By James L. Baughman
It has been more than 25 years since Gerald Ford narrowly lost the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter.
Ford’s presidency has become a dim memory. “The more I think about the Ford administration,” John Updike wrote in 1992, “the more it seems I remember nothing.” Taking office after Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974, Ford struggled to restore the public’s faith in the presidency, badly shaken by the numerous illegalities associated with the Nixon White House.
Ford also had to contend with another Nixon legacy: a new, unrelentingly critical journalistic style.
I have been working on a book about American political journalism since 1960, focusing on certain candidates and reporters. Political journalism has changed over the past fifty years, mainly for the better. It is more interpretive and searching. Yet not all changes, in my view, have been good.
One change involves journalists’ point of view toward politicians. Reporters always had their opinions. They were not stenographers, even if some of their coverage sometimes appeared stenographic. Yet the post World War II generation of journalists tended as a group to believe they should keep their private judgments to themselves. Even more, they strove to give political leaders the benefit of the doubt.
Some journalists began to question this aspired neutrality in the 1970s. America’s intervention in Vietnam and, even more, the revelations involving the Nixon presidency, encouraged a far more skeptical, even dismissive approach to reporting. Richard Nixon, in that regard, did not only destroy his own reputation, but hugely damaged the prestige of the presidency itself.
To be clear, these more critical journalists were in the minority. Yet they had prominent platforms. Covering the 1972 race for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hunter Thompson of Rolling Stone made no effort to cloak his contempt for such prominent contenders as Senators Edmund Muskie and Hubert H. Humphrey.
I wanted to explore the growing divide between this new journalistic point of view and the more conventional approach. Ford’s first year in office offered a clear contrast. Writing for the 25 November 1974 New York magazine, Richard Reeves painted a scathing portrait of the new president. Reeves questioned the president’s intelligence. He found him a sometimes incoherent public speaker. At a Colorado rally, “President Ford had nothing to say and said it badly.” In the end, Reeves’s Jerry Ford was a “comfortable mediocrity,” symbolic of a political class that appeared to be taking on the attributes of the fast food industry and network television. Redeeming features were all but impossible to find in Reeves’s account, which he later expanded into a book, A Ford, Not a Lincoln. To take one seasonal example, Reeves mocked Ford’s college football career. Michigan, he noted, had a 1-7 record when Ford was the starting center. Reeves didn’t report that two NFL teams, including my wife’s beloved Green Bay Packers, offered Ford contracts, which he turned down to attend Yale Law School.
A second Jerry Ford appeared in the 20 April 1975 New York Times Magazine. John Hersey, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and writer, wrote a long article, based on spending a week with the president. It was a classic “fly on the wall” reporting that Hersey had helped to perfect writing for The New Yorker in the late 1940s. (For The New Yorker, he had written a similar profile of President Harry S. Truman in 1950.)To gain such access to the president, The Times made one concession. Ford could select the author, based on a short list the newspaper submitted. (Ford picked Hersey after reading the Truman profile.) Otherwise, Hersey enjoyed considerable freedom. Based on my review of materials at the Ford Library and Hersey’s papers at Yale, Hersey didn’t have to secure approval for the use of any of the quotes in his article. This is in contrast to Michael Lewis’s recent Vanity Fair profile of President Obama, in which Lewis had to submit all quotes for approval. Some were excised.
Hersey is determined to give readers a sense of what Ford is like as a person and leader. “I want to know what I suppose every citizen wants to know,” he wrote. “What is the quality of the person murmuring to his aide?” The author witnessed, with one exception, all of Ford’s meetings, whether with the Secretary of Defense or the Maid of Cotton for 1975. Hersey describes a competent and confident leader, calm. While aides decry Senate Democrats’ efforts to involve themselves in a diplomatic matter, the president remains calm. “Gerald Ford sounds, as always, totally serene.”
Yet Hersey’s profile is hardly fawning. He all but echoes Reeves in concluding that Ford is a poor public speaker. Nor can Hersey, a longtime liberal Democrat, reconcile Ford’s compassionate personality with his conservative fiscal policies. “The man who has been so considerate, so open and so kind to me as an individual,” Hersey wrote, possessed “what seems a deep, hard, rigid side.”
Nevertheless, Hersey crafted a mainly positive profile. And for an American political junkie reading his article, together with Reeves’s reportage, there were two Gerald Fords.
Reeves, for his part, came to regret his treatment of Ford. The growing toxicity of America’s political culture made him realize that he may well have contributed to what was becoming an unhealthy contempt for the political class. In a 1996 American Heritage article, Reeves admitted that his Ford profile was at times “cruel, unnecessarily so.” Politicians and journalists “continue to poison the wells of democratic faith and our political dialogue. I wish I had not been part of the problem.”
James L. Baughman is the Fetzer-Bascom Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of “There Were Two Gerald Fords: John Hersey and Richard Reeves Profile a President” in the latest issue of American Literary History, which is available to read for free for a limited time. He is also the author of four books, including Republic of Mass Culture: Journalism, Filmmaking, and Broadcasting in America since 1941.
Recent Americanist scholarship has generated some of the most forceful responses to questions about literary history and theory. Yet too many of the most provocative essays have been scattered among a wide variety of narrowly focused publications. Covering the study of US literature from its origins through the present, American Literary History provides a much-needed forum for the various, often competing voices of contemporary literary inquiry.