The unmaking of a president
The days at issue here are those immediately following the resignation and departure from the White House of Richard Nixon on Aug. 9, 1974, to succeeding president Gerald Ford's controversial pardoning of him on Sept. 8. These were turbulent times, as Barry Werth points out in 31 Days, not simply because of the continuing Watergate scandal, but also because of a faltering national economy, rising oil prices, a potentially explosive clash between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus, and the international and domestic fallout from the war in Vietnam.
Stepping into this morass was an undistinguished former congressman from Michigan whose fate it was to be struck twice by political lightning first, being elevated to the vice presidency after Spiro Agnew was forced to resign; then, ascending to the presidency when Nixon himself was toppled. During the transition, Ford had to cope with many Nixon holdovers, including the supremely ambitious Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig. Moreover, there was the lingering problem of what to do with his unrepentant predecessor.
Given such turmoil and the power vacuum it created, it was only natural that political opportunists would move in. Werth subtitles his book: The Crisis That Gave Us The Government We Have Today. At that time, George H.
W. Bush was chairman of the Republican National Committee and eager to become Ford's vice president (a post that ultimately went to Nelson Rockefeller); Donald Rumsfeld, who also aspired to the vice presidency, was ambassador to NATO; Richard Cheney was his deputy, later to be Ford's chief of staff; Richard Perle was an aide to hawkish Democratic senator Henry Scoop Jackson; and Ronald Reagan was still governor of California. All these figures were considerably to the right of the congenitally moderate and accommodating Ford.
Initially, Ford's openness and congeniality won over both the country and a Congress that was overjoyed to be rid of the tainted Nixon. But when Ford announced against the advice of many of his counselors that he was pardoning his predecessor, the honeymoon was over and the stage was set for his defeat three years hence by the upstart Jimmy Carter. Edward Morris reviews from Nashville.