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Tom DeFrank

The problem most of us have with politicians is that we're afraid what they're saying is not what they're thinking.

Tom DeFrank, a journalist for the New York Daily News, has verified that suspicion through his book with the intriguing title — "Write it When I'm Gone: Remarkable Off-the-Record Conversations with Gerald R. Ford."

While working for Newsweek in 1973, DeFrank was assigned to cover Vice President Gerald Ford. Soon he was one of seven journalists who traveled regularly with Ford aboard Air Force Two during the final months of Watergate, the wave of corruption that finally forced Republican President Richard Nixon to resign and sent a host of his lieutenants to jail.

When Ford became president after Nixon's bitter leave-taking, DeFrank covered Ford's presidency until he left office in 1977 after losing to Jimmy Carter. DeFrank got off to a shaky start with Ford, but then they developed an unusual rapport, and Ford agreed to do regular off-the-record interviews that DeFrank was free to use as he wished when Ford died.

The result is a lively, colorful book that reveals Ford's views on a host of issues as well as politicians, particularly his antipathy toward Ronald Reagan, his nemesis when he sought the presidency in his own right.

Speaking from a Dallas hotel, DeFrank, who lives in Washington, D.C., said he was determined to make the book "easy and conversational — not a policy tome" — and at that he succeeded admirably. While Ford was vice president, DeFrank traveled with him to 41 states in 37 weeks. He considers him "a very generous man — maybe too nice a guy."

"Ford knew that these conversations would be published someday, and he didn't have a problem with that," DeFrank said. "I think he was comfortable with me. It was a fairly unique situation. Politicians and their handlers normally recoil at giving anyone this type of access. Most politicians view the press as a pitfall to be controlled. We live in an era of control freaks and managed news."

The "biggest bombshell," DeFrank said, was the discovery that Bill Clinton had asked Ford to "defend him in advance of his Senate impeachment trial. I didn't know anything about that. It was extraordinary. Ford was also more candid about Nixon's personality, although he had no second thoughts or regrets about the Nixon pardon."

According to DeFrank, Ford "was a grown-up about the role of the press. He had a firm belief in a strong, free, democratic press. He hated some things written about him, even by me, but he accepted them."

For those who criticize DeFrank for "giving Ford the last word," he said he believes that historians will carefully analyze the Ford administration and challenge his statements. "These Ford comments will serve as a new rough draft of a historical period to be revised by others in the years ahead."

Surprisingly, Ford considered himself "one of Nixon's closest friends, even though no one else around Ford agreed with that." DeFrank was stunned that Ford said he never asked Nixon if he was guilty of the charges against him. "My theory," DeFrank said, "is that he never asked Nixon about Watergate because he didn't want to know. And that was because in his gut he DID know."

Yet Ford's bitterness toward Reagan was greater than he felt toward Nixon. Bitterness for Ford was "uncharacteristic," said DeFrank — but Reagan challenging Ford in a Republican primary was something Ford would never have done to Reagan. Then "Reagan sat on his hands in the election against Carter," which Ford blamed on Nancy Reagan.

DeFrank had his own difficult moments with Ford. When he spoke candidly about his certainty that Nixon would step aside, making him president, he realized he'd spoken out of turn. "Here was the vice president saying he would be president soon, so when he realized it, he grabbed my tie and made me promise I wouldn't print it."

The incident left DeFrank speechless, but he never held any grudge against Ford. "I was just scared to death — I was only 28 years old. Having been yelled at by other presidents in the 33 years since, I don't think I would be intimidated today," DeFrank said.

DeFrank believes Ford "created the modern former presidency" by making tons of money on the lecture circuit. But he saw nothing wrong with it. "I'm energetic and deserve to earn a living," Ford told DeFrank. "As long as I don't take a free dollar, it's nobody's business."

DeFrank believes this was "his major blind spot. Normally, he was a person of such rectitude that he couldn't understand anyone accusing him of a conflict of interest — and he was really angry at me for writing about it."

Moved emotionally by Jimmy Carter's eulogy of Ford at the funeral exercises in Grand Rapids, DeFrank said, "The fact that Ford chose a former adversary to speak is proof that he considered Carter a good friend, even though they had their ups and downs. They were not political soul mates, but when Carter both opened and closed his remarks with the exact words he had used in his own inaugural, 'I would thank my predecessor for his role in healing this land,' the hair on my arms stood on end. It was powerful."

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