KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST: He was the only American president never elected haven‘t nor vice president. The first president to serve under something the name he was given at birth. The only president to have served on a commission investigating the death of another president. The longest lived of all 43 of them. Perhaps in some, our most unexpected commander in chief.
And perhaps, despite all of the qualifiers, perhaps one of our most important presidents, the calm after the storm that was Richard Nixon and Watergate. The seasoned professional, matter-of-factly smoothly healing a nation‘s wounds, honored in fact, for having done just that in the inaugural address of the man who would succeed him and fondly remembered for his good humor about himself.
The all-conference football star who met his match on airport stairways, the dedicated golfer whose shots seemed to find as many spectators as greens.
Gerald Rudolph Ford Junior, born Leslie Lynch King Jr. Vice president, because another had resigned, president, because another had resigned. The man asked to quiet a nation‘s storm.
This is COUNTDOWN‘s special coverage of the death of the 38th president of the United States, Gerald R. Ford.
OLBERMANN: Good evening.
On a football team, the center is seldom the star, seldom even known well beyond the side lines and the huddles and the scrimmages. And yet, without him, nothing happens. The ball is never snapped; the higher profile players can‘t even really move.
It should come as no surprise then, that when the 38th president of the United States, Gerald R. Ford, played on the undefeated football teams at the University of Michigan in 1932 and 1933, he was the star center.
Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, the death and life of President Ford, a man whose time on this earth spanned from before World War I through the war in Iraq, Mr. Ford dying last night at his home in California at the age of 93. No cause yet given for his death, but he had been in and out of the hospital all year since a bout of pneumonia last January.
The announcement coming late last night from his beloved wife, Betty. She said in a statement—quoting—“His life was filled with love of God, his family and his country.”
Mourners signing a book of condolence at Mr. Ford‘s presidential library and museum in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, today. The rest of the nation to pay tribute in the days to come, including outside the House and Senate doors, where President Ford will lie in state and at the World War II memorial in Washington, the state funeral Saturday, funeral services in Washington next Tuesday.
On this day, the flag over the White House, flying at half staff all day.
At the western White House in Crawford, Texas, the current president calling Mr. Ford a blessing to America, recalling the unusual circumstances that brought the 38th president to office.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: On August 9, 1974, he stepped into the presidency without ever having sought the office. He assumed power in a period of great division and turmoil. For a nation that needed healing and for an office that need a calm and steady hand, Gerald Ford came along when we need him most.
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.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: That rectitude, perhaps, defined by the fact that Mr. Ford‘s top ambition in politics was to become speaker of the House of Representatives. The Michigan congressman instead finding himself, instead, leader of the free world, the first appointed vice president in history, the first and thus far the only in our history to succeed a resigned president.
In October, 1973, Mr. Ford nominated to become vice president after Vice President Agnew resigned during a tax evasion and bribery scandal. And just 10 months later, Mr. Ford ascending to the Oval Office after Richard Nixon finally ended the scandal of perilous Watergate by resigning.
Mr. Ford entered the White House with approval ratings in the 70‘s, largely because he simply was not Richard Nixon. But then, a month to the day that Nixon announced he would resign, Ford pardoned his predecessor, a move that would prove to be extremely unpopular.
On the day he had taken office, the new president showing signs that he would be putting national healing above retribution.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GERALD R. FORD, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works. Our great republic is a government of laws and not of man. Here, the people rule.
But there is a higher power. By whatever name we honor him who ordains not only righteousness, but love, not only justice, but mercy. As we bind up the eternal wounds of Watergate, more painful and more poisonous than those of foreign wars, let us restore the golden rule to our political process and let brotherly love purge our hearts of suspicion and of hate.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: Our privilege now to call upon our chief foreign affairs correspondent, Andrea Mitchell, also former White House correspondent for NBC News and most importantly in this content—context, somebody who was very close to late President Ford.
Andrea, thank you for your time tonight.
ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Thank you.
OLBERMANN: Balance these two headlines from the presidency of Gerald Ford, that sense that he calmed the waters after Watergate; yet the fact was, 31 days into his presidency, he pardoned Richard Nixon, and that was so unpopular that even his own press secretary resigned in protest. Were these contradictions? Or did he see them as components of each other?
MITCHELL: He saw that as a component, the pardon, of calming the waters, of bringing the country together. And there was a fury I don‘t think he quite anticipated. Tom Brokaw was there at the time. I was not covering the White House back then. I was covering politics and watching from a distance.
But Tom said that the fury that attached to this was really extraordinary and, as you just pointed out, Jerald terHorst, resigned, the press secretary. So he believed it was the right thing. He still thought to the end of his days that it was the right thing and I think was vindicated by the awarding of the Profiles in Courage Award from Ted Kennedy, who was a disbeliever and became—he was won over to that, as was Caroline Kennedy.
And Gerry Ford really treasured that honor, to have been given the Profile in Courage Award for the very act that really did, according to all political analysts at the time, particularly Sue Spencer, Gerry Ford‘s campaign manager, caused his defeat in a very close race. It was 48-50.1, and a couple of thousand votes in two states would have switched from Jimmy Carter to Gerry Ford.
OLBERMANN: If he did not fully see the pardon as potentially being an act of self sacrifice in 1974, did he come to think of it as a bargain he had made with his—with his own standards, something he had to do and realizing the consequences of it thereafter? Did he—did he believe that it had cost him his an election to the presidency?
MITCHELL: I think so. I think he felt that it was going to be self sacrifice. I‘m not sure to the extent that he realized the furor.
And again, I wasn‘t there then. But certainly, in conversations in later years, he really believed it was the right thing to do, and I think most people have come around to that point of view, that in fact, Bob Woodward and others who were among the most famous and aggressive of the Watergate inquisitors and investigators, really felt that there was no cover up, there was no deal. That Gerry Ford, as always, just spoke the truth when he testified to the House committee and said that there was no bargain. He just thought it was the right thing to do.
And in later years, he said that he was persuaded that Richard Nixon were to stand trial and he would be convicted based on the evidence, that Ford was very well aware of and that then the country would have been completely torn further apart by three or four years of appeals.
This, a former president of the United States convicted and fighting his conviction just was something that could not be tolerated.
OLBERMANN: And perhaps something you mentioned in there was as key as anything else, the fact that as a sitting president, he testified to Congress to answer the questions about that very act.
MITCHELL: Which was presidential.
OLBERMANN: Yes. The other key issue probably being discussed today, Mr. Ford and Vietnam. The end of the conflict, the actual conflict. But so seldom mentioned at the same time as the Nixon pardon came President Ford‘s clemency program for those who had avoided service in Vietnam.
It was flawed; it was incomplete. But it was the first outreach to people who had been branded by perhaps half the country, maybe more, deserters. Draft dodgers was the term of the day.
Did he see Vietnam and those who would not serve in the same way that he saw Watergate and a Nixon trial: we need to get this behind us no matter what it costs?
MITCHELL: Yes, and I think in 2004, his last visit to Washington and everyone in that audience privileged to be there in Statuary Hall knew it was his last visit, that he was so frail and he wasn‘t going to be able to travel extensively any longer. And this was on August 9, 2004, the 30th anniversary of taking office. And he said that he came into office 30 years earlier to heal the wounds and heal the nation‘s heart.
And that‘s also what he was trying to do this. I don‘t know this, but I do believe that was the broader sense of bringing people together. That was very much the man.
He could always step outside of himself. As partisan as he could be, and there were moments, he also could reach beyond that and emphasize and understand the other person‘s feelings and beliefs.
He really had an extraordinary sense of not dividing people and of trying to get beyond his own world.
OLBERMANN: Was that ever more greatly challenged than something else that has not gotten a lot of attention in the last two days, and understandably so, but the end of the ultra violent era in our politics, that he survived, not one, but two assassination attempts in a span of three weeks?
How did he feel about that, as time went by, as his life lasted as long as it did?
MITCHELL: Well, a couple of times, talking to him about that, just in a family context, and it was pretty scary stuff.
I mean, that motorcade speed off after Squeaky Fromme, the first of the two incidents. Both were in California. And of course, Betty Ford was quickly encircled by the Secret Service. No one knew whether this was a freak incident or part of a larger plot.
It was a very scary business and something that tends to be overlooked in later years by those of us who weren‘t there at the time. But obviously, it was a profoundly affecting moment for them and it did carry on. It was part of their DNA afterwards.
OLBERMANN: And yet his—I remember after the second one, his comment was that this was—the American people were good people and kind people and that this was not something that would change his interactions with them, that he was not going to become a prisoner of the White House or be anything of that sort.
MITCHELL: Exactly. We‘ve seen other kinds of reactions, of course, some more serious assassination attempts. But he really believed in the goodness of people, partly a religious belief and probably what made him a good politician, a good congressman, a good representative of that district in Grand Rapids. And I think that‘s why he was so late to fully understand the depth of depravity, frankly, and criminality in the Nixon White House.
OLBERMANN: Lastly, the analogy that I made at the start of the news cast, that how we view Mr. Ford as president is analogous to the position he played in football. He was the center: no glamour, no glory, a lot of hard work and yet of central importance. Will that be said of his legacy? Did he—would he have said that of his own legacy?
MITCHELL: I think so. I think he, as modest as he is, would be proud of that. And he liked and was proud of the fact that he was a good athlete. I remember in his later years, he would swim laps. He remained a good athlete. He played golf. He skied when he was younger.
And you know, he reminded people that he had offers from the Detroit Lions and also the Green Bay Packers, but chose to go to law school and to accept a job—a coaching job at Yale because he felt that that would be a better profession and a better use of his talents.
But he really did—he was an all-American, as you know, and Chevy Chase notwithstanding, he was not the klutz that the members of the press and the comedians portrayed him to be. He was a very graceful man.
OLBERMANN: Got up after every one of those falls. That‘s for sure.
Andrea Mitchell, our chief foreign affairs correspondent and great friend of the late President Ford, our special thanks for joining us tonight.
MITCHELL: You bet. My pleasure.
OLBERMANN: Also here tonight, the current president giving at least the impression that he‘s still deciding what to do to change course in Iraq, calling all his men and his women to the ranch for a daylong discussion on the issue of what to do now.
And again, the top story. He was only president for two years, yet Gerald Ford, having already been a member of the commission that investigated the assassination of President Kennedy, himself survived two attempts on his own life. The details on the escapes that we just discussed with Andrea Mitchell, ahead.
You‘re watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.
OLBERMANN: Among the many extraordinary aspects of the life of Gerald R. Ford, he was the only president to survive two assassination attempts, and both of them by women. The longest lived of our former presidents, but 31 years ago, he was nearly shot twice in a span of just 18 days. That‘s next. This is COUNTDOWN.
OLBERMANN: We mentioned that, as a sitting congressman from Michigan, the late Gerald Ford was a member of the Warren Commission, part of the official investigation, or as a large percentage of the country still suspects, the official cover up of the assassination of President Kennedy.
Ford‘s membership was anything but honorary. Ninety-four witnesses were interviewed in person by the commission. He was part of 70 of those interviews. And he was the last living member of the commission, although Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania was one of the commission‘s staff lawyers.
Our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, in another of the ironies that dotted his long life, Warren Commission member Gerald Ford not only became president himself, but he also survived not one but two close range assassination attempts.
Our correspondent is Jane Pauley.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good evening.
In California today, President Ford looked down the barrel of a loaded automatic held by a red-haired woman in a long red dress, but the gun didn‘t go off and he‘s all right. The woman was wrestled to the ground by a Secret Service man. The president was hustled away.
TOM BROKAW, FORMER NBC NEWS ANCHOR: Accompanied by aides and Secret Service agents, the president reached for every hand in sight. Suddenly, a young woman holding a gun appeared at the president‘s side.
A Secret Service agent grabbed the gun and wrestled the young woman to the ground as other agents formed a tight, protective shield around the president and moved him swiftly to the Capital.
Mr. Ford had seen the gun. He had a dazed, bewildered look as he was rushed along.
FORD: I saw a hand coming up behind several others in the front row. And obviously, there was a gun in that hand.
JANE PAULEY, NBC NEWS: The hand with the gun belonged to Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a follower of Charles Manson. Less than three weeks later, again in California, another woman with a gun. The name this time, Sara Jane Moore.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president was not hit. The suspect, a woman, is now in custody.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And George, we had an eyewitness. Cameraman Chuck Hastings shot the footage you‘re about to see right now. The president just coming out. Chuck Hastings was across the street. And suddenly, there was a shot. This is about 10 feet from the suspect.
This was right across the street now from the St. Francis—the woman was across the street in the crowd. We are told that quite a few people lunged at the woman. Apparently, they saw her weapon before she fired it. We are also told that a policeman‘s hand came down on the weapon and immediately thereafter, it fired into a sidewalk.
BOB COSTAS, NEWS CORRESPONDENT: You yourself were the subject, or the object, of two assassination attempts, Squeaky Fromme and then later Sarah Jane Moore, each within the span of several months.
What do you remember of that? How frightening is it? Or is it, as you sometimes hear people say, it happened so fast, you didn‘t have time to be frightened.
FORD: Well, in the case of both, it happened so quickly. It‘s over; nothing you can do about it. Thank goodness you survived.
In the case of Squeaky Fromme, it was on the grounds of the state Capital in California. She was following me as I walked from the hotel to meet the then governor, Jerry Brown.
She stuck a pistol under several people in front of me and, fortunately, one of the—my agents, Larry Boondorf (ph), grabbed her before she pulled the trigger. The gun was three, four feet from me at the time. And that happened so quickly, there was no time to think about it.
And three weeks or four weeks later in San Francisco, I came out of the St. Francis Hotel after giving a speech and walked towards the limousine, and the shot was fired by Sara Jane Moore, who stood across the street.
Fortunately, a Marine or an ex-Marine saw her with a pistol in her hand and bumped her hand. And as a consequence, the shot missed me. But there‘s still a mark on the hotel out there.
OLBERMANN: Jane Pauley from her original report for the “Time and Again” series.
President Ford‘s influence, stretching beyond his presidency to the current administration. Both his chief of staffs instrumental in forging U.S. policy in Iraq.
And the rest of the night‘s news, looking to the next potential president. Last time, he picked Jon Stewart‘s show as the venue at which to announce his candidacy. This time, evidently, John Edwards has chosen cyberspace. That‘s next. This is COUNTDOWN.
OLBERMANN: This is COUNTDOWN special coverage of the death of the 38th president of the United States, Gerald R. Ford.
The memorial schedule has now been confirmed. He will lie in repose at a church in Palm Desert, California, on Friday and Saturday. On Saturday morning, the late president will be taken east. A motorcade through Alexandria, Virginia, late Saturday afternoon, which will pause at the World War II memorial.
He will then lie in briefly outside the doors to the House of Representatives and be moved to the Capitol Rotunda, where Mr. Ford will lie in state until Tuesday morning. The funeral service there is scheduled for approximately 10:30 that day at the Washington Cathedral, Tuesday, January 2, 2007.
The final trip to Michigan shortly thereafter, and again, lying in repose there until Wednesday afternoon, with internment on the grounds of the Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids on Wednesday afternoon.
Mr. Ford‘s life ended last night. His presidency 30 years ago next month. Yet his legacy is still with us. Certainly, his second defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, his chief of staff, Dick Cheney, his director of central intelligence, George H.W. Bush, who also figures into the great “what if” of the Ford administration.
How would history played out if President Ford had not pardoned Richard Nixon? Would he and not Jimmy Carter have been elected in 1976? Would there have been a Ronald Reagan presidency? And what of the 1980 negotiations that would have made former President Ford Mr. Reagan‘s vice presidential running mate?
Also tonight, is the surge in Iraq already under way as 3,500 fresh troops are called back from holiday leave to rotate to Kuwait? The current president will host his national security team, part of a seemingly endless rethinking of Iraq. That‘s next. This is COUNTDOWN.
OLBERMANN: President Gerald Ford‘s relationship with the Supreme Court of the United States was also ultimately ironic. In 1974, he appointed as an assistant attorney general in the office of legal counsel a young attorney named Antonin Scalia. When he was still a congressman in the Republican minority, Gerald Ford staunchly supported President Nixon‘s attempt to impeachment a liberal justice at the Supreme Court, of William Douglas.
Later, as president himself, Mr. Ford would appoint to the nation‘s highest court John Paul Stevens, who is still on that bench after 31 years, and who is, more than ever, regarded as its most reliable liberal justice.
In our third story in the COUNTDOWN, such are the twists of a presidential legacy. But as a matter of history and consequence, there is nothing to rival President Ford‘s pardon of Richard M. Nixon. The passage of time may have increased the perceived wisdom of the decision, but had he not granted the pardon, President Ford would likely have won re-election, and the chain reaction from then on might have included a starkly different lineup of presidents. More on that at the end of this news hour.
Then there is the matter of the two people who are now universally acknowledged to be the chief architects of the war of Iraq, men whose careers were furthered, shaped by, perhaps created by the Ford presidency, Vice President Dick Cheney and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. When Brian Williams interviewed President Ford for his 90th birthday, with the Iraq war only a few months old, the former president supported the Bush administration about Iraq, but he was concerned even then that the nation‘s armed forces were spread too thin.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS ANCHOR (voice-over): The 1972 Republican National Convention, House minority leader Gerald R. Ford introduces dignitaries in the audience.
FORD: Donald Rumsfeld, Ambassador George Bush.
WILLIAMS: Just two years later, under extraordinary circumstances, Ford would become president with Bush, Rumsfeld and a young Rumsfeld deputy named Dick Cheney among his top aides. Also in the audience, a 26-year-old, gum chewing George W. Bush. Almost 32 years later he too would become president and he too would tap Cheney and Rumsfeld.
FORD: I‘m very pleased, because it is a good reflection on my choice of top-notch people when I was in the White House.
WILLIAMS (on camera): Talk about Cheney as a character. He‘s not a clubby type of politician. What is he?
FORD: He‘s a very able first class, decent person. He doesn‘t project himself in the forefront for his own aggrandizement.
WILLIAMS: Don Rumsfeld was not known of someone who suffered fools gladly back when you knew him. Is that OK?
FORD: Well, I wouldn‘t put it quite that way. Don is a person that has great confidence. And he is very appealing as a person that can do a job that he‘s assigned to do. He did it for me when I was in the White House. I think under very difficult circumstances now, Don‘s doing a fine job, and I‘m proud of him.
WILLIAMS: Throw modesty aside, what do all of these men say about you?
FORD: You better ask them.
WILLIAMS (voice-over): And so we did.
(on camera): Mr. Vice president, how are you? What does where you are today, the position you hold, say about your former boss, Gerald Ford?
DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, he trained a lot of us. If you look around government today, you‘ll find people in key positions who once worked for Gerry Ford. He gave me tremendous opportunities, in terms of what he let me do at a very early age, and then, of course, eventually made me chief of staff.
WILLIAMS (voice-over): And he made Donald Rumsfeld secretary of defense.
DONALD RUMSFELD, FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: And to have been able to have worked with Gerald Ford and now with George W. Bush, each of them has a naturalness about themselves. They‘re comfortable in their skin, as they say. And that makes it very easy to work with them.
WILLIAMS: The Bush administration‘s war in Iraq has Gerald Ford‘s total support, but that comes with a warning.
FORD: I wish we could share some of these responsibilities. It worries me that we are getting so deeply involved in many areas of the world, we are spreading too thinly.
WILLIAMS (on camera): Does that criticism matter to you either way?
CHENEY: I don‘t see it as criticism. I see it as a man who has been there, who has wrestled with these problems in his own day. He‘s somebody that has views and opinions that are very valuable and it would be foolish not to listen to them.
WILLIAMS (voice-over): For Gerald Ford, the respect is mutual.
FORD: I would rather have people smarter than me, better educated than I was. I was never one to say I had to be the best. If you get good people, even better than you are, I think that‘s a sign of good management.
OLBERMANN: Joining me now former speech writer and senior advisor to President Nixon, communications director for President Reagan, MSNBC political analyst Pat Buchanan. Thanks for you time tonight Pat.
PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Thank you Keith.
OLBERMANN: President Ford spoke there about Vice President Cheney and the Former Secretary of Defense, Mr. Rumsfeld, with evident pride, but do you think—did they forget any lessons that they might have learned at his political knee about the pragmatism and the flexibility and especially the bipartisanship in a time of crisis that you showed?
BUCHANAN: You‘ve got to divide them up. Donald Rumsfeld has always been a very contentious, tough, aggressive individual, an A-type personality, if you will. He has been in bureaucratic battles wherever he‘s been in government, and he is very ambitious and very tough, and he‘s an extremely effective executive and bureaucrat.
Dick Cheney today is a different man than the Dick Cheney who I knew in the Congress of the United States. I didn‘t know him well when he became chief of staff. I served under President Ford for about three months. Mr. Rumsfeld gave me my walking papers in very quick and no uncertain terms. But what has happened to both these gentlemen, was—it‘s the 1990‘s, the rise of neo-conservatism, and if you will, 9/11. That really altered, in my judgment, Dick Cheney in a very dramatic way. And he and Rumsfeld and President Bush launched an invasion that I thought Gerald Ford would not have done.
I don‘t believe President Bush the first would have done it. I don‘t believe Nixon would have done it. And I don‘t believe Ronald Reagan would have done it. But I think it‘s the changed times as much as anything, although Dick Cheney does seem to be a different man than the moderate, centrist, conservative, someone who really brought all elements together in the Reagan years, when he was number two up in the House.
OLBERMANN: For those who were not aware of it then, or who were not alive for it, we can‘t recreate the mood of 1973 and 1974, confusion, fear, paranoia, Vietnam, Watergate, Cold War and the great honors being given to Mr. Ford have been about his soothing of those great crisis. But Chris Matthews said something last night when we were on the air after the news of the president‘s passing that stuck with me and I wanted to ask you about it, to a part of the Republican party, did Gerald Ford serve as an example of how not to handle the presidency from the political point of view? Can you, in some way, trace back the single mindedness of the current administration to the open-mindedness of Mr. Ford?
BUCHANAN: You know, that is a very good point. Gerald Ford came in and said, you know, I don‘t want a honeymoon with Congress, I want a good marriage, good long marriage. He tried to get along with the Congress of the United States. He tried to get along with this city. I don‘t think Gerald Ford realized what he was getting into. The savagery of the attacks on him after the pardon were unprecedented. He dropped 40 points in almost a fort night. He had to veto 60 bills. The Pike Committee and Church Committee went after the CIA. He went to Capital Hill to ask for funds for the guys fighting and dying in the last days of Vietnam, and two congressmen walked out of him, and cut him off. Keith, this was a fierce, bloody situation, and some of us did feel, and I‘m one of them, that Gerald Ford was a good man for the time he was in, to move out of the Watergate, to handle the pardon, but he was not the man for the future.
And I‘ll tell you a little story, he invited me in, with a number of other columnists, I think it was January 1, 1976, and said John Paul Stevens, who just got 97 or 96 votes, is the kind of justice I will name to the Supreme Court if I‘m re-elected. And I went out and said to myself, Ford‘s a good man, but I‘m going with Ronald Reagan. We didn‘t get into politics to accommodate the other side, the establishment, the liberals. We came in to beat them. And that‘s why we all moved toward Reagan and I think Ford inherited detente when it appeared to be failing, post-Vietnam, and the country was moving toward a Reaganite foreign policy.
OLBERMANN: The issue of the pardon, obviously, as Andrea Mitchell mentioned at the top of the broadcast, he was very proud of the fact that he got the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award in 2001 for pardoning Mr. Nixon, and many people have come around 180 degrees on it. Is the verdict yet in on whether that was the right thing, or would the country have healed in just a different way if there had been a trial?
BUCHANAN: Oh, I think it would have been horrible, and that award came 27 years late. But look, to have the president of the United States hauled back to Washington, indicted, a trial, and all this going on in Washington, D.C., at the same time Vietnam was collapsing—Ford, what made Ford a successful president, and I think a near great one in some things he did, he came in and without anesthesia, he lanced this Boyle. He said we‘re going to put an end to it. All those who wanted to lynch Nixon, you‘re not going to be happy. The people who wanted him to stay, they‘re not happy. We are moving that behind us and we‘re moving this country on, and we went into bicentennial in 1976, where there was a measure of unity, more unity than we had known since before November 22, 1963.
OLBERMANN: Fair assessment, I think, indeed. The former advisor to Richard Nixon, former presidential candidate, political analyst Pat Buchanan. Always a pleasure sir, thanks for your time.
BUCHANAN: Thank you Keith.
OLBERMANN: It‘s not just staff that President Ford contributed to President George W. Bush, but perhaps his very presidency itself, connecting a very unusual set of dots ahead. And speaking of the current president, his vacation in Texas is now evidently a working one, as he still tries to figure out what to do next in Iraq. The progress report, the political report, next, here on COUNTDOWN.
OLBERMANN: On the last day in the life of the U.S. who pulled the last U.S. troops out of Vietnam, the current commander in chief, through his new Secretary of Defense, ordered 3,300 members of the 82nd Airborne to cut short their vacations and head to Kuwait, to replace an on-call force that was pulled into Iraq last month.
In our number two story on the COUNTDOWN, President Bush is not cutting short his vacation in Crawford, Texas, but tomorrow he will get work in, meeting with the National Security Council, Secretary Gates and Rice, among others, to review the options he is considering for how to shift gears in Iraq. The White House today adding fuel to speculation that Mr. Bush has already decided, decided to send a so-called surge of tens of thousands more troops to Iraq. Spokesman Scott Stanzel, asked about Senator Joe Biden‘s opposition to surge, saying today, “We would hope that he, too, would also wait to hear what the president has to say before announcing his opposition.”
Of course, it wouldn‘t actually be opposition unless that‘s exactly what the president is going to say. In fact, five hours later, NBC News learned that Joint Chiefs Chairman Peter Pace is expected tomorrow to recommend at least a modest increase. Senator Biden just one of several Democrats who has effectively announced a presidential campaign. John Edwards scheduled to formally announce his tomorrow in the 9th Ward of New Orleans. He wound up announcing it online today, briefly, complete with logo and slogan, Tomorrow Begins Today, which apparently happened.
Joining us now to help sort out what these developments mean for the future of Iraq and the U.S., of course, Richard Wolfe, political analyst for us, chief White House correspondent for “Newsweek Magazine.” As always, Richard, great thanks for your time.
RICHARD WOLFFE, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Thanks Keith.
OLBERMANN: Let‘s start with tomorrow, possibly a big day, an Edwards‘s announcement, the president‘s N.S.C. meeting. The latter first, obviously, is Mr. Bush‘s lengthy process creating a proverbial lose-lose for him, because either he offers a plan that everybody finds unimpressive, or if he‘s got one that is really good, people will say why didn‘t you come up with this three years ago?
WOLFFE: Yes, you know, that‘s a great question, because it really encapsulates the kind of quandary that Bush is in right now, having made the strategic decision to essentially stay the course, but try and do it better. He has got to now explain why it will be better, why he can succeed with this policy now, when it hasn‘t before, when most of the team is still there. Now, I‘m sure there will be changes. There are military changes, Abizaid and Casey probably gone, Abizaid certainly. But Rumsfeld has moved on. So, they can say there is a different kind of leadership there, but the politics of this is very awkward for them, because expectations are that this is going to be something big. So it has to look big, as well as sound convincing.
OLBERMANN: Is bigness enough if your numbers suggest that 12 percent of the American people want more troops there, and 68 percent clearly do not, and yet, everything seems to indicate that there will be more?
WOLFFE: Bigness isn‘t enough on it‘s own. People have to have a reason to think that it‘s going to work this time, and that means showing progress in a way that all of the other suggestions that were progress obviously haven‘t panned out. So bigness, in and of itself, isn‘t enough. But, you know, this is really projecting out beyond this president‘s term. So, you know, it‘s bigness not just in what happens now, but the scale of what I expect the president to be talking about, not just the stakes of failure, but how long a commitment this has to be.
OLBERMANN: The vice president, secretary of state, General Pace, the security adviser Steven Hadley, they are all in the meeting tomorrow, all of them to some degree architects of the problem they are ostensibly there to fix. Is any one of them likely to tell the president he‘s wrong to rule out some of the options that have been suggested? Are they likely to tell themselves that, if they were the architects of most of the problems?
WOLFFE: Well, I‘m told that this has been a very broad ranging session of briefings, that they‘ve asked all the questions. They brought in outside advisors. But you‘re right, there is going to be a certain credibility question, both for the president and for the folks around him. You know, the question I have is not about denial about the state of things in Iraq. Because I‘ve got to tell you, people know how messed up things are in Iraq, how badly things have gone, and they know where the mistakes have been. The question is, A, do they have the knowledge that they can correct it, and B, do they understand the politics of America right now, having campaigned so harshly on the war, do they understand what the appetite of the American people is, and how it‘s going to affect the debate in 2008. Are the next round of candidates going to want to take this up in the same way?
OLBERMANN: And from the other side of the political aisle, as of today, it‘s at least 2,978 U.S. military personnel who have been killed in Iraq. The death toll in Iraq, in Mr. Bush‘s war, for U.S. service personnel is now greater than the death toll of civilians here on September 11th. Are any of the Democratic candidates, maybe Mr. Kucinich, Mr. Edwards announcing tomorrow, is anybody likely to make that number a question, not of apples and oranges, but of apples and apples, and saying Mr. Bush has caused more American deaths than Osama bin Laden did, or is too raw a number to throw and too raw an issue to throw out into politics?
WOLFFE: I don‘t think it is actually, no. I expect this to be branded as Bush‘s War, as a Republican war, by not just Dennis Kucinich, who is still going to be the fringy candidate we saw in 2004, but I would expect John Edwards to be out there, being pretty strident on this, Barack Obama too. Both of these candidate, at least Barack Obama had the good luck not to have to have voted on the war in the first place. John Edwards has repudiated his vote. I expect them both to make those comparisons. Remember the force of 9/11 is not what it used to be.
OLBERMANN: A significant left turn here, something that happened today that seemed extraordinary to a lot of people, the Bush Department of the Interior saying—it‘s proposing classifying polar bears as threatened species because global warming—global warming is their exact use of the phrase there—global warming is melting the ocean ice that the bears use for fishing. Give us the implications here if this proposal makes it through. Is the legal defense of polar bears suddenly the key to recognizing and fighting global warming by the Bush administration?
WOLFFE: Well, you know, I hate to sort of toot a horn here, but we have been talking about this for several weeks on this show. I actually do think that the Bush administration is edging closer and closer to what is a fairly mainstream position on the environment, on global warming. They accept global warming is happening. The president has embraced alternative fuels. I think you are going to see much more of this over the next couple of years, not this, sort of, back door approach of legal challenges, but a much more open door approach to some of these very real things we are seeing in the Arctic Circle.
OLBERMANN: Is this a warning to the people in Mr. Bush‘s constituency that there is a climate shift coming in the approach to global warming?
WOLFFE: I think you are seeing that across the board, Newt Gingrich, John McCain, internationally. The British conservative party embracing the whole environmental agenda. Things have changed. And I think you‘re seeing that—I hate to say this about someone who has a bad reputation with the environmental movement, but even inside the Bush administration. Still reluctant and never it‘s going to be as full throated as it is with Al Gore, but things have changed.
OLBERMANN: Amen! Our own Richard Wolffe, chief White House correspondent for “Newsweek Magazine,” as always, sir, our great thanks for joining us tonight.
WOLFFE: Any time.
OLBERMANN: And also here this evening, it‘s one of those obscure twists on which history turns. What if this had been the Republican ticket in 1976, Ford for president, Reagan for vice president? What if it had been the other way around in 1980? It nearly was. How that almost happened, Reagan for president, President Ford for vice president, next on COUNTDOWN.
OLBERMANN: Gerald Ford‘s presidency was in some respects most interesting for the what-ifs and the what might have beens. Most obviously, what if he had not pardoned Richard Nixon? Maybe a trial, rather than exile, in the long term, would have better healed the scars of Watergate, who knows?
And maybe Mr. Ford‘s impressive approval ratings as president, once above 70 percent, would not have plummeted to the point where a little-known southern governor could defeat him in the 1976 election. And in our number one story tonight, there is yet another little-known what if in President Ford‘s history. If he had followed this path, it would have returned him to the White House, and almost inevitably, it would have changed who is in the White House today.
OLBERMANN (voice-over): History often pivots on the head of a pin. The textbooks say Ronald Reagan won all four of his elections, and all in landslides. The textbooks ignore his brief joust for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968, and, more importantly, his hammer and tongues battle with incumbent President Gerald Ford in 1976. Not only did Ford stave Reagan off, but he also did not, as many hoped, select or convince Reagan to run with him as vice president. And then Ford, with Bob Dole on his ticket, lost the White House to Jimmy Carter, the first pivot on the head of a pin.
Reagan doesn‘t get the nomination, is not tarred alongside Ford by defeat at the polls, doesn‘t get stuck as his vice president during the lean years of the late 1970‘s. But the tiniest head of the pin would come four years later. Reagan rolls to the Republican nomination, but Ford is still a very forceful figure in the party. How forceful? July 16, 1980 --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good evening from Detroit, where a mighty effort is underway tonight to get former President Gerald R. Ford to run for vice president on a ticket headed by Ronald Reagan.
OLBERMANN: Find that in the history books. Even in its simple form, the real story was far more complicated. It involved not just Ford and Reagan, but also Henry Kissinger, using not shuttle but elevator diplomacy.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Kissinger and other members, other people, have been involved in negotiating during the day. Ford stated certain conditions under which he would accept the nomination for vice president.
OLBERMANN: The conditions for having an ex-president run as vice president? According to many witnesses, including Reagan‘s foreign policy adviser, later National Security adviser, Richard Allen, Reagan himself recited them in the hotel room from which he watched the 1980 Republican convention unfold in Detroit. Ford wants Kissinger as secretary of state and Greenspan at treasury, he said. Even Ford addressed his role in a would-be Reagan administration on television, as Reagan watched. Did you hear what he said about his role, Reagan told Carl Cannon (ph), sounds like he wants to be a co-president. Another pivot atop another pin.
RONALD REAGAN, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It is true that a number of Republican leaders, people in our party, office holders, felt, as I‘m sure many others have felt, that a proper ticket would have included the former president of the United States, Gerald Ford, as second place on the ticket. He and I have come to the conclusion, and he believes deeply, that he can be of more value as the former president campaigning his heart out, which he has pledged to do.
OLBERMANN: And with that, Reagan for president, Ford for vice president, was dead. Dead so late in that Detroit night that stories of Ford‘s selection as V.P. made it into some eastern newspapers and radio news casts. With the unprecedented ticket now smashed, history had yet another head of the pin on which to pivot.
GEORGE H. W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Just a few minutes before he appeared at the convention, out of a clear blue sky, I might add, Governor Reagan called me up and asked if I would be willing to run with him on this ticket.
OLBERMANN: Could Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford have defeated Jimmy Carter? Could Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford have defeated themselves during a virtual co-presidency? And what would have happened to that guy Bush? And didn‘t he have a son or something?
OLBERMANN: All that‘s still playing out in an alternative universe not near you. That‘s COUNTDOWN for this, the 1,334th day since the declaration of mission accomplished in Iraq. I‘m Keith Olbermann, good night and good luck.
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