A Ford, not a Lincoln.
by Richard Reeves.
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 212 pp. $8.95.
In writing about the Presidency, journalists tend with increasing frequency to confuse their physical proximity to the seat of power with a proximity to truth. While White House reporters may spend most of their time in a press room only a few hundred feet from the Oval office, they do not necessarily have access to the deliberations and decisions of the inner sanctum. On the contrary. From the point of view of the President, the function of the White House press corps is to report to the nation carefully organized information designed to advance his policies. Whether in the form of official pronouncements, interviews, and televised press conferences, or in the form of well-prepared leaks to selected reporters, the daily diet of White House information is meant for a purpose to which the messengers need not be privy.
Ambitious journalists have an alternative to accepting the official (or off-the-record) news package: they can seek out leaks (or “plants”) from those wishing to resist or undermine the policies of the Chief Executive. Yet while doing so is likely to win them the plaudits of their peers, their role is still that of a messenger—for one interest group or another.
Journalists insist that to maintain “access”—either to the White House or to the counter-leakers in legislative committees, bureaus, or wherever—they must at least partly obscure their sources. Hence, assertions about the Presidency often are not clearly connected to the interest group or person from which they emanate. Though it may very well be a necessary one, this practice of separating assertions from asserters in itself distinguishes journalism from such other forms of knowledge as history and legal fact-finding. Historians and lawyers base their conclusions on the logic of substantiation, which requires that every statement be connected by a chain of evidence to its ultimate source, clearly identified and evaluated. Journalists who conceal the identity and nature of their sources base their conclusions on what may be called the logic of anecdotes. The assertion itself, dissociated from the precise circumstances in Which it was made, can be evaluated only in terms of its plausibility, originality, or interest to a given audience—criteria which do not exclude the purveying of false information.
Journalists do not like to admit that they employ a different mode of inquiry, and different standards of evidence, from those of historians, and instead attribute the shortcomings of their reporting to the limits imposed by the requirements of their editors and publications. To be sure, such limitations exist and have their effect. But even if they had unlimited time and space, journalists who persisted in concealing their sources would still be relying on anecdotal logic and their reporting would rightly remain suspect to historians and lawyers.
Richard Reeves’s book on the Ford Presidency, A Ford, Not a Lincoln, illustrates this inherent problem of journalism. Reeves is a respected journalist and former “chief political correspondent” of the New York Times, and he served for a short time as White House correspondent for New York magazine. In writing this book he was not constrained by time or space deadlines, or by rigorous editors. Yet, despite his reportorial skills and his fluent style of writing, the book is in reality no more than a collection of surreptitiously-authored assertions about Gerald Ford made by a host of unspecified “sources.” Reeves claims he had some 150 such sources—as if the number of anonymous purveyors of charges added weight or credibility to the whole fabric—but since there are no footnotes or attempts at attribution, there is no way of knowing which charges were made by political enemies, by disappointed aspirants for favors, by disgruntled bureaucrats, or by journalists in the presidential entourage feeding one another rumors they dared not print themselves.
Reeves, who at times interviews himself as well as his colleagues, appears to be one of the most voracious detractors of the President. His various anonymous charges, self-interviews, and unattributed anecdotes are loosely knit into a thesis: that Gerald Ford is a totally inadequate leader and a totally inadequate President, lacking both policies and priorities. For his “study” Reeves makes the functional assumption that the time he covered Ford was a representative segment of the President’s stewardship, even though it was only his first two months in office. Since he was apparently not in on the planning of policies or appointments during that period, Reeves bases his conclusion that the President had no new policies on Ford’s formal and informal meetings with the press, and on the fact that the President stressed continuity rather than change in his public rhetoric.
Yet none of this proves that Ford was an ineffectual leader in that period. It was, after all, a time of transition, and every other Vice President who has succeeded to the Presidency in this century—Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Baines Johnson—has similarly and for good cause stressed the theme of continuity in his initial months in office. Ford’s transitional performance in this respect is no different from Johnson’s or Truman’s, and may be better explained in terms of the nature of the Presidency as an instrument for succession in times of crisis than in terms of Ford’s personal qualities. (Ford also faced the problem—which Reeves neglects to mention—that his party was in the minority in both houses of Congress.)
The only bit of documentation Reeves offers to buttress his charge of Ford’s lack of initiative is a memorandum prepared for the President by his staff concerning the organization of the Office of Economic Opportunity, a memorandum which Ford approved in line with his staff’s recommendations. While this episode is in itself meaningless (why shouldn’t an executive accept his staff’s recommendation?), Reeves is able to extrapolate from it the far-reaching conclusion that Ford was (and is) a rubber-stamp President. But how can Reeves assert that this is what Ford did in every case? To make this claim credible, he would have to show familiarity not just with one decision but with all the decisions Ford made, and in the unlikely event he could do so, he would then have to demonstrate that each one represented a case of the President’s agreeing with his staff, rather than the other way around. Obviously, Reeves did not have access to presidential decisions, and he simply assumed that the single example he did have was representative of every presidential action.
The main evidence that Reeves marshals to support his case is not, however, documents, but anecdotes from Ford’s opponents which depict the President as unintelligent. For example, when Ford was minority leader of the Congress he opposed Lyndon Johnson’s Model Cities program. Reeves quotes Johnson as telling an assistant, “You’ve got a little baby boy . . . you take his little building blocks and go up and explain to Jerry Ford what we’re trying to do.” Now, as it happens, the Model Cities program proved to be an unmitigated disaster, and Ford’s reasons for opposing it (which Reeves does not discuss) proved to be correct insights into the realities of urban politics; the anecdote proves only that Johnson was a master at spreading clever abuse of political opponents (and at knowing the sort of story the press would snap up). Reeves, without even the benefit of a personal interview with President Ford, asserts on his own authority that Ford is “slow . . . also unimaginative and not very articulate.” He notes that Ford took six years to work his way through Yale Law School. Actually, Ford finished in the top third of his class at Yale, an intellectual distinction which few journalists can match. (Reeves himself studied mechanical engineering at Stevens Institute in New Jersey.)
Finally, assuming the role of an omniscient observer of Ford’s inner thoughts, Reeves attacks the credibility of his public statements. To take one extraordinary example, Reeves tells how Ford, when still Vice President, was asked by a television reporter, “How does it feel to be . . . a heartbeat away [from the Presidency]?”—the equivalent of asking someone how he feels about the prospect of inheriting a great deal of money from a still-living relative. Ford responded innocuously, “I don’t think about it.” Reeves concludes, in a logic-defying somersault: “The Vice President was either a liar or a fool. The truth was that Ford was obsessed and confused.” On the basis of a single conversation Reeves thus claims to know Ford’s deepest and most personal thoughts as well as his inner psychological state.
Such journalistic leaps are necessary to connect otherwise disconnected anecdotes and snippets of conversation. The problem with Reeves’s attempt to depict the Presidency is the problem of journalism in general. Reporters are perfectly capable of acquiring interesting information—leaks, handouts, rumors, palace gossip, and the like—but anecdotal logic does not make for historical explanation. When they do not have deadlines to meet, journalists tend merely to compound this problem a hundredfold, as Reeves does here. Readers may be intrigued, titillated, and amused by this style of writing, but they should know that it has no value as history.