Bob Woodward keeps spinning the Ford pardon

The national day of mourning on January 2 brought to a climax the outpouring of goodwill toward Gerald Ford, the 38th president, who was universally remembered as an honorable and hard-working public servant whose unorthodox, short-lived presidency began amid Richard Nixon's tumultuous Watergate scandal.

The national day of mourning on January 2 brought to a climax the outpouring of goodwill toward Gerald Ford, the 38th president, who was universally remembered as an honorable and hard-working public servant whose unorthodox, short-lived presidency began amid Richard Nixon's tumultuous Watergate scandal.

Indeed, in recent years, the Beltway's glowing conventional wisdom regarding Ford has calcified to the point that only one radiant narrative seems welcome in polite company. Namely, that by granting Nixon a full pardon and thereby avoiding a lengthy Watergate criminal trial, Ford had done the nation an enormous favor. And for that, Ford should be celebrated.

In the wake of Ford's passing, some of the pardon rhetoric got a bit lofty, though, with a few pundits trying to elevate Ford into the realm of Lincoln-esque presidents who literally saved the Union. Ford “threw himself on a grenade to protect the country from shame, from going too far. It was an act of deep political courage,” wrote Peggy Noonan in her December 30 column in The Wall Street Journal.

On that point, The Washington Post's Bob Woodward agreed, telling CNN's Larry King on December 27 that Ford's pardon was “a courageous act,” a “gutsy” move, and praised Ford for being “fearless.” On PBS' January 2 NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, New York Times columnist David Brooks claimed that the pardon “is now universally celebrated,” ignoring his own employer's recently reiterated view. While the Times editorial page acknowledged that history has been “sympathetic to Mr. Ford's argument that to allow Mr. Nixon's prosecution to go forward ... would have been profoundly destabilizing to a nation that was already in shaky health,” it maintained that “the nation is strong enough to endure almost anything but burying the truth.”

Indeed, in the 30-plus years since the pardon, as hinted at by the Times, many of the finer points surrounding the then-wildly controversial move have been smoothed over or discarded, like the fact that Ford never consulted the attorney general about his momentous legal decision, that the rushed pardon pre-empted the looming Nixon indictments, or that Ford did little to prepare the country, or Congress, for a pardon. Perhaps most significantly, Ford failed to get any sort of public confession or apology from Nixon in return. Plus, Ford initially agreed to give Nixon control of the crucial White House tape recordings and documents produced during his administration.

Nonetheless, Ford is warmly remembered for the pardon today. And perhaps no major media figure has played a bigger role in rehabilitating Ford's image by polishing the pardon and turning it into a sweeping, heroic act than the Post's best-selling author, Bob Woodward. As one-half of the reporting team that broke the 1970s White House scandal, Woodward remains particularly influential regarding all things Watergate.

Ford's hometown paper, The Grand Rapids Press, recently noted the pivotal role Woodward has played in recasting Ford's pardon. “Ford later told Bob Woodward ... that he pardoned Nixon to put an end to the national obsession with Watergate -- not as part of a pre-arranged deal to hand over the presidency to Ford, as was speculated,” the Press reported.

And then this key passage: “Woodward's acceptance of Ford's explanation was one step toward rehabilitating Ford's image.”

Naturally, if Woodward wants to cheerlead Ford and burnish his reputation -- to help cement conventional wisdom -- that's all well and good. The problem is that Woodward isn't always honest about the pardon that he insists was so “gutsy,” which raises questions about Woodward's motives and, specifically, whether future book projects of his have anything to do with his interest in building up Ford's iconic status.

Woodward has been praising Ford's pardon for nearly a decade now. He wrote about the event at length in his 1999 book Shadow, which addressed the presidential legacy of Watergate. Woodward accepted Ford's somewhat strained explanation that there had been no inside deal for Ford to pardon Nixon, despite the fact Ford confirmed that Nixon's then-chief of staff, Alexander Haig, had approached Ford one week before Nixon resigned to discuss the possibility of a pardon. Haig even produced a draft version of what a Nixon pardon might look like.

Woodward signed off on Ford's rather precarious theory that, yes, a pardon deal was offered by the Nixon team, but it wasn't “consummated” (Ford's word) because Ford didn't accept it at the time. Of course, one month later, Ford issued pretty much the same pardon that Haig had drafted, but there was no “deal,” Ford said. Woodward enthusiastically agreed.

In 2002, Woodward authored a laudatory chapter on the Ford pardon for Profiles in Courage for Our Time, edited by Caroline Kennedy. The following year, appearing with Ford at the National Press Club, Woodward announced his mea culpa: “I had it wrong. [The pardon] was the right thing to do.”

Last April, while speaking at the University of Michigan's Ford Library, Woodward told the audience that the full pardon was “the sensible thing to do and the courageous thing to do.” And, of course, with Ford's passing in December, Woodward made the media rounds again, reiterating what he insisted was Ford's “fearless” decision to pardon Nixon, a decision Ford made for the good of the country, Woodward stressed.

What's so peculiar about Woodward's more recent pardon praise is that in 2005, he received exclusive insight from Ford himself, insight that raised serious doubts about the preferred narrative of the pardon being a selfless act of patriotism designed to free the nation from the shackles of Watergate. Instead, Ford, plucked from political obscurity by Nixon to be his VP and who just weeks prior to Nixon's resignation was still giving speeches insisting Nixon was innocent of any impeachable offense, told Woodward he issued the full pardon because he wanted to get his good friend out of a jam. “I looked upon him as my personal friend,” Ford told Woodward in 2005. “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.”

As Woodward himself noted in The Washington Post on December 29 when he first reported on Ford's 2005 comments, they represented "a significant shift from Ford's previous portrayals of the pardon."

I realize that Woodward's 2005 interview was embargoed until Ford's death and that Woodward was not at liberty to discuss or publish them until December. Nonetheless, why would Woodward give speeches and make television appearances in 2006 and continue to tout Ford's decision to pardon Nixon as a monumental act of courage -- a “gutsy” and “fearless” move -- when Woodward knew that Ford offered the pardon because he didn't want his buddy Nixon to suffer from a “stigma”?

Also note that Woodward interviewed Ford in 2004, when the former president strongly criticized the war in Iraq, insisting he never would have invaded the country and that President Bush was wrong to do so. That interview was also embargoed until Ford's death. But again, why did Woodward go out of his way in 2006 to praise Ford's “straight talk” approach and laud him as a man whose “actions were always built around principles of directness,” knowing that Ford swore Woodward to secrecy regarding the day's most important issue -- Iraq -- because Ford didn't want his comments published while he was living? Isn't that the exact opposite of “straight talk” and “directness”?

Woodward, though, seems determined to polish Ford's reputation for “directness” at every turn.

Cozying up to establishment power

The behavior fits an unsettling pattern for Woodward who, decades after his youthful days as a gumshoeing Post reporter, has become comfortably entrenched as a permanent member of the Beltway's true media elite, where he often follows the mainstream, rather than leading it. (In late 2006, Woodward's State of Denial announced that the Bush administration had misled Americans about the war in Iraq. Y'think?)

Woodward has also become comfortable sitting on stories that are unpleasant for Republican presidents. For instance, during the investigation of the Valerie Plame leak in the Bush White House, Woodward not only sat on explosive information for two years, but publicly criticized the investigation. Woodward's behavior was so unprofessional that he was forced to apologize to his Post colleagues.

That same Woodward pattern of cozying up to establishment power is on display when it comes to Ford. For instance, Woodward has stressed in recent years that while Ford did pardon Nixon, Ford also preserved the tapes and documents from Nixon's presidency that have allowed historians and everyday Americans to better understand the criminality of the Nixon White House. Woodward insists that if it weren't for Ford's courageous decision to deny Nixon's desperate request that the tapes and documents be shipped out to him in exile in California, history would have been lost.

“By preserving the Nixon tapes; that's the real history of the Nixon presidency,” Woodward said at the Ford Library.

But Woodward's spin is misleading, because the facts are far less flattering. Three days after being evicted from the White House in August 1974, Nixon made it known to Ford that the former president wanted his tapes and documents to be turned over to him immediately -- nearly 1,000 reels of tapes and 46 million pieces of paper. “There was immense pressure on President Ford at that time to give Nixon his tape recordings and send them out to San Clemente,” where Nixon was living, Woodward told the National Press Club audience in 2003.

But the only pressure Ford felt to comply with Nixon's bodacious request came from the remaining handful of Nixon supporters, most of whom were still on the White House payroll, who were urging the new president to hand over the tapes and papers, some of which were already being destroyed inside the White House by Nixon holdovers. Outside of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, though, almost nobody of political importance seriously thought the wise move was to allow Nixon to control the remnants of his presidency, particularly given the fact that scores of disgraced Nixon aides were getting ready to go to trial for Watergate-related crimes, trials that would revolve around the tapes and documents. Only a fool would have agreed to Nixon's demand that the presidential materials be turned over. Yet that's precisely what Ford did.

On September 8, 1974, when Ford announced the pardon to the nation, he also announced that he had agreed to surrender the Nixon tapes and documents to the disgraced former president, with the explicit understanding that Nixon was eventually going to destroy many of the unreleased tapes. Ford even approved the spending of $110,000 of government money to install and guard a vault where Nixon's records would be stored near his California home. (Technically, Nixon and the government were to have joint custody, but Nixon received final say over who had access to the materials.) It wasn't until outraged members of Congress moved in and quickly passed legislation to keep the Nixon materials under government control -- and nullified the Ford-Nixon agreement -- that the crucial information was saved for history.

Yet today, Woodward pretends it was Ford -- not Congress -- who stood up to Nixon and said no. The question is, why is Woodward so eager to create not only an aura of goodwill around the former Republican president, but an aura of heroic independence?

Woodward is also careful not to dwell on the fact that Ford has routinely changed key facts surrounding the pardon story. For instance, in his 1979 memoir, A Time to Heal, Ford wrote: “Compassion for Nixon as an individual hadn't prompted my [pardon] decision at all.” Yet talking to Woodward in 2005, Ford conceded the pardon was granted partially out of loyalty to Nixon and specifically because Ford didn't want his friend to suffer a “stigma.”

Testifying under oath before Congress on October 17, 1974, and defending the pardon, Ford addressed the question of whether there had been private negotiations before he issued the pardon. Ford insisted, “I asked for no confession or statement of guilt [from Nixon], only a statement in acceptance of the pardon when it was granted. No language was suggested or requested by anyone acting for me to my knowledge.”

Yet just four years later in his memoir, Ford detailed how, prior to the pardon, he sent aide Benton Becker to California specifically to persuade the former president to make a full Watergate confession in writing and how Becker negotiated specific language with Nixon.

For some reason, though, Woodward uniformly ignores the inconsistencies when retelling the “gutsy” story of Ford putting America first by pardoning Nixon while Watergate indictments loomed. Woodward also rarely mentions the fact that Ford initially approved the government's payment of $850,000 in pension and expenses to Nixon during his first 10 months in civilian life. (Congress quickly reduced that amount by $450,000.) In other words, by following Haig's suggestions and granting Nixon a complete and early pardon (without requiring a public acknowledgement of wrongdoing), along with offering a nearly seven-figure stipend and ownership of presidential tapes and documents, Ford gave Nixon everything he wanted in September 1974.

Yet Woodward leads the chorus claiming the pardon was an act of courage.

It's worth nothing that in Woodward's Post article about Ford criticizing the Iraq war, Woodward wrote that he had talked to Ford “for a future book project.” So, apparently, that's why Woodward was interviewing Ford on the QT back in 2004 and 2005. A representative for Woodward's publisher, Simon & Schuster, could not be reached to comment on whether Woodward's next book will be about Ford. But if it is, that would explain Woodward's incessant spinning about the Ford pardon.