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Gerald Ford and Media Historians

The passing of President Gerald Ford drew a dignified, even warm farewell from the national press. There was near-consensus that he would be remembered for his decency and the risk he took, pardoning Richard Nixon from Watergate prosecutions in an effort to heal the nation. It is proper that the press is kind today. It ought to be remembered, however, that the press was not of this opinion when Ford took office.

For example, Time magazine's cover story on the pardon in September 1974 declared that "Ford's first major decision raised disturbing questions about his judgment and his leadership capabilities, and called into question his competence." The cover carried suggestive sub-headlines like "Squandered Trust" and "Premature and Unwise." Such was the media's mood toward this man's actions in office.

A number of historical factors mellowed the media's hard feelings for Gerald Ford. Losing narrowly to Jimmy Carter helped, though in some quarters there were those who faulted our 38th president for having the audacity to retire, while praising our 39th for refusing to leave. Ford had led a humble post-presidential life in the background, and that led Time magazine Washington bureau chief Stanley Cloud to mock him in a 1989 story for perfecting his putt while Carter was acclaimed as a "jazzed superhero," circling the globe "seeking opportunities to Do Good."

The rise of Ronald Reagan helped, too. As the Republican Party shifted to the right in the 1980s and 1990s, it made liberal journalists nostalgic for the post-Watergate 1970s, an era of Democratic dominance and Republican moderation. The Reagan tax cuts made liberals pine for the days of Whip Inflation Now.

The rehabilitation of Gerald Ford was complete with the Clinton impeachment. Suddenly that which they'd demanded so fervently in 1974 - a presidential trial - produced precisely what Ford had predicted: national chaos, and with that knowledge came renewed respect from the liberal camp for his decision to pardon Nixon, so much so that in the spring of 2001, the John F. Kennedy Library granted Ford its "Profile in Courage" award, complete with Sen. Ted Kennedy's blessing.

In the aftermath of President Ford's death, long-embargoed interviews with liberal journalists and historians have become a part of the story line because they present another joyous opportunity for the "news" media to question the policies of conservative politicians and the war in Iraq.

Washington Post bigfoot Bob Woodward highlighted that Ford had told him in a 2004 interview that he thought the Bush team made a mistake in making the primary justification for the war in Iraq the removal of weapons of mass destruction. Ford didn't say he opposed the war itself, although he did say he would have delayed war and tried to make sanctions work. So the media shorthand became "Gerald Ford opposed the war," as NBC's Brian Williams incorrectly reported, and so many others have subsequently repeated.

Another reporter has Ford firmly on the record supporting the war, even if with a caveat. Thomas DeFrank of the New York Daily News reported Ford told him in May that "Saddam Hussein was an evil person and there was justification to get rid of him, but we shouldn't have put the basis on weapons of mass destruction. That was a bad mistake." On Sunday morning's "Face the Nation" with CBS's Bob Schieffer, DeFrank was unequivocal, stating he interviewed the former president no less than four times over a four-year period, and each time Ford came out in support of the war.

ABC and NBC newscasts couldn't find one second of air time to even mention DeFrank or his differing story line. Indeed, ABC went even further in the opposite direction. On Sunday's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos," Time magazine Washington Bureau Chief Jay Carney declared that it was "unpardonable" that Ford hadn't shared his allegedly anti-war opinions with Vice President Dick Cheney and then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, two men who had once served under him. ABC's Claire Shipman, who is also Carney's wife, had said almost the exact thing Thursday morning on ABC's Good Morning America.

Did Gerald Ford support, or not support the war in Iraq? In the end the question is wholly irrelevant. The man was a quarter-century removed from the national scene, by all accounts joyfully retired from public service. Let history remember him for what he was, and what he did; not for what we might have wanted of him.