was black with presidential edits, but...
MATTHEWS: Exclamation points?
BUTLER: Indeed. And he would underline lots of words on his reading copy to know exactly where to provide emphasis.
MATTHEWS: Well, who wrote, “I’m a Ford, not a Lincoln”?
BUTLER: I think that was either the president himself or Bob Hartman (ph).
MATTHEWS: And the other line was, “America’s long nightmare is over.” I mean, I can see his words in Bartlett’s book. Can’t you? I’m sure they’re already in there. For a man who wasn’t happy with his writing, he certainly had some quotable quotes.
BUTLER: Well, ultimately he did fine. As he got more comfortable being president, I think he got more comfortable communicating as president. And in 1976, certainly from the convention on, he was as good as anybody in the business as far as communicating was concerned.
But Hartman—Bob Hartman had to get down on his knees practically and threaten to resign before the president would say that the long national nightmare is over. He didn’t want to go that far.
MATTHEWS: It was wonderful.
MATTHEWS: It grabbed people like me, who were watching as journalists.
Let me ask you, General, it seemed like Gerald Ford took some other risks besides the pardon. He moved this country to try to mollify or end the Cold War with SALT II and really trying to bring about an arms control agreement, for which he was attacked by the Committee on the Present Danger crowd.
SCOWCROFT: Yes, yes, he was. But I think one of the most courageous moments is one that hasn’t really been written up. And it was at the end of the Vietnam War when it was clear that the end was in sight, somewhere around March or something.
And the entire Senate Foreign Relations Committee came down and met with him in the Cabinet Room and said, “It’s over. Pull the troops out. We don’t want to lose any more.”
And he decided he wasn’t going pull the troops out. He was going to leave them in there while we evacuated all the Vietnamese soldiers and officers who we thought were in peril. So he hung on for about a month, I think...
MATTHEWS: Did we get our friends out at all?
SCOWCROFT: We got a lot more out than we would have otherwise.
MATTHEWS: What do you think of that when you look back? Because my son came up to me the other day—he’s generally a liberal in a lot of things—he said, “Why did we dump Vietnam after we left?”
I mean, once we got out of there in force and got out of combat responsibilities, why didn’t we support our allies?
SCOWCROFT: The Congress cut off the appropriations.
SCOWCROFT: Why? Because it was an unpopular war.
MATTHEWS: But we weren’t in it anymore.
SCOWCROFT: Well, we were still funding it. We were still funding it.
MATTHEWS: So, what do you think that argument was about? That we were keeping a war going longer than it—its natural life and it was just going to have more people killed by the end it? That the South Vietnamese government was going to lose in the end?
SCOWCROFT: The Vietnam War was such a visceral experience for the American people, much more stark, I think, than the debate about Iraq now. It’s not as emotional as Vietnam. It was just—well, partly because of the draft, I think.
SCOWCROFT: People were really deeply affected and the Congress really precipitated the last debacle when they cut the funding and Thieu thought he had to withdraw his soldiers back to the populated enclave, where he couldn’t survive. And they couldn’t...
MATTHEWS: What was it like to be with President Ford when the American helicopters left the roof of the embassy in Saigon?
SCOWCROFT: It was a very sober moment. I mean, that was—in fact, we didn’t realize we had left the Marine Guard, left that last helicopter. We had to send one back in.
MATTHEWS: To get the boys?
SCOWCROFT: To get the guard out.
MATTHEWS: Pat, working with the president, what was he like? Was he the same on the inside as the outside? What was the difference?
BUTLER: He was absolutely the same person inside and outside. And he was as kind and accommodating as I’m sure everybody on your programs today have been saying...
MATTHEWS: Did he ever give you gold stars for good speechwriting?
BUTLER: Well, he would give you a pat on the back. I mean, he wasn’t always effusive, but you knew you had done a good job when you had done a good job. And he would give you more to do. That was his reward, was giving you more...
MATTHEWS: Was is all Robin Arben (ph)? Who did al the jokes for him?
Because he did have some good jokes at the dinners, the black-tie dinners.
BUTLER: Bob did a lot of the jokes. Don Penny (ph) did some of the jokes...
MATTHEWS: Don Penny was funny!
BUTLER: ... and Don was brought in by the president—this is interesting—the president’s in the White House and he knows he’s not as good a speaker as he ought to be. So he brings in Don Penny as a speech coach when he’s 61 years old and learns how to be a good public speaker for the first time. And he did it.
MATTHEWS: Hillary Clinton, are you watching? These politicians have got to know that they can always get better.
Anyway, Patrick Butler, good guy.
Thank you, General Scowcroft.
Up next, “New York Daily News” reporter Tom DeFrank, “Newsweek’s” Howard Fineman and presidential historian Michael Beschloss. You’re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL, and our continuing coverage of the life and legacy of President Gerald Ford, who died late last night at the age of 93. He was our longest-living president.
Joining us now are three journalists who have closely studied the man and the president. Tom DeFrank, the “New York Daily News,” has known Ford for 32 years, that’s a third of a century. Howard Fineman of “Newsweek” magazine and presidential historian Michael Beschloss. Good evening, gentlemen.
Let me start with Tom DeFrank. You had many conversations, Tom, with Gerald Ford in his post-presidential 30 years. What was his feelings about Richard Nixon?
TOM DEFRANK, NEW YORK DAILY NEWS: Well, he thought Richard Nixon was tormented. He thought that Dick Nixon—he liked Nixon, actually, if you remember Chris, they were both members of the Chowder and Marching Society. And he thought that Nixon was a decent soul, but that somehow his demons got the best of him. And I also suspect he thought that some of the demons around Richard Nixon were walking around in suits and worked for him in the White House staff. But I think Ford had real doubts about what he was hearing during Watergate. But he was a politician who always liked to give people the benefit of the doubt, and I think he tried as long as he could to give Richard Nixon that benefit of the doubt.
MATTHEWS: Did he think Nixon’s worst tendencies were enabled by people like Colson, Haldeman and Ehrlichman?
DEFRANK: No doubt about it, no doubt about it.
MATTHEWS: So they were all cleaned out by then. In fact, he even cleaned out John McLaughlin, I believe, at one point there, didn’t he?
DEFRANK: Exactly right. I think John McLaughlin was one of the first to go. But none of them hung around very long and it wasn’t their idea, it was Ford’s idea. He wanted a clean break with the past. He wanted to say to everybody, but especially the political mandarins of Washington that there was a new day. And he tried to do that himself and one of the ways he did that was start getting rid of all of them. He was a little gentler with Al Haig, who stayed on a little while until Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney came aboard. But basically the message was those old guys aren’t here anymore and things are going to be better.
MATTHEWS: Howard, what do you think is the legacy going to be of Alexander Haig, the main who was the negotiator? I know he won’t like that word in the selection of Gerald Ford by Richard Nixon. Nixon did have a hand at picking the guy. He may have been forced to pick a moderate Republican, but he agreed on Gerald Ford. Do you think there was any condition? Do we know if there was any condition?
HOWARD FINEMAN, NEWSWEEK: We don’t know that there was, no evidence has surfaced other than the fact that Haig brought up the topic with Gerald Ford.
MATTHEWS: Of a pardon?
FINEMAN: Of the pardon and Gerald Ford was very carefully noncommittal about it.
MATTHEWS: But he wasn’t dismissive?
FINEMAN: He didn’t say, “you have got to be kidding me.” But he didn’t say, “sure, what are the terms?”
MATTHEWS: So he put the salt on the table.
FINEMAN: He put it on the table and Ford did it on his own. I think history shows so far.
MATTHEWS: What do you make of that? In history, I think Ford will be known as the guy who pardoned Richard Nixon.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, NBC NEWS PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: He will, and I think Al Haig a role, I think maybe the more important role was a little bit later on because when Nixon was negotiating with Ford to get this pardon, Al Haig was still in the White House.
And I think if you’re going to criticize Ford for one aspect of that, it would be why didn’t he go to Nixon and say, “You want a pardon? You’re going to have to sign a confession of guilt so that generations from now, you can never argue that I was thrown out of office for no reason,” which is basically what Nixon argued for the last 20 years of his life.
Why didn’t that happen? It may well have happened because Al Haig tipped off Nixon and said, “you are going to get the pardon anyway, stand tough.”
DEFRANK: Well I was just going to say, Chris, I mean Ford was basically—let me back up. Nixon was making the same argument that Michael is talking about here when he resigned. He said basically that he only resigned because he lost political support. And so that gave President Nixon a little bit of an out, I agree with Michael on that.
MATTHEWS: But wasn’t there a legal judgment, a precedent at the time, Tom, to accept the pardon was to accept responsibility, accept guilt, actual guilt?
DEFRANK: I don’t know the answer to that. I’m not a lawyer and so I’m the wrong guy ...
MATTHEWS: ... Well let me ask Michael because I think you’ve got a point.
BESCHLOSS: That is sure what President Ford thought and until the end of his life, he actually carried around with him in his wallet a piece of paper saying exactly that. The problem is that the American people didn’t see it that way and Nixon didn’t.
MATTHEWS: OK, let me tell you who didn’t see it that way. I didn’t see it that way at the time. I thought the pardon was wrong because the American people wanted information about why a president had failed.
Richard Nixon never told the people, as Roger Mudd said that night on CBS, Richard Nixon never told the people that voted for him for all those many times, ‘52, ‘56, ‘60, ‘68 and ‘72, all those years of voting for Nixon and Nixon never told his people, the Nixon people out there why he was cashiered. He never said he had done anything wrong.
FINEMAN: Well I think that Gerry Ford, lawyer though he was, and a very successful student at Yale Law School by the way, and a good lawyer back in Michigan, still didn’t believe that the black and white of the law was the answer to this question. It was a matter of human decency and a matter of moving on. We now live in a much more litigious society and we see some of the consequences of it. It doesn’t mean more decency, it doesn’t mean more comedy. It means a lot of lawsuits.
MATTHEWS: I just want more truth. Yes, Tom, last thought?
DEFRANK: Quickly, Howard is right about that. If the Ford-Nixon pardon issue were in front of us today, I don’t think Ford would have been able to have pardoned Nixon, no way.
MATTHEWS: OK, I wish he hadn’t.
Anyway, thank you Tom DeFrank, Howard Fineman, Michael Beschloss. Tomorrow, former V.P. candidate John Edwards is going to announce for president and we’ll bring you the full story. By the way, he’s one of the people to watch. I think he’s in the top three of possible Democratic candidates for president in the year 2008. You can also get an inside scoop on the John Edwards campaign by going to JohnEdwards.MSNBC.COM, including my own take on Edwards and his campaign. Join us again tomorrow again at 5 and 7 Eastern for more HARDBALL.
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