Opinion L.A.

Observations and provocations
from The Times' Opinion staff

« Previous Post | Opinion L.A. Home | Next Post »

Behind the "long national nightmare"

January 7, 2007 | 12:07 am
Hartmann_is_the_dude_smoking_in_the_uppe As I write in today's Current, Gerald Ford's most memorable phrase as president -- "our long national nightmare is over" -- was written, believe it or not, by a guy who worked at the L.A. Times for a quarter-century: Robert T. Hartmann.

The column is largely about how Ford Administration vets -- and rivals to Hartmann -- Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney have spent the ensuing three-plus decades, and especially these last six years, trying to undo the legislative/regulatory legacy of Watergate by expanding the powers of the presidency. But Hartmann, a pallbearer at Ford's funeral and a figure underappreciated by history, was right there when all of this was just beginning.

After the jump, read about the Stanford grad, Navy censor and Washington D.C. bureau chief who helped Ford begin the Healing, while bearing uncomfortable witness -- at least as much as he could -- to the disputed pre-resignation negotiations over Richard Nixon's pardon. It's a long story, but at least it involves some bonus Al Haig rhetorical violence!

First, about that "national nightmare" speech, as told in Hartmann's 1980 memoir Palace Politics: An Inside Account of the Ford Years, which is described here as "an often bitter, sometimes dyspeptic indictment of the administration and its surrender to Nixon holdovers":
Three o'clock in the morning of Wednesday, August 7, 1974, my subconscious was already spinning when the alarm sounded. While the coffeepot boiled I focused on the confidential charge entrusted to me by the next President of the United States. It might well be the most important job I would ever have to do. It must bridge - but also divide - the past and the future. It was not so much an inaugural as an invocation. It would be brief, but every word must ring true.
The famous line then just came tumbling out:
In the early morning silence, I could almost hear the collective sigh of millions. I don't know where this phrase came from, but it didn't struggle to be born. It just flowed naturally.
Yet, as Ford was happy to tell college audiences for 25 years (and as the media never tired of misreporting as revelatory news), the incoming president nearly strangled the famous line in its crib, thinking it "too harsh" on Richard Nixon:
I wasn't sure I wanted the "nightmare" line in the speech. Bob blew up. He stamped toward the door and said, "To hell with it. If that line is not in the speech, I'm quitting." I read the speech over a few more times, and I got to like that line better. So I used it in the speech. And that is the line that everybody remembers.
How did a career Timesman end up not just in the White House writing speeches, but as a bonafide Cabinet member and senior "Counselor" to President Ford? Well, like the newspaper itself for its first 80 years of existence, Hartmann counted himself as a "conservative." Richard Nixon, the Chandler family's great political ally, called Hartmann his "favorite reporter." He went from copy boy to cops reporter to Lt. Commander in the WWII Navy (Pacific theater), then back at the Times as editorial writer, Mideast correspondent and finally D.C. bureau chief. But as Dennis McDougal reports in Privileged Son: Otis Chandler and the Rise and Fall of the L.A. Times Dynasty, in the early 1960s new publisher Otis Chandler wanted to replace the paper's GOP-kingmaking politics with a more neutral, liberal-tolerating point of view:
When Otis ordered [Editor in Chief Nick Williams] to fire Bob Hartmann, the Times' Washington bureau chief and one of the last holdovers from Norman Chandler's ancien regime, Nick went into his Felix Unger routine.

"But your parents like him!" he protested.

"I don't care," said Otis. "He kissed their asses when they came to Washington. That's why he kept his job." [...]

Because the Times rarely fired an employee of Hartmann's stature and longevity, he was eased out of Washington and into Rome, where he opened a Times bureau in February 1963. Hartmann quit a short time later[.]
According to an Oct. 20, 1974 profile in the Times, Hartmann then "served for a while at a minor United Nations job before then-Rep. Melvin R. Laird (R-Wis.) asked him to edit reports issued by the House Republican Conference." Laird graduated to defense secretary, so Hartmann transferred to the staff of Michigan Rep. Gerald Ford, who "soon took notice of his potential as a speech writer." One thing led to another, and by 1973 Hartmann was chief of staff and most trusted advisor to the surprise vice president of the United States. Newspaper profiles of him in the '70s invariably describe him as "salty," always smoking, keeping late hours, and having a gruff disrespect for time-wasting niceties.

On July 31, 1974, Hartmann's life suddenly got a helluva lot more complicated, as events rapidly unfolded that history still hasn't resolved. Let's let Seymour Hersh, from his must-read 1983 Atlantic Monthly article on the Nixon pardon, take up the story:
From mid-July on, Ford had been constantly urged by his close aides and friends, including Robert T. Hartmann, a former Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, who was his chief of staff, to avoid discussing Nixon's future with Al Haig. The advisers believed that Nixon was seeking a commitment for a pardon from Ford. [...]

Hartmann wrote in his memoirs of receiving an early-evening telephone call from Haig on July 31, requesting a private appointment with Ford the next morning. Haig would come to Ford's office. Before the meeting, Hartmann wrote, he urged Ford to permit him to sit in: "I just think you might want to have a witness to who said what.... I don't know what's on Haig's mind." There was little love lost between Hartmann and Haig; the two became bitter rivals after Nixon's resignation. Haig, furious over what he viewed as Hartmann's sniping to the press behind his back, once grabbed a Hartmann aide by the lapels, according to that aide, and declared, "If you have any influence over that fat Kraut, you tell him to knock it off or he's going to be the first stretcher case coming out of the West Wing."

Haig was unhappy on the morning of August 1 to find Hartmann at Ford's office, and after it became clear that Hartmann would not leave, he chose not to relay Nixon's message.
Instead, Haig -- who Nixon had told he was planning on resigning just that morning -- arranged for a one-on-one with Ford later that afternoon. Now let's let Bob Woodward describe what happened next:
Haig presented Ford with six scenarios: Nixon could step aside temporarily under the 25th Amendment, he could just wait and delay the ongoing impeachment process, or he could try to settle for a formal censure. In addition, there were three pardon options. Nixon could pardon himself and resign. Or he could pardon the aides involved and then resign. Or Nixon could agree to leave in return for an agreement that the new President Ford would pardon him.

Haig handed Ford two pieces of paper. The first sheet contained a handwritten summary of a president's legal authority to pardon. The second sheet was a draft pardon form that needed only Ford's signature and Nixon's name to make it legal.

"It's my understanding from a White House lawyer," Haig said, "that the president does have authority to pardon even before criminal action has been taken against an individual."

After extracting a pledge of secrecy, Ford told his top aide and speechwriter, Robert Hartmann, what had just occurred with Haig.
Back to Hersh, who is now quoting Hartmann's reaction from his memoir:
"Jesus!" I said aloud. To myself: So that's the pitch Haig wouldn't make with me present. Aloud again:

"What did you tell him?"

"I didn't tell him anything. I told him I needed time to think about it."

"You what?" I fairly shouted.

It was almost the worst answer Haig could have taken back to the White House. Far from telling nothing, Ford had told Haig that he was at least willing to entertain the idea -- probably all that Haig and Nixon wanted to know.

Hartmann quoted himself as telling Ford, "I think you should have taken Haig by the scruff of the neck and the seat of his pants and thrown him the hell out of your office.... And then you should have called an immediate press conference and told the world why."
As we all know, that didn't happen. Instead, after being chewed out by Hartmann and his staffers, Ford had a mysterious telephone conversation with Haig at 1:30 that morning; Nixon resigned a week later, and Ford issued a pardon the next month. Over Hartmann's objections.

What transpired in that 1:30 a.m. phone call? We don't know. We do know, however, that Ford's version of events and Hartmann's account differ on two enormous points: Who called who, and what was said.

According to Ford's memoir A Time to Heal, Haig called Ford, not vice-versa, just to say "Nothing has changed. The situation is as fluid as ever." To which Ford says he replied, "we can't get involved in the White House decision-making process."

According to Hartmann's account of what Ford told him the next morning, the veep called Haig, basically to give him a thumbs-up:
"Betty and I talked it over last night.... We felt we were ready. This just has to stop; it's tearing the country to pieces. I decided to go ahead and get it over with, so I called Al Haig and told him they should do whatever they decided to do; it was all right with me."
Italics added. How to account for this rather momentous discrepancy? Here's how Hartmann explains it:
Memories are fallible, but I know what most upset me was the fact that Ford had called Haig. Why would Haig telephone the vice president at 1:30 a.m. just to say nothing had changed? And why, if Ford informed Haig that night that 'we can't get involved,' did he have to go through it all over again the next day for Harlow, Marsh and me?"
This last reference is to a phone meeting with Haig that Ford conducted in full view of his alarmed staffers (Hartmann had warned Ford that his initial silence when Haig brought up the pardon "implies assent").

So what did Hartmann think of Ford's pardon? At a 1999 Duquesne University panel discussion, the president's former right hand man was harsh. From a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette account:
Hartmann, 82, said the pardon was "an extremely selfish decision" by Ford. To Hartmann, it was not a favor to Nixon, but Ford's way of making his own chaotic presidency easier.

Hartmann said Ford was not ready for the nonstop scrutiny that the president faces. So Ford's self-interest was to remove an irritant named Nixon by grant-ing him the pardon.

"Ford was doing himself a big favor. Ford wanted to get rid of him," Hartmann said.
-- Matt Welch

Comments ()