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  • There Were Two Gerald Fords:John Hersey and Richard Reeves Profile a President
  • James L. Baughman (bio)

On the eve of the 1996 election, The New Yorker magazine's Sidney Blumenthal offered a bitter assessment of Washington's leading political journalists. "Skepticism," he wrote, "has curdled into cynicism without substance; 'attitude' substitutes for purpose; an antipolitical reflex parades as understanding" (236). Blumenthal was no disinterested observer. He greatly admired Bill Clinton and believed too many of his colleagues were chronically corrosive about his presidency. He soon left The New Yorker to join the Clinton administration.1 Yet other, less politically committed journalists shared his concern about the direction of political reporting and commentary in the last decade of the twentieth century. Joseph Nocera decried a "journalism of nihilism . . . [that] doesn't really believe in anything except itself" (27).2

Something had happened to political journalism in the preceding years. Journalists underwent a series of casting changes. They had played stenographers, even cheerleaders. Then many became something else again. A few assumed the role of E. K. Hornbeck, the Menckenesque character in Inherit the Wind (1955). An older, intense skepticism, inhibited by the exigencies of the Cold War, slowly returned. Journalists had handled political leaders respectfully, a few even reverentially. But such treatments proved less commonplace. By the 1970s, there were competing models for political reporting, one of which will largely prevail. [End Page 444]

Two major profiles of Gerald R. Ford, published in 1975, reflect these conflicting approaches. One, a biography by Richard Reeves, is unrelentingly critical. Ford is a likable yet dim figure, someone who became a congressional leader—and was appointed vice president—largely because of his inoffensive, get-along manner. The second treatment, a long New York Times Magazine profile by John Hersey, largely eschews judgment. Although Hersey does not share Ford's politics, he is determined to describe the president and his leadership style to his readers, and let them draw their own conclusions. Based on spending a week at the White House with Ford and his staff, Hersey's piece has many strengths. It is engagingly written, in the best traditions of The New Yorker, to which Hersey had long contributed. Reeves's biography is hardly as elegant. It "is largely lacking in literary merit or political acumen," judged Peter Jenkins in The New Statesman (294). Nevertheless, its approach to the political class generally will, I believe, become more frequent among senior political writers in America in the late twentieth century.

What of the object of these clashing treatments? Gerald Ford was not a great president; he may not have even been a great man. He had assumed office upon the resignation of Richard M. Nixon in August 1974. At first, Ford's demeanor offered the nation a comforting alternative to that of his troubled predecessor. "Ford is decent, honest, candid, forthright, trustworthy, brave, and reverent—a Boy Scout in the White House," recalled his first press secretary, Jerald F. terHorst. "After two years of scandal, deceit and expletives deleted in the Nixon White House, a national sigh of relief could be heard from coast to coast when Ford became President" (214). The press delighted in the new president's ordinary-guy image, that he made his own breakfast (English muffins), and shared a bedroom with his wife (unlike the Nixons). "You guys are going to bring back marriage again," a Columbus woman told Ford (Reeves 69).3 Yet he struggled as president. It is commonly thought that he never recovered from his decision, announced a month after taking office, to pardon Nixon. "The damage to his own hopes will be grave, perhaps irreparable," Anthony Lewis predicted (n.p.).4 Ford failed to win election in his own right in 1976. Recalled a character in a John Updike novel, "The more I think about the Ford administration, the more it seems I remember nothing" (369).

For most Americans, Ford was a largely unknown figure when he became president.5 He had been Republican House leader for eight years, a Meet the Press regular. When he was appointed Vice President by Nixon in late 1973, it marked the first time a vice-presidential vacancy had been...