Months before Richard M. Nixon set a relatively unknown Michigan congressman named Gerald R. Ford on the path to the White House, Nixon turned to Ford, who called himself the embattled president's "only real friend," to get him out of trouble.
During one of the darkest days of the Watergate scandal, Nixon secretly confided in Ford, at the time the House minority leader. He begged for help. He complained about fair-weather friends and swore at perceived rivals in his own party. "Tell the guys, goddamn it, to get off their ass and start fighting back," Nixon pleaded with Ford in one call recorded by the president's secret taping system.
And Ford did. "Anytime you want me to do anything, under any circumstances, you give me a call, Mr. President," he told Nixon during that May 1, 1973, conversation. "We'll stand by you morning, noon and night."
This and other previously unpublished transcripts of their calls, documents and personal letters provide a portrait of an intensely personal friendship dating to the late 1940s but so hidden that few others were even aware of it. Until now, the relationship between the two presidents has been portrayed largely as a matter of political necessity, with Nixon tapping Ford for the vice presidency in late 1973 because he was a confirmable choice on Capitol Hill.
But the tapes, documents and two lengthy recent interviews with Ford before his death this week, conducted for a future book and embargoed until after his death, show that the close political alliance between the two men seriously influenced Ford's eventual decision to pardon Nixon, the most momentous decision of his short presidency and almost certainly the one that cost him any chance of winning the White House in his own right two years later. Ford became president on Aug. 9, 1974; he pardoned Nixon just a month later. "I think that Nixon felt I was about the only person he could really trust on the Hill," Ford said during the 2005 interview.
Ford returned the feeling.
"I looked upon him as my personal friend. And I always treasured our relationship. And I had no hesitancy about granting the pardon, because I felt that we had this relationship and that I didn't want to see my real friend have the stigma," Ford said in the interview.
That acknowledgment represents a significant shift from Ford's previous portrayals of the pardon that absolved Nixon of any Watergate-related crimes. In earlier statements, Ford had emphasized the decision as an effort to move the country beyond the partisan divisions of the Watergate era, playing down the personal dimension.
A key window into their close friendship and political alliance was that May 1973 call. It was the day after Nixon had gone on national television to announce the resignations of his two top aides, H.R. "Bob" Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman, and the Watergate coverup was unraveling. The president knew it and was eager for Ford's reassurance that his political situation on Capitol Hill was not as grave as it seemed.
"You've got a hell of a lot of friends up here," Ford told him, "both Republican and Democrat, and don't worry about anybody being sunshine soldiers or summer patriots."
Nixon’s ‘only real friend’
"Well, never Jerry Ford," Nixon replied. "But if you could get a few congressmen and senators to speak up and say a word, for Christ's sakes."
Ford was played a copy of that tape in 2005. Although the existence of Nixon's secret taping system had been publicly disclosed in 1973, no such tapes of Ford had come to public attention, and the former president seemed stunned. "I remember vividly that," he said, recalling how Nixon often turned to him to get things done on the Hill. He added that he considered himself to be Nixon's "only real friend."
At times, their friendship was the gossipy sort, as two longtime politicians sorted through the Washington rumor mill. They were so comfortable with each other that they openly traded nasty personal assessments of others.
On April 6, 1971, for example, Nixon called Ford to find out what was going on with House Majority Leader Hale Boggs (D-La.). Boggs had just taken to the House floor claiming that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was regularly wiretapping members of Congress, and Nixon wanted to know why Boggs was going public.
"He's nuts," Ford told Nixon in the call picked up by Nixon's secret taping.
"He's on the sauce," Nixon said, suggesting the majority leader was drinking. "Isn't that it?"
"Well, I'm afraid that's right, Mr. President."
"Or is he crazy?" Nixon asked.
"Well, he's either drinking too much or he's taking some pills that are upsetting him mentally," Ford replied.
In their personal correspondence, extending over decades, the two men conveyed a sense of personal bond that went beyond public niceties, demonstrated in dozens of letters in Ford's confidential files that he allowed a reporter to review and copy.
Two months before Nixon resigned, he sent Ford, by then his vice president, a personal thank-you. "Dear Jerry," he wrote on June 8, 1974, "this is just a note to tell you how much I appreciated your superb and courageous support over the past difficult months. How much easier it would be for you to pander to the press and others who desperately are trying to drive a wedge between the president and vice president. It's tough going now, but history will I am sure record you as one of the most capable, courageous and honorable vice presidents we have had."
Their friendly notes to each other continued until not long before Nixon's death in 1994. In 1978, for example, Nixon wrote to buck up Ford after Ford's former press secretary wrote a tell-all memoir, "It Sure Looks Different From the Inside," in which he gave details of Betty Ford's addiction to alcohol and various medications. "Dear Jerry, I thought Ron Nessen's comments on Betty were contemptible. Tell Betty her many friends won't believe him and for her few enemies -- The hell with them. Sincerely, Dick."
And in a handwritten letter on his personal stationery on June 1, 1990, Nixon wrote Ford urging him to attend the dedication of the Nixon library along with then President George H.W. Bush and former president Ronald Reagan. Once Ford came, Nixon followed up with another note: "Our friendship goes back further than all the others and the event would not have been complete without you."
On June 28, 1993, Nixon wrote Ford again, this time thanking him for attending the funeral of Nixon's wife, Pat.
"As you undoubtedly noted, the emotion had caught up with me by the time we met after the services, and I did not adequately express my thanks to you then," Nixon wrote.
‘Always be grateful’
Then he turned back decades, to their own long friendship and a small gesture by Ford he had carried with him, not as momentous as the pardon that would come later but still vivid 31 years after it happened.
"One action of yours for which I will always be grateful was your going on a TV program when ABC had the bad manners to put Alger Hiss on to nail my coffin shut after my defeat for governor of California," Nixon wrote, remembering the sting of his 1962 loss.
"I have often said that when you win, you hear from everyone -- when you lose, you hear from your friends," he wrote. "You have always measured up in that respect, and I shall always be grateful."
Christine Parthemore contributed to this report.