Gerald Ford and Me
I had just picked up a scoop from an undisclosed source and placed it in my mental file. The scoop was that President Richard Nixon had reluctantly agreed to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the Watergate scandal.
Nixon had insisted that he had nothing to do with the political operative burglars, who had broken into Democratic headquarters in Washington’s Watergate Hotel to heist some campaign information, nor had he tried to cover up the incident. But his reluctant decision to have his attorney general appoint a special prosecutor, a man named Archibald Cox, was a sign that pressure was building.
That was the scoop. As for my source, after all these years I think it is now safe for me to reveal it, if you promise not to tell. Ok? I had heard it on the radio, WWL’s hourly news. I happened to be listening because I was driving to the airport because of my new job with The East Bank Guide, one of a string of weekly newspapers that once tried to tap into the suburban market. My assignment was to cover politics, not at the D.C. level but the calmer pastures of Kenner, Harahan, the Jefferson Council and the local Levee board.
As I drove to the airport I was upgrading my news beat. We had received a call from the office of then Congressman Dave Treen saying that he was flying back to town and accompanying him was Michigan Congressman Gerald Ford, the House Minority Leader. They would have a brief press conference in a meeting room at the airport. Treen wanted to talk about the environment and Ford had come to speak at a gathering on the same subject.
There were only few of us at the press conference: someone from the Times-Picayune, a TV crew and, least of all, me, whose coverage of this story would be outdated by the time the next edition of the weekly was published. Nevertheless, I thought it would be fun to play big time journalist.
Most of the questions were routine and Treen tried to keep the discussion on course. Being inexperienced at this sort of thing, I sat rather silently, but then thought I should join the discussion. So, I reached into my mental file and pulled out the scoop. “Mr. Ford,” I said, “what do you think about Archibald Cox being appointed as special Watergate prosecutor?”
Ford dismissed the question saying in effect that he would not comment on something that was just speculation. “But it is not speculation.” I answered. “It just happened; he was appointed this afternoon.”
Ford and Treen shot a quick look at each other as though to say, “here comes trouble.” Since they had just arrived, neither had heard the news. Still, Ford responded that he was not ready to answer.
That afternoon was when the first serious volley of the Watergate prosecution was fired. Then things got worse. On Oct. 20, 1973 Nixon directed his attorney general to fire Cox who apparently had become too aggressive. The attorney General, Elliott Richardson, refused and then resigned. So too did the deputy attorney general when asked to do the same. Finally, the third person down the line did what Nixon asked—but Washington was ablaze. That evening is still referred to as the “Saturday Night Massacre.” Archibald Cox would be a pivotal player in the Watergate saga as much for having been hired as for having been fired.
Meanwhile, there had been another scandal. Vice President Spiro Agnew had entered a guilty plea on a tax evasion charge and resigned from office. A new constitutional amendment dealing with a vacancy in the Vice-Presidency had thus far been unused. Now Nixon would have a chance. He could, with the approval of the Senate, appoint a new Vice President. With great fanfare, he announced his choice, Gerald Ford. The Senate approved. Suddenly, Ford was now in line for the Presidency.
By Aug. 8, 1974, Nixon, who was facing the very real possibility of being removed from office by impeachment, resigned. The next day he and his family flew home to California. At noon that day Gerald Ford became President.
On April 23, 1975, I was stuck in traffic after having attended a class at Tulane University. This was no ordinary traffic jam though. Helicopters circled and police of various types were at practically every corner. The buzz was because Gerald Ford, the President of the United States, was speaking there that evening. Vietnam had been the dominant issue of the era and Ford’s speech would be memorable because of his referring to the conflict as “a war that is finished as far as America is concerned.” That was a big moment in American history, an American President was declaring the nation’s involvement in an unpopular war as being over.
Ford was a decent President who might have won a full term on his own in 1976, but his rise to power had been because of a vice president and president who had both resigned because of scandal. America was looking for a new face from outside the clandestine ways of Washington. His name was Jimmy Carter.
When he spoke at Tulane in ’75 Ford recalled that he had been to the university for a speakers series in 1968. “I had no idea,” the President said, “that my own career and our entire Nation would move so soon in another direction.
As Ford would look back at his unexpected meteoric rise to power I have wondered if he ever thought about the Archibald Cox incident as a trigger point. Certainly, he would not have remembered that he got the news from a green reporter at the New Orleans airport. In his world the news stories came from the New York Times or the Washington Post. On that one day, the news came courtesy of The East Bank Guide. He didn’t know it yet but that afternoon in Kenner his career had indeed begun to “move in a different direction.”
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
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