Television reporters remember Ford's term


PITTSBURGH -- Reporters who covered the Ford administration said he was nothing like the stumbler lampooned by Chevy Chase on NBC's "Saturday Night Live."

Chase's impersonation helped make the actor's early career and, many believe, tipped the minds of voters who had seen the president stumble and, in one instance in Salzburg, Austria, fall down the stairs of Air Force One.

"It was cold and kind of icy and I had gotten there earlier and was watching the pool feed," remembered Tom Brokaw, the "NBC Nightly News" anchor who covered the Ford administration for the network. "I thought, 'Mr. President, be careful.' He was holding an umbrella over (his wife) Betty and he didn't have his hands on the rails and he went down."

But Brokaw believed that Ford was much more graceful than, say, Nixon -- Ford was an accomplished skier and tennis player as well as an all-star football player at the University of Michigan in the 1930s -- it's just that Ford had spent so much time in the public eye that his every misstep was recorded.

Journalists who knew and covered Ford said he was a welcome change from the dark days of Richard M. Nixon who, sullied from the Watergate scandal, looked gaunt and hid from reporters and the country until his resignation that led to Ford's swearing in as president in August 1974.

"It was literally and metaphorically night and day," Brokaw said. "He was much more open, he had a very good relationship with reporters. He didn't treat the press like an enemy. We were often adversarial but it wasn't a blood sport as it was with Nixon."

"He came in with enormous goodwill because he wasn't Nixon and he seemed so down to earth and accessible," said CNN analyst Jeff Greenfield, recalling a picture of Ford toasting his own English muffins.

That accessibility helped him even through turbulent times, from the pardoning of Nixon to the departure of Americans from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War and an escalating problem with inflation that plagued the country in the 1970s.

ABC News correspondent John Cochran remembered a time, when Ford was on a brief vacation in Palm Springs, he invited several reporters to spend time with him poolside. Cochran hadn't planned to do a report for the "NBC Nightly News" and was just casually talking with Ford when the president mentioned that he had just signed an order authorizing the airlifting of hundreds of thousands out of South Vietnam. Cochran realized he had a story, even though it was less than two hours before the 6:30 evening newscast.

"I said, Mr. President, I didn't say this was off the record,' and Ford paused and said, 'No, you didn't,' " Cochran remembered Wednesday. "I said, 'Mr. President, would you excuse me,' and I managed to report it."

Brokaw said that Ford agreed to do a live interview with him and John Chancellor, live from the White House, for an hour in primetime while in office.

"Think about that: Live. That just doesn't happen anymore," Brokaw said.

"What you saw was what you got. He was as decent, as unassuming, as normal a president as we have ever had, most likely because he didn't chase it all his life," said "Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace. "It came to him. I think it's almost a blessing for our country that a man like Jerry Ford was there to succeed Nixon in 1974."

Brokaw remembers Ford's travel schedule in his short time as president, when he accompanied him on many overseas trips: Washington to Korea, Korea to Japan, Japan to Vladivostok and then back to Washington. Washington to China, Indonesia, the Philippines and then back to Washington. Washington to Helsinki, Austria and Poland.

"It was frenetic, oh man," Brokaw said. "We were on the road a lot."

While Ford pretty much retired from public service after his defeat in 1976, he remained open and willing to talk and give his opinions. Cochran, who received an award from his alma mater the University of Alabama four years ago, was surprised at the dinner by a video remembrance from President Ford who by then was in his late 80s.

"He recalled some things that we had done, how we interacted in the mid-1970s," Cochran said. "It was very kind and surprised me frankly, that he remembered some of those things."

Ford's last days in office were 30 years ago next month, as he prepared to turn over the presidency to Jimmy Carter.

But Fox News' Wallace said Wednesday that despite Ford's short tenure, he had a lasting impact that continues to this day.