In Write It When I'm Gone
journalist Tom DeFrank writes a nice memoir of his 30 years of interviewing former President Gerald Ford, beginning with Ford's brief tenure as Vice-President, throughout his Presidency and retirement, and up to his last interview with the nonagenarian Ford shortly before his death on Boxing Day of 2006. It is clear that DeFrank admires, respects and loves his subject, and there are certainly some elements of hero worship on the part of the author. Much of this arises because, based on what DeFrank tells us, Ford was a fundamentally decent man who treated others with respect, including members of the media, so it is hard not to like the book's subject. However it is unlikely that DeFrank is giving the reader a completely objective picture of Ford.
The book's premise is that, for 30 years, Ford meets with DeFrank for a series of off-the-record interviews on the understanding that DeFrank will keep the information secret until after Ford's death. Over the course of these interviews, the two talk about a number of significant issues from Ford's time in office, as well as those occurring during subsequent presidencies. He discusses his pardon of Richard Nixon, remaining convinced throughout his life that the action was fully justified. DeFrank tells us that when Ford was praised by the Kennedy Foundation for this pardon, he felt publicly vindicated.
Ford is asked by DeFrank and talks a lot about the various personalities he interacted with during his political career, including the Presidents who succeeded him. For example we learn that he remained bitter over Ronald Reagan's challenge for the GOP nomination in 1976 and considered the Gipper to be all show but no substance. He becomes more sympathetic and friendly with his former rival following Reagan's public disclosure of his Alzheimer's. He considers Jimmy Carter to be someone who is in over his head as President and who, as an ex-president, meddles in areas he has no business involving himself in. Ford considers Bill Clinton to be a slick showman, who dishonours the oval office not only by his lechery, but by failing to admit and apologize for his perjury. It is Clinton's unwillingness to do a more sincere mea culpa that scuttles Ford's efforts to broker a deal to prevent impeachment. Ford speaks well of his former Chief of Staff Dick Cheney, but expresses concerns about Cheney's hard line style as Vice-President.
Ford tells DeFrank about a nice visit he has with President George W. Bush, but is critical of Bush for justifying the invasion of Iraq because of the search for WMD. Ford believed that the war in Iraq could and should have been justified by the fact that Saddam Hussein was a bad man who had to be removed. In one of his last interviews with DeFrank, Ford predicts a 2008 election between Hillary Clinton and John McCain and is quite complimentary towards Hillary, but is concerned that McCain's experience as a POW may have left him with a short fuse, a severe character defect in a President.
Those wondering about whether Ford is now willing to back away from the absurdities of the Warren Commission will be disappointed. He only talks about the subject briefly by stating that he never found any evidence of a conspiracy in the death of John F. Kennedy. He is silent on whether he had reason to suspect the existence of one. It is a pity that DeFrank never probes Ford about subjects like Arlen Specter's "magic bullet" theory or about the Zapruder film.
DeFrank writes a moving account of his last visits with Ford and about how sad it was to see the once robust Ford failing physically and mentally as well. He writes this chapter especially well and in such a way that makes it easy for the reader to empathize. It's as if we're in the room with the author, seeing what he sees and feeling what he feels. This is a worthwhile read that gives the reader a more intimate and humanizing portrayal of the 38th President. But if one picks up this book expecting burning admissions and shocking secrets locked away for three decades, the reader can expect disappointment.