Bonnie Angelo served as Washington correspondent for Time Magazine from 1967 until 1978. Angelo was president of the Women’s National Press Club. Angelo published “First Mothers: The Women Who Shaped the Presidents” which sought to encompass the lives of women who played important roles for contemporary Presidents.
Bonnie Angelo was interviewed for the Gerald R. Ford Oral History Project on March 10, 2009 by Richard Norton Smith.
Smith: How did your paths cross with the Fords?
Angelo: I’ve known Jerry Ford long before he was in the White House, long before that episode because he was around town, a wonderful political figure whom everybody liked. Jerry Ford never had a detractor.
Smith: Did everyone respect him as well as like him?
Angelo: Uh, no. No. There were people who, you know, the famous thing which the New York magazine wrote – that he couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time—
Smith: From LBJ’s cracks.
Angelo: Yeah, and LBJ did have a gift for Ford put downs. So, no, everybody did not obviously think he was a great, luminous figure. But I never heard anybody who didn’t like him, which actually is what got him into being president. I think the ground zero, nobody’s going to object to Jerry Ford. What’s to object? He had the experience, he was a man of such integrity, knew everybody and everybody he ever knew liked him. As you know Mel Laird really wanted him to be tapped for that vice presidential appointment, the first kind in our history, hopefully the last. But Mel told me afterwards, he said, “It just made sense to pick Jerry on this because everybody likes him and he has really no enemies. I don’t think it’s that he’s harmless, but he would be very agreeable on whatever he was supposed to do.”
Smith: There is a story – I can’t vouch for it’s authority but supposedly Rockefeller is in the Oval Office and Nixon points to the chair and he says, “Can you imagine Jerry Ford in this chair?” This was after Ford had been confirmed, which suggests that Nixon totally misread the situation. He saw Jerry Ford as his insurance against impeachment.
Angelo: Yes, I do think that that was making the rounds, that kind of thinking, but also that he knew Jerry Ford’s appointment could not be stopped because he’s a man of integrity. So, it was not going to be an appointment with some shades that they had to worry about. I don’t think he ever intended to work with Ford on anything. I think it was something that he had to do because there was a chair there that had to be filled with somebody who could get approved.
Smith: We talked to Jerry Jones, who had been Haig’s deputy. Before that, he reorganized the White House personnel office for Haldeman. And he gets a call from Haldeman, this was when Haldeman was still in the White House, so it’s before April of ’73. And he wants to know how many people worked directly for the vice president. And Jones did some figuring and he says about 50. And Haldeman said, “Good, I want undated letters of resignation from every one of them.” Which Jones interprets as meaning they knew even then that Agnew was going to have problems. Now, that’s just his interpretation. This would be in the spring. Remember, the Wall Street Journal story about Agnew appeared in August of ’73.
Angelo: Oh, oh, and a lot of rumors were going around in Maryland, as you know, from people involved in state government in Annapolis. There was a long tradition of cutting corners, shall we say, with Governor Mandel and others.
Smith: So it’s entirely possible, given Nixon’s political antennae, that they would’ve picked up on some of those rumors before it reached the journalistic community?
Angelo: Well, if they didn’t know, a lot of other people did, because a lot was just going around in Annapolis, which is a small capital where everybody knows everything. So, what was the alternative? Was it down to Agnew and Ford? Was it them?
Smith: Well, no, but when Agnew leaves.
Angelo: Yes, who was the other that Nixon was considering?
Smith: Oh, in ’68, it was John Volpe.
Angelo: Oh, my, names from the past.
Smith: Yes, yes, and a party from the past, a Massachusetts governor. And I wonder whether Nixon thought to himself, “You know, I blundered with Henry Cabot Lodge in ’60, I don’t think I’ll go that route again.”
Angelo: Yeah. He might have thought that. He might. Even at the time there were those of us who lived in Maryland, as we are just this minute, we wondered, “Why Spiro Agnew?” He was not a man of great distinction. I always thought he thought it’d make a good appearance – he was a distinguished looking man – and that he would be totally manageable, which may or may not have anything to do with it.
Smith: Then, of course, he went on to develop a following of his own. I mean, if Nixon had wanted to drop him from the ticket, he probably couldn’t have.
Angelo: I can’t remember well enough to know.
Smith: Other than his attacks on the press.
Angelo: Didn’t he do that mostly after he was in, the nattering nabobs of negativism?
Smith: Exactly. My point is, that once he became vice president, history repeats itself. Nixon as vice president made it impossible for Eisenhower to dump him through the Checkers speech. I mean, he created a constituency – Republican cloth coats and all that. And Agnew, in his own way by going after the press, created this strong allegiance among cultural conservatives.
Angelo: I would have a feeling that also the pols would say he was manageable. He’s not going to give you any trouble. He’s manageable. Well, they hadn’t counted all the brown paper bags stuffed with dollar bills or thousand dollar bills, whatever is the currency of choice.
Smith: As Ford was climbing the ladder in the House, particularly as the Minority Leader, he was away from home more than he was there.
Angelo: Oh, he was away so much. I think he was doing it for the good of the party. He was a party man and they wanted him to come and he came. I can’t remember exactly if Betty Ford told me this directly or it was somebody so close to it that it might as well have been, but she was alone at home on weekends, weekend after weekend, four children, three of them lively boys. What kind of life is that? When you look at it in a detached way, what kind of life is that? And I don’t fault Jerry Ford for many things because I really admire him as a person. I think he stepped into an incredibly, historically impossible situation which he handled very well, until the pardon, and that tore the whole thing apart.
But to leave Betty Ford – you know, somebody who had been a beautiful, lively person, she wasn’t a little homebody, Betty was a person – every week to go out to speak to a smoke-filled room full of nobodies. If it was big party things, that would be something else, but it was he just began to feel, I think, that whoever needed him that weekend, he would go. I think it was a very bad decision on his part. Did it do any good for him or for the party? I don’t know. I would think it would be hard to trace it, but it certainly did make it difficult for his wife, a very attractive, lively – not a homebody kind of person. She was a dancer, professional dancer, you know, and good looking. To just sit at home with four children…in Alexandria she couldn’t even go out easily to the theater or anything.
Remember, he had none of that social status that comes with being vice president or even speaker of the House, but not much with speaker of the House, especially when we had John McCormick and his sweet wife that he never left her. Betty Ford must have been sitting there and saying, “I never had my husband at home and there’s what’s-her-name McCormick,” who was something out of the 18th century or maybe the 19th. And John McCormick would never be away from her on the weekend and he was Speaker. Now, that must have stuck in her craw.
Smith: I think, in later years, I don’t know if you ever heard this or not, he felt guilty.
Angelo: Well, he should!
Smith: I think he really tried to make up for it.
Angelo: I think he loved her. You know, I think Jerry Ford loved Betty Ford, but I think he was obviously troubled by her behavior and whether he recognized it as alcoholism as soon as he could have, but families often don’t.
Smith: I don’t want to succumb to cliché here, but she in so many ways is a stand in for millions of women of this particular time who have real gifts and talents.
Angelo: And were somebody.
Smith: Yeah, and were kind of shoehorned into this traditionalist role, which she performed. I mean, she was a Cub Scout den mother from Grand Rapids, which in some ways later on led to people underestimating her. I mean, they saw the vanilla part of the Fords.
Angelo: Yes, and didn’t know that there was a lot of thinking and anxiety or maybe just resentment at being at home alone. And what does a congressional wife who’s important husband is out somewhere in the hustings, what does she do? I mean, you don’t really have the chance with four children to develop the kind of close, close friends that you might, just the two ladies, go out together. That’s hard. So, I think she was really boxed in and she was not a spirit that was intended to be boxed in.
Smith: Well put. Did you know her at this point?
Angelo: Yeah, yeah. Well, listen, you know how it is here. When you’re a journalist covering the Hill, well, I really covered the White House, but you know the people on the Hill as well. And at that time there was much more socializing, political socializing, than there is now. Much more. The early times, the Pearl Mesta days, now we don’t have Pearl Mestas anymore.
Smith: Plus there was socializing across the aisle.
Angelo: Oh, yes. Absolutely, there was so much greater camaraderie; it was not the nasty, really grim atmosphere that has developed over recent years. And I think that was encouraged to develop, I’m just going to say, by the likes of Karl Rove. He was a mastermind of a lot of things, very talented, of course, but a person like Karl Rove, and there are a lot of them around, did not, were not interested in bon ami, they wanted hard politics.
Smith: And in a larger sense, the way politics have evolved egged on by some parts of the media. I mean, cable TV is all about shouting at people, about opinion, not information. This political culture that developed in which Ford thought, is particularly when he was in the House, you could fight like cats and dogs all day long. You had principles, you had convictions, and you fought for them. But, first of all, after six o’clock you made up and were considered friends and all that. But beyond that even while fighting for your principles you were rewarded, you were judged by the extent that you produced. And production meant legislation.
Angelo: Yes, turning out the votes, your votes. Yes.
Smith: And now it’s as if differences are not meant to be narrowed, but exploited. You are rewarded for preventing things from happening rather than facilitating them.
Angelo: I think we’re seeing an interesting clash on that point of view even as we speak. I think President Obama is interested in the kind of politics that we’re speaking of in the past time where you were civil, you could clash on the floor, but it was never or rarely mean-spirited. It was tough politics, but look at Everett Dirksen and Lyndon Johnson. The two clashed on everything and were such good friends and savored the fact that they could be buddies and they were.
Smith: They were drinking buddies, too.
Angelo: I’m sure.
Smith: One of the factors in the whole effort to replace Charlie Halleck was that the Ev and Charlie Show, was usually the Ev Show. Beyond that, that Ev, for all of his wonderful qualities, was a much more accommodating figure to the Johnson White House and that Republicans in the House wanted a little more of an independent voice.
Angelo: Yes, I’m sure that’s a correct reading of it. Did the Republican Party suffer from that? I don’t think so. I think it was a much stronger party in the context of the Congress than it is today. So, you could argue that it paid off.
Smith: I remember asking Walter Mondale about this; when you went to Washington 40 years ago, whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, you found yourself in a party that had a Right and a Left wing. So that, you had to internally learn how to deal with people with whom you disagreed before you even went out on the stage and tried to pass legislation in the Congress as a whole. And that’s really no longer the case. Plus, Ford’s Republican party was anchored in the Midwest.
Angelo: Yes, it was a moderate Republican party. As we have seen in recent past years, this whole far hard Right conservatives are all tied in with religion. It came after their time and I couldn’t put a finger on exactly what triggered it, but the attitudes that we’re speaking of in the day of Lyndon Johnson and Jerry Ford and Dirksen was a more consensual kind of politics.
Smith: I think today in a lot of quarters, consensus is seen as a dirty word. It’s an equivalent of surrender.
Angelo: Exactly, and that’s the Karl Rove branch of politics. No consensus, we take our stand and that is it. I don’t know whether the Senate as it is now constituted is going to ease up on that or not. I think there was the feeling that maybe they were going to, but I don’t see it. It seems to me that they have made a determination that they’re going to continue to be the really hard line opponents.
Smith: When you saw the Fords in their later years, they would go to every convention and they were increasingly, not ostracized, but they were increasingly isolated. They were pro-choice, pro-gay rights, I mean, things that just set them apart.
Angelo: Even today, they are touchy. But one of the things about covering the Fords and, I can say this but I shouldn’t say it in any way publicly – Jerry did ask me, after Jerry terHorst, his first press secretary, left, following the pardon, although Jerry terHorst says that wasn’t the reason, that there were a lot of other reasons that I have forgotten because I don’t know if I actually believe him on that.
Smith: There is a school of thought that terHorst, in effect, used the pardon and his genuine upset over the pardon, as cover for the fact that he had decided one month into this job that it was just overwhelming.
Angelo: Certainly, Jerry terHorst has told me that, yes. That it was seen as being because of the pardon, but he said it really wasn’t. So, but there it is. But anyway, after that, I was pleasantly astonished and honored that they tracked me down at a conference that the Life top editors and some of the key correspondents were having someplace in Connecticut at one of those conference centers. They tracked me down and the call came in and it was whispered loudly in my ear that the White House is on the line. So, you go to the phone and it was one of Ford’s top people, his name, of course you would know, and he said, “The President asked me to ask you to be his press secretary.” And I got the feeling that that’s (?) aide who was Bob Hartmann, who’s a wonderful guy, but I think he thought, “What?! Why her?” And I just said really right off, “I can’t do it. I’ve got a 12-year old son and that’s a 20-hour day on a good day job, and I can’t do it.”
So, anyway, the next day I was back in Washington and he had John Scali, who was then ambassador to the United Nations and who had been a journalist and so he was an old friend, he had him call me and repeat that. And I was really honored, but I explained to him the same thing. I would’ve been the first woman press secretary. You know, any ‘first’, it’s like, “Hey, we’re making a little progress here.” And we have with no thanks to me. And I explained to him the same reason and I remember John saying, “This is the president asking. You don’t turn down the president.” I said, “But I have this problem of a lively 10-year old son,” or eleven years old, whatever he was, “and I really have to be there.” He said, “Okay, I can take that to the president.” And that was the end of that.
Betty Ford had already asked me before if I would be hers, but I just could not see any interest for me on being in the East Wing. I would’ve been happy to work with her. But it amazed me that they would turn to me because I thought it was a very bold thing to do. I’m not cut out to be a press secretary. I couldn’t explain that to anybody, but I am not cut out to be. I just like to call them, wherever the arrow lands, and that was just such a terrible time. It was right after the pardon. It was such a poisonous time and all I could think about was going into that press room and having people, some of my colleagues, rip me apart. So I was honored and still feel honored that I was asked.
Smith: That’s a great story. Let me back up, because you mentioned Bob Hartmann. Why was Hartmann such a polarizing figure?
Angelo: He was just a very gruff individual. I had known him when he was a journalist and was head of the L.A. Times bureau. For awhile, his office and the one I was involved in were on the same floor, so we saw a lot of each other. But he was a tough journalist and kind of a gruff figure and I think that that personality trait is a little bit harder than one that’s goes down easily.
Smith: One senses he was also, not just protective of Ford, but possessive of Ford.
Angelo: That’s probably true. Yes, because that happens to a lot of them, doesn’t it? Yes. There are also a lot of them that want their own, to a degree, their own kind of preferences put out there ahead of some others. But Bob was gruff and I think that was it.
Smith: When Agnew left and Ford was nominated to replace him, did you sense or was there anything like a consensus in the press corps that Nixon would be leaving?
Angelo: No, I was going to tell you where I was the night that the choice was being made. One of my colleagues was with Ford, I was with George Bush. George Bush was, it was really like that. I mean and Bush is really such a nice man, Bush the father. And then when the word came in, yes, he was really crestfallen because he wanted it then and would’ve been very good as a vice president. He and I talked about this once later and he said that, “Yes, it was the best thing that happened to me that I was not chosen.” But that’s how close it was. And you were mentioning, who was the other one you had mentioned in terms of being thought of for vice president?
Smith: When Agnew was replaced?
Angelo: Yeah. Well, see, the reason I’m saying is that I just know the two, that one of my colleagues was with Ford and I was with Bush.
Smith: And Rumsfeld had an interest. I think more so during the Ford presidency.
Angelo: Yes, I was trying to think in terms of—
Smith: I think Ford said that the three names on Ford’s list when he had to pick one were Rockefeller, Bush, and Rumsfeld.
Angelo: Yes, that seems very believable, but I was just talking about the first choice.
Smith: At that point, did you think that Nixon might well be forced from office?
Angelo: I think maybe that thought was beyond reality to us. However, I did distinctly feel, “I hope you know what you’re doing” in terms of Ford, because it just looked to me like, as they say in the South, 50 miles of bad road dead ahead. But I actually did not realize, we just had no precedent for that in all of our history, so you would think that they would find some sort of way. But just having to go into that venomous White House at that time did not seem to me like a real prize, but it turned out to be.
Smith: He [Ford] was put in an impossible position, and so what he did was, he got out of town. I mean, he was on the road.
Angelo: Yes, oh listen, I had more travel that year. I was in Hawaii. When we were in Hawaii for about four days and part of it was at a Rock resort, you know those wonderful Rockefeller resorts. I remembered talking to a couple of others, there were just about five of us that’d go with him, but it was because Time wanted me with him wherever he was, in case that moment was when he would become president. And it was not a death watch, it was a selection watch.
Smith: That brings up a huge question, because here’s a guy who really likes reporters, who enjoyed socializing with reporters, and yet he’s in this impossible zone where at some point he obviously has to know this could possibly happen, but he presumably can’t discuss it.
Angelo: But he obviously knew it could happen or he wouldn’t have been going anywhere they asked him that he was invited. At that period in time, we went.
Smith: To stay out of Washington.
Angelo: Right. I saw more odd parts of the United States during that period, but I was happy to have that nice four days of nothing to do, we were not doing a story, there might be a line in where the [vice] president…
Smith: During all those months of travel, down time, socializing, after a couple of drinks, people must have asked him on or off the record, “What do you think of the president’s chances of survival?”
Angelo: They might have. I would not have asked him. To me, it’s a wasted question. I don’t care. Off the record and he says, “Zero”? I don’t think so. They might have, but there wasn’t quite that much socializing. I think Ford knew this was a very unique period to be traveling around the country and not to be in Washington where you were the vice president. Who knows what? So, I don’t think there was that kind of discussion. Or he would’ve said, “I’m not talking about it.”
Smith: But he in effect spent a year or nine months walking on eggshells.
Angelo: Well, yes. Was it as long as nine months?
Smith: Well, yeah, because in October he was nominated, and he was confirmed, I think, in December.
Angelo: Was it that late?
Smith: Yeah, the FBI investigation and then, of course, until August, so eight months, I think, as vice president. Something like that.
Angelo: Yes. And then there came the time really late when it was obvious—
Smith: Can you think back? Was it the smoking gun tape or was it something before that? Some people said the Supreme Court decision, when the court ruled that Nixon had to give up the tapes.
Angelo: Well, that was vital to everything. The question that we all had in the press was, “Why hadn’t he destroyed them before it came to that?” You wonder, given the fact that they contained such incredible information.
Smith: We saw Al Haig about ten days ago and he said he advised the president to destroy them.
Angelo: Yeah, I think that makes sense. It wasn’t against the law, they were his tapes, you can do anything you want to with them. And to hang on to them when they had that totally incriminating evidence on it.
Smith: We talked about mysteries earlier. Has anyone ever to your satisfaction resolved the 18 ½ minute gap?
Angelo: No. Not really resolved it, but who doesn’t think Rose Mary Woods did it? The jokes about how she was reaching for the phone, it got to be just a subject of jollity.
Smith: She was a total loyalist, though.
Angelo: Oh, total. Rose Mary Woods, and I think there’s a genre of women who work to support important men, who are committed to him in a way they would not be committed to their husbands, because there’s hero worship there which does not occur much with husbands.
Smith: As with Ann Whitman and Eisenhower.
Angelo: Yes, you think of it in many, many cases. There were other political ones, too, that’s lives were – well, I think Bobby Kennedy, his wonderful assistant was Angie Novelo, a wonderful person. She really had no life outside of it. Her life at Robert Kennedy’s side as his personal secretary, I mean, she was something more than just a regular secretary, Angie was family friend. She was everything, intelligent. It was obviously such a more interesting life than life outside. People forget that when you are tied to a really dynamic, important political figure, it’s racy. And so I never felt that Angie was giving up anything, I felt she was getting a wonderful insight.
Smith: The sad thing is that it comes to an end.
Angelo: Yes, it does.
Smith: Ann Whitman was the classic example. Who went to Gettysburg after the presidency and hated it and then went to work for the Rockefellers for a number of years and then came back during his vice presidency and it wasn’t very successful.
Angelo: I think that once you’ve been on the inner, inner-circle of the White House, as those very special secretaries were, there were just a few that were in there on everything, people don’t know their names in many cases. Nothing else can be very interesting by contrast.
Smith: Can you remember when you concluded that Nixon was history? That Ford would become president?
Angelo: I guess I really thought so from the minute I was assigned to be with him everywhere he went. I mean, I really thought we were just waiting for the time, we didn’t know when it was going to happen, so we wanted me, in this case, to be with him because it was that imminent. I think I probably thought it before, wondering how. But until the missing tapes, we couldn’t be sure. Look what he had gotten through? Pretty amazing.
Smith: Were you surprised? I mean, Ford was surprised by the language on the tapes.
Angelo: Oh! Well, I’m a stuffy person, I was really stunned, yes. Richard Nixon always seemed very proper, very stiffly proper. He never was at home with himself, which is a bad sign right there. Jerry Ford was never not at home with himself and it’s just the contrast was so incredible.
Smith: There was a little bit of the Boy Scout in Ford, wasn’t there?
Angelo: Oh, yes, and I mean there’s just this in terms of analyzing or thinking about Jerry Ford’s character and behavior, there just is not, in my mind, a negative. You might not like some of his policies. You might think he went down the road without thinking maybe whatever the Republicans wanted him to do. That was it. He took that as his role. He was the carrier of the flag, not the person who was developing the policy. And did it very well.
Smith: You wonder if there was also though – on one hand it’s a very admirable quality in a person, it might not be a very admirable quality in a President – a naïveté.
Smith: I mean, he believed Nixon.
Angelo: But didn’t he have to? I mean, can you work for a man that you think did those things and be his vice president and say nothing negative, unless you really have convinced yourself this was really not the way it was. I think, of course, by the time the tapes became known – I still remember the moment in the Time bureau when Alexander Butterfield was testifying before a House or Senate committee, I believe, not a court thing, but I believe it was a Senate committee. And just, almost as a throw-away line, he made reference to the tapes or the taping system, I believe it was. And down the halls at Time Magazine, I could tell you, you could hear jaws dropping and people saying, “What is this?” and people getting on the phone to try to find out more. Of course, you couldn’t because nobody else knew. So you were faced with a historic story and nobody else knew.
Smith: Laird told a remarkable story, because, you know, they brought him back into the White House for awhile. And about a month after he was there, Fred Buzhardt came to him. Now, Buzhardt had been his counsel at the Pentagon and Buzhardt wanted to protect his friend, Mel. And he came to Laird and said, “Don’t believe the president. The fact is, I’ve been listening to these tapes. He’s in it up to his neck.”
Angelo: Oh! Buzhardt said that?
Smith: Yes. I don’t think that’s ever been published.
Angelo: I don’t think it has because I certainly remember his coming, but we looked on him as a rescue effort. You know, there’s his old friend who’s coming and obviously a very good lawyer, coming to save the man.
And he heard the tapes and said that? Did he stay there after that or did he leave?
Smith: Laird wrestled with his own conscience about it, but he stayed a while. But the sequel is, I asked Haig, “Did you listen to any of these tapes?” He said, “Fred Buzhardt gave me very good advice. He said, ‘Don’t get caught dead alone in a room with a tape.” So, they were all willing to let Buzhardt be the agent and informer who tipped them off to the fact that the president has real problems.
Angelo: That was Buzhardt?
Smith: Yeah, because Buzhardt was clearly the source. And then there’s this bizarre scene, I think it’s on the 7th. No, it’s a week earlier. Haig lets Ford know the first of August that there’s this “problem tape” and obviously Ford realizes what all this is going to lead to, but he has to go through this charade with Mrs. Ford of visiting the vice president’s house-to-be and talk about drapes and china and pretend that nothing’s going on.
Angelo: That’s funny, because I would’ve thought that part would’ve occurred much earlier.
Smith: No, it was a week before Nixon left that Haig informed the vice president about the smoking gun tape.
Angelo: Yes, yes, I understand that.
Smith: It was about that time that the tape was released to the public which really brought the roof in. But Ford had to go through the motions.
Angelo: Yes, but I thought he would have done that earlier, when he was first picked as vice president. We’re talking several months.
Smith: He was going to be the first vice president to live at that house in the Naval Observatory.
Angelo: That’s right because Rockefeller, who he then picked as his vice president, furnished it but didn’t live in it. His own house was rather grander.
Smith: Yes. So, he had to go through the motions and then put on this performance. Then that night, they went to dinner with Betty Beale, and he said nothing.
Angelo: I would hope not!
Smith: And at midnight, he comes home and he says, “Betty, we’re not going to live in that house.”
Angelo: Oh, did he? But he said it to Betty Ford, not Betty Beale?
Smith: No, Betty Ford.
Angelo: Okay, because to say it to Betty Ford is one of those things, but saying it to Betty Beale who is an excellent gossip columnist…
Smith: So at that point, basically a week before he becomes president, he accepts the fact. What was that last week like?
Angelo: I’m trying to, it’s such a jumble in my mind because we all knew, “When is this going to happen?” All the reports, and you talk to your people, what you could, to your people in the White House. And I remember one of the closest people to Betty Ford on her side, one of really the closest, they were walking down…the [Nixon] family was going on a little river cruise on the presidential yacht, which we had until Jimmy Carter decided presidents didn’t need yachts. And she said, “I know that I felt this is like seeing the czar and the family walking away.” And it was such an image of the czar and his family walking to their death and this family walking to its political death that that stuck in my mind.
Smith: Did you have any sort of contact with him during this period?
Angelo: With Nixon?
Smith: No, I’m sorry, with Ford. I mean, were you still covering him?
Angelo: Oh, yeah, well, we were travelling. Yeah, I covered him right up until the day, you know.
Smith: Was there anything different about him?
Angelo: No, Jerry Ford was Jerry Ford, which was one of the wonderful things in my view about Jerry Ford. The turbulence that might have been going on within him, he did not display. He was a picture of confidence and gravity and, I think, sorrow. He didn’t really want all of this to happen. Do you think?
Smith: Plus, Richard Nixon was his friend.
Angelo: And Richard Nixon picked him for vice president and that in and of itself was a triumph for Representative Ford to be picked as vice president. He’s such a good man, Jerry Ford, that I don’t think he could’ve been harboring any glee.
Smith: Bob Barrett said something, because you don’t think of Ford as a secretive man, but Bob Barrett said, “I guarantee you he took to the grave all sorts of things.”
Angelo: Ah, yeah, secretive is one thing, but discreet is another. And I think he would have been a man – because he had such a moral anchor – Jerry Ford was a man who knew where he was, knew where he came from, knew the principles he should live by and did it. I don’t know a negative in terms of ethics or morality that you could accuse him of.
Smith: It’s interesting, I remember, when I was around him in the later years, you know, most politicians love to gossip.
Angelo: Oh, well, yes.
Smith: He wasn’t a gossip. I mean, he loved to talk politics, but he would politely change the subjects if personal gossip came up.
Angelo: Yeah, that matches what I know about him as well. He was friendly with reporters. I mean, we had such a little group of us going on the death watch, so to speak, of the presidency.
Smith: We heard Phil Jones talk about that airplane that the White House provided him with as sort of decidedly downscale.
Angelo: Yeah, I guess so.
Smith: It wasn’t exactly Air Force Two.
Angelo: No, it was not. You know, I just remember it being kind of a p-l-a-i-n plane, you know? But they got barred from the Air Force. I know that there didn’t seem to be any fancying up done for him. And my feeling is that he would not have wanted it because it might have been a symbol that he did not wish to show at that time. I think he was very circumspect. If anybody talked to him in terms of those questions, he just turned them aside. It’s lovely to see somebody who has that great respect for the serious ethics involved in this whole thing. But Jerry Ford was a man who, as far as I know and I watched him over a number of years, was a man who’s ethics could never be challenged. He did the right thing just by instinct. No one had to tell him.
Smith: He didn’t moralize a lot.
Angelo: Didn’t moralize, no. And was fun. You know, he wasn’t stuffy.
Smith: Speaking of fun – one senses there was real camaraderie on that plane.
Angelo: Oh, yeah, because we were such a small group, and it mostly was just networks and Time Magazine, I suppose Newsweek was it as well, but just the little group of national things, nobody was rushing to their, at that time it was still typewriters, not computers yet, but we had time.
Smith: Were there drinks served on the plane?
Angelo: Oh, sure. Oh, sure. I don’t recall any kind of problem. I don’t recall any kind of problem with any press plane where you can always get it. Richard Nixon cut out the drinks at one point. Richard Nixon, there was nothing too small that he wouldn’t do if he felt that it could hurt you. And I was with Time Magazine on the plane with him many times and Time Magazine was the first to call for his resignation. He was going to Key Biscayne that day and who was on the pool? Time Magazine. Me. That was as uncomfortable as anything could be. Ron Zeigler came back and he said that the president had one special thing to say, and I can’t remember his precise words, but he said, “He takes no note of what Time Magazine thinks about anything.”
Smith: Is that as bad as having the drinks cut off?
Angelo: No! We might’ve even gotten that in the magazine. I certainly filed it. But I was just thinking about the times the little things that Nixon – well, the next time that I was on the pool, the reporter pool, being okay, you circulate from national. Whoever gets on Air Force One, it was not any great favor, believe me, because Nixon would often, almost always, he would eat before leaving, so there was no food. So you might have a cross country trip without any food, which, you know, doesn’t sound bad unless you were so hungry. And then it does. And you knew it was intentional. That was no question. But I was out in California cross-country once, was in the pool, and he threw me off. He had instructed whoever was handling the roster, “No, no, Time Magazine is not going. We’re going to San Diego and so you have to let,” I’ve forgotten the name, lovely woman, a reporter and a serious one, “It’s her paper and we’ve got to put her on. And so Bonnie’s off.” It was alright with me because we never got anything anyway off the plane. Turns out, she was a friend of mine and I said, “I was glad because I realize you needed it.” She said, “I didn’t want it. They asked me to do it. I wanted to be on the other plane, because I had work to do.” So that was their way of just, “Time Magazine is being thrown off.” I took it as a mark of distinction.
Smith: He really spent a lifetime at war with the establishment.
Angelo: Yeah. Yes, but Time was tough on him. As I say, Time was the first major publication to call for his resignation. Now, that’s pretty tough. And we had been all along and we had a splendid Watergate specialist. He was good, right up there with Woodward and Bernstein and they were good about swapping information. Sandy Smith was his name and he’d been one of the old Life Magazine investigative teams and at one point had been an FBI man himself. So, he was doing remarkably astute reporting during the early part of all this story where you could still try to find out how things were happening and what was going on before it became a court kind of deal. So, Time had been hard on Nixon all along and he didn’t take that lightly. And I can understand that. Why should you like a magazine that’s trying to get you to resign?
Smith: Were you in the East Room when Ford was sworn into office?
Angelo: None of us were. It was not press covered. Maybe they got a pool reporter. They probably had to have a pool, the wires. But I was not, but in my office we were all gathered around every conceivable television set watching every minute of it. It was, you know, in your mind, you know, the tape is running, it’s still running and you just see how he looked and how Pat Nixon looked, because I really liked Pat Nixon. I felt that she was given a hard role to play, got nothing in -I don’t want to make judgments – but you felt that she got nothing in closeness or esteem in return from the president’s men. So, to see her as we all do in all our minds, watching that was almost more than you could bear, because she had been dragged into something that was not of her doing at all and this historic humiliation.
Smith: On television.
Angelo: On television.
Smith: It’s more than a footnote, it’s a fascinating detour, the real Pat Nixon.
Angelo: Oh, yes. I liked Pat Nixon so much. I felt she was caged. I felt that Haldeman and Erlichman kept her on such a tight leash. She was actually Pat Ryan. And I traveled with her – I liked to go on her trips just to watch this. And I went places with her that really, basically, no other Washington-based reporters went along with her because it was long and expensive. But one that I remember particularly was a trip that she made, a solo trip to Africa. We went to Ghana, met all these wonderful – up in the jungles of Ghana – all these wonderful kings. And Ghana, of course, is the Gold Coast, and I understood why it was the Gold Coast. They were just wreathed in gold. And Pat Nixon was having such a good time.
We went from there to Liberia where there was a very pro-American president being installed. There was a big parade, the streets were lined – of course, you could do this by edict. But I think they were just excited about this American first lady. The streets were lined just for her. She had a wonderful program arranged for her. I saw Pat Ryan emerge. Pat Nixon was left somewhere flying over the middle of the Atlantic. She was this laughing, smiling, eager, loving person, and I wished…because I liked her so much and felt that she was getting such a raw deal in that whole White House. They didn’t care about what she did unless it was what they told her to do.
I just felt Pat Nixon/Pat Ryan is such a different person and she has never really been seen that way by the American people. I tried in several stories to show her in this exuberant kind of… One picture that is very clear in my mind; she was seeing women dancers, a very special group that was dancing for her in a closed room. It was not out on the street, this was a formal program. I, and a few others in the press, most of them African-based, were across the room from her – maybe six of us. And I thought, this is really a unique experience because all these bare-breasted, black women were doing these really exciting dances, and I thought, I’m seeing Pat Nixon framed by flying black breasts. It was a picture I treasure in my mind.
But I always felt that when he courted her, and he really courted her, he was not really interested at first, from everything you read, and from what she’s made clear. But he did, he assiduously courted her and I think what a difference – something that he really saw – Pat Ryan was who he fell in love with. And I think he was. And as the years settled down she really became Pat Nixon and she had to fill a role and we, the public in general, never, rarely saw her as this Irish, wonderful Irish, Patricia Ryan. And I was very fond of her. I thought she was a special person and was being misused.
Smith: It’s nice to get that on the record. Was Betty Ford, in some ways, liberated by the White House?
Angelo: I can remember having this discussion with one of our distinguished correspondents who had covered Ford constantly in the House, so he had known Ford and he had known Betty. And he said, “Oh, Betty Ford is not going to be happy with this.” I said, “Neil” – Neil McNeill – “Betty Ford is finally getting to be somebody. She is going to be the First Lady of the United States with her own staff, her own interests. She is going to be a liberated woman and love it.” And I think I was right and I think she played her role wonderfully. And she was not afraid to say things that were quite – that other first ladies would have stayed a mile away from. And on television.
Smith: Well, there was the famous Sixty Minutes interview.
Angelo: Oh, yes.
Smith: Now, the sense I have is, in this town everyone is always fighting the last war. So you have a White House full of good, gray political types – men – whose initial, immediate, instinctive reaction was, “Oh my God, what has she done?”
Angelo: Exactly. Oh, she’s saying these outrageous things! And I was looking at it, having been very interested in advancing the cause of women and the women’s movement, and I said, “Here we’ve got a First Lady who is saying the things that a great segment of this country wants said.” And she was tremendously popular for it because she put her chips right there behind liberated women.
Smith: And, of course, before that there was the breast cancer surgery. Tell it to the people in this generation – I think it’s almost impossible for them to understand the extent to which it wasn’t discussed.
Angelo: It was not discussed, and then we had several that made it very public. But most of them after Betty. I remember that day, so specifically, I was doing a cover story, which I have lying around here somewhere in case you wanted to see it, on the travails of Pat Nixon and – who was the other first lady in there, I forget. It’s right over there on my table.
Smith: A contemporary of Pat Nixon’s?
Angelo: The first lady that…
Angelo: No, it was not Ladybird. Lyndon really respected Ladybird. He conferred with her. He asked her opinion on things. She was wise, and she understood Lyndon Johnson. And she put up with a lot of things, but she never – he was a man meant for greatness. And I think she was right. She then carved out greatness for herself. What a first lady she was. Can you reach over to the table for a minute and let me see.
When the week began, I was doing a cover story on Joan Kennedy who was Senator Ted Kennedy’s first wife, of course. Who had been sent to or committed herself into an alcohol rehabilitation center that week. And then there was Pat Nixon who had gone through the travails that had never been known by any first lady in our history and hopefully never again. And so I was doing a cover on the travails that the first ladies must bear in public.
So, Ford was speaking to a group out somewhere in this direction, and I said, “The publisher wants a publisher’s picture with me and Betty Ford,” just because I had her quoted in the story. And she said, “Sure. I’ve got to go for an appointment at NIH,” that’s the National Institute of Health, which is just out beyond where I’m speaking of, afterwards. She said, “I’ll wait right outside and then we’ll get the picture and then I can go in there.” And so we did. So the picture of us is in the magazine looking very jolly together.
The next day it was announced that she had cancer. And I thought, she knew that she was going to NIH to get the final word which was going to be that she had cancer of the breast. And she stopped and did her commitment to speak, but then she did something – she could have said, oh Bonnie, we’ll do it some other time. She stopped, took lots of time with the photographer taking our pictures without ever mentioning it. So then I rewrote the cover the next day, and they put Betty Ford’s picture on it, too. Because here’s three first ladies – no Joan Kennedy wasn’t first lady, but political-wise, in these disastrous circumstances, and I was doing the story and she was a source, and then she became one of the principals. And I will always remember her kindness.
Smith: And in fact, the day before she went in for the surgery, the president and she had committed to the dedication of the Johnson Grove.
Angelo: Yes. I can’t remember, I should read my cover story, because it’s a little vague. I can’t remember whether she actually knew for certain that she had breast cancer when she stopped to talk to me, but if it hadn’t been certain she knew that this was the issue. And the Lyndon Johnson thing, I think she’d gone earlier that morning…
Smith: She’d taken the Johnsons through the White House, and she entertained them for tea. In fact, there is a picture. Her suitcase is sitting at the foot of the bed that she is going to take to the hospital the next day. She never says anything.
Angelo: That’s right. I think she did them in the morning, I think it was an eleven o’clock thing, because then she had this speech with this group out at the Sheraton Park Hotel, and that was where I was there and we posed for that little picture with the publisher’s letter – not having a clue. And she was smiling and generous with her time and herself. In retrospect, I thought, what a warm and generous and thoughtful personality. Instead of saying the first lady cannot see you today, we can’t explain it.
I think Betty Ford was so special for many reasons. She had not really been a captive of the political spotlight. Part of it was because she was always home with the children. So she didn’t have the edges all worn smooth. She just was who she was. That’s why she would say on Sixty Minutes, well, yes, something like if her daughter – I can’t remember…
Smith: Having an affair.
Angelo: Having an affair and whatever, that she’d just say, “Well, yes, I’d want her to talk to me about it, though.”
Smith: That was such a lesson to all of us because we found out – guess what? This is how real people talk. This is what they are talking about.
Angelo: That’s right. She was a real person. She had her problems that real people have. We all know that Betty was hooked on certain drugs.
Smith: Did you know then? What did you know? What was surmised?
Angelo: I knew that sometimes she was spacey, and one of her close people said, “That’s because she has to take these medications.” Well, she did have to take the medications, but she was taking them in inappropriate measure. But I was kind of cautioned on a number of times when I was seeing her personally, so that I would not be troubled by it. As far as alcohol – well, I knew that she and one of her kind of informal assistant – I don’t know whether this person was ever on the White House staff, but she kind of ingratiated herself into the…
Smith: Nancy Howe?
Angelo: Yeah. And I know that they would have their afternoon drinks together. And we know, in retrospect, that was the worst thing that could be done with somebody who was having problems with a tendency toward alcoholism. But that was Nancy’s way of getting in. It was not to be admired. So Betty Ford had those things. I was told about them, the possibility that she would seem spacey before they were ever in the White House. I was having lunch with one of her really good friends, just to fill in on gaps that I didn’t know, and she said, “She has to take these drugs.” And that was true.
Smith: It’s not the whole truth.
Angelo: But when she later wrote a book about being an alcoholic, I’ve got a copy of it around, but I can’t remember the name of it right now, it was an absolutely bare, tell-all, how I became an alcoholic; how I finally, finally was forced by Jerry Ford to take action. He was really making it very plain that this could not, he would not put up with it. This was after they were out of the White House. But she did not really attack that. I think it got worse when they were out of the White House, also. Maybe she missed the excitement and the support. Where Betty Ford, she’d not been an actress, she’d been a dancer, she’d been a performer, and then all of a sudden she was kind of shut away in her house across the river in Alexandria. So when she got to the White House, there was a stage for her to perform and then she did it beautifully. Except she was always kind of a little bit uncertain there. It wasn’t really known – there was this feeling that maybe she’s taking too much of her medication. But it was not really known.
Smith: You mentioned the pardon. My sense is that he – this goes back to the naiveté – the first press conference was on August 28th and he went there believing that people were going to talk about Turkey and Cyprus and inflation, and everything except what people wanted to talk about. And he left that press conference, by all accounts, angry, I think partly at himself, I think he thought he didn’t do very well.
Angelo: He didn’t!
Smith: Tell us about that.
Angelo: I can’t recall it in specifics because it was a long time ago and there were a lot of other press conferences. But he didn’t handle the questions very well, and because they were so personal he was not ready for them. A good press secretary would have sat down and said, “Now, you’re going to have to deal with some of these things. Now how are we going to handle it?” And I don’t think they did. So he came in and he was blindsided. He shouldn’t have been.
Smith: But, that’s it. For him to believe, three weeks after Nixon left, that the press corps had lost its obsession with Nixon, is hard to credit.
Angelo: Yes, it is hard to credit. He didn’t understand the adversarial relationship between the press and Nixon. There’s always an adversarial relationship between the press and any president, because they don’t want to tell you and you want to be told. Or you want to have it confirmed when you’ve gotten it from somebody else. But as Minority Leader of the House, people kind of did the things he wanted them to do. As he would speak all around the country, there was no challenge. He was speaking to Republicans, boosting them. I doubt that he ever spoke to a Democratic group, why should he? So he just hadn’t had the challenge. He was not a man who would challenge on his own, it wouldn’t seem proper. And there you go back to his wonderful upbringing.
His mother, and I say this because he talked to me. I wrote a book called First Mothers and how they are a powerful influence on the sons who became presidents. And of the modern ones, those are the ones from Franklin Roosevelt forward – those are the only ones you deal with because the nineteenth century was a whole different world. The mother was the big influence in his life, not the father. Every single one of them. That’s not to say the fathers of some were not also influential, but it was the mother. And in Jerry Ford’s life, which wasn’t – oh his story, I know we don’t have time for that, but his story is so touching – that his mother was married as a young society girl in the small town in Illinois? Is that where he was born?
Smith: He was born in Omaha.
Angelo: So she had a big society wedding – it covered the whole front page. They were, in this town, they were society. So he didn’t come from some nobody. And that she married a wealthy heir to a major kind of fortune, who was, indeed, based in Omaha. They went on their honeymoon on the train, as they did in those days, to California and go down the California coast – a marvelous trip with your own compartment and all that.
When he got to Portland, Oregon, and they went in the elevator in the hotel a gentleman tipped his hat to her in the elevator – quite properly – and she smiled at him – quite properly. In their room, he struck her – her brand new husband of what – three days? Now that is not a good way to start a marriage. And it only went down from there. Then she left at the end of their long train ride – and he continued to abuse her going down the coast of California – when they got back to Omaha she called her parents and they were waiting on the other side of the river and she fled.
He called and promised to her parents that he’d never do it again – so she did go back to him. And that time she got pregnant and had a son named for him. It was Leslie King. When he was six weeks old, she was holding him in her arms and her husband attacked her with a butcher knife. Now that makes me shiver when I say the words. Then, with the baby’s nurse – they had a lot of money, they were very wealthy people – her baby’s nurse stood watch while they contacted her parents. She went across the river where she could again – the first time she had not quite crossed the river – they took her home.
The stigma was so great that they could not live in their town where they had been such a prominent family. Her father, such a supportive man, took her, with the little boy, little Junie, in her arms to Grand Rapids. He gave up his furniture business. He was one of those small town prosperous businessmen. Started from scratch in Grand Rapids with his daughter and this baby boy. She started going to church there, the Episcopal church nearby, and there she met a man named Gerald Rudolph Ford.
After a proper time he courted her and married her and the baby immediately became Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr., which he was always so proud of, he was always so pleased. And it was the happiest marriage and family you could dream up after that terrible beginning. The father once came, saw the strapping high school boy working, flipping hamburgers during the Depression, I guess, at lunch time and wanted to take him back to his ranch in Wyoming. And Gerald Rudolph Ford said, “No, my place is here.” He didn’t even entertain the notion.
I just think that that was such a touching – that such a terrible beginning for Jerry Ford to have endured, even as a baby. Then his mother and stepfather had three other sons, and I said to him – he was wonderful talking about this, his eyes teared up, as they would – and I said, “Were you treated differently by your stepfather when he had his own three sons?” He said, “Yes. I was treated better.” He said, “I was the favorite son.” At every turn he could name something for him and it would be his mother and his stepfather’s name – so such a good thing to happen to such a good man.
Smith: I wonder whether, in some ways, it didn’t instill in him – I was constantly surprised at his compassion, at his understanding of people in places in life where you wouldn’t think he’d have much knowledge. It went beyond tolerance.
Angelo: It would be empathy.
Smith: Empathy. That’s a great way of putting it. He was still a conservative, and God knows, fiscally, he was the last real conservative in the White House. Reagan ran up these budget deficits. Jerry Ford vetoed all these bills, used up his political capital. But that didn’t, in any way, effect this kind of empathy – it’s a great word.
Angelo: He really knew the Depression up close and personal. His stepfather had a paint supply company. Grand Rapids was the great furniture capital at that time. In the Depression people didn’t buy furniture, and so then people didn’t buy paint that went into the process of furniture. So they had it really tough and that’s why he was working flipping hamburgers.
They had pictures of him before the Depression, when they would go to Florida in an open kind of car – kind of an open limousine. They lived well, and then the Depression just ____________. So he knew firsthand what it was like. Much worse, I think to have had money, and lose it, I think that gave him the great feeling for people who were suffering, particularly those who, not from their own way of living, but what was done to them. I just think he was a man who cared about people – a lot.
Smith: He liked people, didn’t he?
Angelo: Oh, yes, he liked people.
Smith: You can’t fake that over a career. Nixon and Ford…
Angelo: You just can’t put that sentence to Richard Nixon. You can’t. But Ford liked people and people liked him. Even his opponents liked Jerry Ford.
Smith: Let me ask you, the pardon. Did it come as thunderclap to you?
Angelo: Yes, it certainly did, to me. Because it came on a Sunday, and I happened to be the person that got the White House call to say, “Bonnie you ought to be here because we’re going to have an important…” Sunday – the magazine is already on the stands. So I hike myself down to the White House, but in the meanwhile I’m trying to find one of my editors on a summer Sunday morning and it was not easy. They were all in their yachts somewhere or whatever. And I said, “It’s going to be important. I don’t know what it is, but it’s going to be important.” I don’t know what I said, I don’t know whether I was _______ enough to say it might have to do with Nixon. I did ask Jerry Warren, who was the one who called me, a couple of questions that were not what it was. It was not a military thing, I knew that. So that just almost led us to Nixon. So then you were at the White House and it was Sunday and you were trying to report this story, your magazine is already closed and your sources are nowhere. It was a memorable day.
Smith: And were there other reporters, obviously, in the same…
Angelo: Especially all the dailies needed something for Mondays. It was just the news magazines that get hit by having – and all those editors were hauled in from their yachts or whatever, in New York.
Smith: I remember having a long, more than one, conversation with him about this because I thought there had to be a more politically adroit way of doing this.
Angelo: Had to be.
Smith: But, you know, it’s funny because we sort of war gamed this. One evening we spent three hours going back and forth, and Mel Laird, who always had a scheme for everything, of course, Mel figured out he could have taken care of this, too.
Angelo: He could of.
Smith: He was going to bring a delegation from both Houses, both parties, to the White House to ask Ford to pardon Nixon. The problem is, looking back, if you try to put yourself in that superheated, overcharged political climate, the first trial balloon would have been shot down before it ever reached the trees.
Smith: I don’t know how the president could have prepared the country, short of letting the legal process play itself out.
Angelo: Because it would absolutely blow up the whole country. And then you’re going to do it anyway? If you’re going to do it that way, you’ve got to be willing to say, “Okay, I won’t pardon him. I would like to, but if it’s not in the interest of this whole country, I will not do it.” He couldn’t have it erupt and then do it, do you think?
Smith: No. That’s my point. I try to come up with an alternative scenario. What’s the alternative?
Angelo: My scenario is that he should have gotten something in return from Richard Nixon. It’s as simple as that. He had to have admitted things, he had to be plea bargaining. And I think he made a mistake in not doing that. I personally, was disappointed that he didn’t do that. Because you’re letting the man get off Scott-free. He’s just done something that’s never been – jeopardizing our presidency – never before in our country to that extent, by a president himself. And I just didn’t see why he didn’t do that. And I was told that it was Al Haig who talked him out of it.
Smith: Out of taking that approach – that tough approach. That’s interesting.
Angelo: And I was told by somebody who really knew. It was not just an idle person. I can’t recall which White House source, but it was not…
Smith: Let me play devil’s advocate – is it because Haig or, fill in the blank, thought Nixon couldn’t be brought to that point? That, in other words, he had so dug in his heels that…
Angelo: Then don’t do it. Okay, you don’t want to do that? Sorry, we offered you this. We won’t do it. You’re the president now, you’ve got some clout. I think it was Al Haig feeling sorry for Richard Nixon. After all, he’d known him over many more years than he’d known Jerry Ford. Had worked with him, had done all that. Many years. I think he just pled for humanity on the part of Jerry Ford, and that would have been the only way he could go. Couldn’t say it politically. But in the name of human kindness. And Jerry Ford was a kind man. That’s the only way I could figure it out.
Smith: Did you cover him when he went up before the House to, in effect, testify about the pardon.
Angelo: I was not there. It was an in-house representative, wasn’t it? Senate and House reporters – that was really on their territory, and so they handled that. Obviously, I watched it on television because we were seeing a drama of historic proportions. Unlike some cases, we knew it was historic. Sometimes you have to have hindsight to know. We knew.
Smith: You don’t think of him as a tragic figure…
Smith: No, Ford. But, there was an element – he felt by the fall of ’76 that he had just really begun to master this job. To know how to do it, and then he lost it.
Angelo: And then he lost, it. Yes. And I think the pardon is what lost it because it was a close election, and there were so many people who felt bitterly about that pardon – to give Richard Nixon, who had trampled over all of our American traditions, not to mention our law – to do that knowingly, and then hide evidence. And then to give him that kind of way to come back in glory, I felt that’s what cost him the election.
Smith: We go back to being naïve; do you think he was, in some ways, naïve in underestimating the Reagan challenge? Either in thinking that Reagan wouldn’t run, or in underestimating the appeal that Reagan would have when he did run.
Angelo: We’re talking about…
Smith: Reagan announces in December of ’75 that he is going to run. But clearly, there is a build up through much of ’75…Apparently there were people in the White House who believed that Reagan wasn’t serious about running, or that if he did run, he wouldn’t be a formidable opponent.
Angelo: Now, they may have thought the other, but if they did, I don’t think that a lot of other people who are politically astute were thinking he wouldn’t run. Because he ran for governor of California and people thought -his movie star? – was eight years a governor and a powerful governor. He was not just a pretty face. So to want to be president was a logical step for Ronald Reagan. So anybody who doubted it, seemed to me whistling in the dark. They didn’t want him to run. So Jerry Ford brought it off that time, yeah.
What was the next step on that? Because the next time Reagan ran…
Smith: In ’80 there was some who approached Ford about running…
Angelo: Wasn’t there some sort of talk about a Ford/Reagan ticket in ’80?
Smith: Yeah, and then in the Detroit convention, for a few hours there is this bizarre minuet that takes place. To this day, there is a certain element of mystery surrounding what really went on.
Angelo: And at that particular time, I missed the wonderful inside coverage of _________ . I was London-based bureau chief at that time, so I was just wishing I were back to do that. But what I turned out to be instead was the go-to commentator on this American political season. I must have done fifty.
Smith: How important was Donald Rumsfeld in the Ford White House? What did he bring to it?
Angelo: I think Donald Rumsfeld, just by being a personality, was important. And I think he was a friend. That matters so much – not somebody who joined politically, but was a friend. So you have to think that he did have a real impact. Then you see in his second coming, that it didn’t fare so well with George W. Bush.
Smith: I look at the press accounts and it’s pretty clear that there were factions in the Ford White House. Which is nothing unusual.
Angelo: Show me a White House without a faction, and I show you a flagging White House.
Smith: But, the Rumsfeld/Rockefeller rivalry – was that something that was well-known to people covering the White House?
Angelo: You know, this is a hard one for me to reconstruct, because it must have been well known, but looking at it now, the Rockefeller thing seems so dominant that I can’t even remember that it was in doubt.
Smith: Did you know he was unhappy as vice president?
Angelo: How can you really know inside? I dealt with him a lot and he was always just terrific to deal with. He was always very enthusiastic or I wouldn’t have been going in search of what he thought if it wasn’t something he was really keen about. I think there were probably times when he felt that he was really doing something important, and that was taking really his skills and using them. Then there were the times when he must have wondered, what do I do now?
Smith: It was such a mismatch in some ways because Ford, in early ’75, announced that there were going to be no new domestic programs until we sort of began to catch up. Of course, to Rockefeller, that’s death.
Angelo: That’s right.
Smith: You get re-elected in New York by coming up with new programs.
Angelo: And that’s really where his heart was, or where his interest lay. Much more, I think, than in foreign policy. A New York governor, so there you are willy ninny.
Smith: And the question is still asked – I have my own answer – was he pushed or did he jump from the ticket in ‘75? When it was announced that he wouldn’t be on the ticket in ’76, I don’t know what the journalistic consensus was at the time.
Angelo: I’m trying to reconstruct what kind of machinations there really was.
Smith: Remember, it was part of the larger package – Schlesinger was fired…
Angelo: It happened on a weekend, as I recall, because I was covering down some place in South Carolina, where we didn’t have good – there were certain days for journalists – when you remember your own problems more than theirs. Yes. And it was kind of a Sunday afternoon slaughter of sorts. And your question was whether Rockefeller was pushed or …
Smith: Whether he jumped.
Angelo: I don’t know. At the time I thought he was pushed. When you look at it, not many politicians jump, because they always think that there is going to be a chance. And then they can look back in recent history and kind of show – Jerry Ford is president – and who thought that four years before? Not that it was the same thing, but the unexpected can happen. And what was the alternative? If you jump, what was he jumping to at that point?
Smith: Were you around the president during the assassination attempts?
Angelo: The Reagan?
Smith: No, the Ford.
Angelo: Oh, the Ford. No, I was not. I was not on those trips. Out in San Francisco? No, Dean Fisher was for us that day. I would cover some of the trips, he would cover some and that just happened to one that he was covering. I was horrified, obviously. And these two bizarre girls, you know?
Smith: And Jerry Ford seemed like the last person in the world who you’d want to take a shot at.
Angelo: Why in the world would you do that, you idiots? And you were just glad they couldn’t shoot straight. If you’d had a John Wilkes Booth, it would have not been that way.
Smith: Did you see much of them after they left Washington?
Angelo: No. I wish I had. They lived out there the whole time. After they left Washington I was in London, and then I was bureau chief in New York. Although I was in and out of Washington all the time, I was not covering Washington. I was covering Mario Cuomo, who didn’t run. I had my bags packed, virtually.
Smith: What’s Betty Ford’s historical impact?
Angelo: I think Betty Ford has real impact, and I can’t say that about that many first ladies. I think she was the first one to speak out about controversial things. First one to have a known problem of alcoholism. There was William McKinley’s wife, Ida – she was always having the vapors and who knows what they had back then in their sachet. But Betty was the modern woman. She seemed fearless. She was honest because she hadn’t really been out on the campaign trails enough to know how to circumnavigate the tricky questions. So she said what she thought, and I can tell you – I can’t speak for the male correspondents, but among female journalists – she was a heroine because she said what she thought. She wasn’t namby pamby, to use an old expression.
She took the step that was so remarkable; she changed our whole philosophy in terms of dealing with announcing that you’ve got this dread disease. Nancy Reagan, and then I don’t who – it seems to me we’ve had so much of it – they all do it now. It was Betty Ford that made that the thing to do – to have the doctors brief the press, not to hide it, not to take her away like Grover Cleveland on a boat, a yacht, in the East River as it goes into the bay.
So she was so forthcoming. She had a sense of fun, and a sense of style. She was always good looking, and then the way she dressed. So I think Betty Ford had this special place with women. She dared to do it. She really laid down a marker that made it much easier for other first ladies, some of them like Laura Bush, a very nice person. Everybody likes Laura Bush, but you cannot go wrong with literacy for children. Hardly a challenge, and you hope it had some effect. I hope it did. But not a tough decision.
Ladybird put her stamp on this country in a wonderful way. It was a little more controversial than it is remembered now because there were companies that felt that she was wanting to save all those historic buildings. People forget that she didn’t just plant the flowers.
Smith: Well, and all the billboards.
Angelo: And the billboards. Oh yes. Every time I drive down to my home state of North Carolina, especially when it’s in flower, and there are just miles of blooming flowers along I-95, and I just roll down my window and say, “Thank you, Ladybird,” because she did it. And this country is more beautiful because of it and it’s not going to stop being beautiful. If you tear up those plantings you’d be strung up by the likes of me. So I say that Betty Ford loosened the straps that held first ladies back. If they do it now, it’s mostly because they choose to do it. And I hope they do, because they’ve got power.
Smith: I sometimes use the line, by being herself, she made it easier for millions of people to be themselves.
Angelo: I think that’s perfect, yes. And she had no hesitation about it. If you said, “Be yourself,” she would have said, “Now who else can I be?” But she didn’t mind, she didn’t know the effect of a lot of this. That is one thing – not having been out there on the front lines of politics, she was catapulted into the White House, which is a wonderful thing in the sense that she wasn’t afraid of anything. There are other things that she said that were just wonderful because they were so unstudied. And the country loved her. I don’t think there was ever a negative kind of…
Smith: Well, the right wing took exception – the traditionalists.
Angelo: Did they in any serious manner?
Smith: Remember in Sixty Minutes, have you ever told your husband “you weren’t very good today?”
Smith: Oh, well, there’s that wonderful line where she says, “Of course, I tell him all the time.” Which, of course, you could see millions of wives, all over America, silently cheering her on.
Angelo: And that was when she went really way out there when she was talking about her daughter, made it very clear that she would talk to her about rather adventuresome sex.
Smith: There is a wonderful letter that came in from a woman in Texas. It says, “You don’t understand,” and the writer lists all these qualities that a first lady is supposed to have. And she said, “You are constitutionally required to be perfect.” She was absolutely serious.
Angelo: Was she really?
Smith: The woman who wrote the letter was absolutely serious. I would have loved to see the look on Mrs. Ford’s face.
Angelo: I thought maybe she was being mischievous, the writer. You don’t think so?
Smith: Absolutely dead-on. This is what a first lady is supposed to be.
Angelo: But it also shows that the limitations on first ladies are as broad as you want to make them. You do not have to stay and groan about the wives. I think my first time of actually remembering first ladies would be Bess Truman, who I thought was terrible. Harry Truman adored Bess Truman, he adored her. And she would go away with Margaret, taking Margaret with her for an entire summer, leaving Harry with the world’s problems – and there were problems all the time in the Truman years – alone, first in the White House, and then in Blair House where they lived during the renovation. But I felt she owed him more than that and I resent Bess Truman on the part of Harry Truman. He adored her.
Now I thought one of the most interesting was Mamie Eisenhower who said she and Ike could never have such happy years as they did in the White House. Which was lovely because she’d been the Army wife and done all the proper things when she was supposed to; but there they were together and they really found that they liked each other. So I thought that was lovely.
I think you look at the Nixons and you see – this was no marriage. It might have been way in the early years, but when he would go off to Camp David for a weekend and not take her, but take Bebe Rebozo? I think that was kind of a slap to her. They bought the house next door – very unsuitable, totally unsuitable house for a president – on Key Biscayne on the waters of Miami because it was next door to Bebe Rebozo’s. Well, the Secret Service had to buy two more houses, they hated it. Then he would go off to Bob Abplanalp’s private island – again, leaving Pat back there by herself. She stopped going to Florida because she was just abandoned there.
And I thought, to me, that was a tragically failed marriage and he did it in a way that anybody who was paying attention could see. The women of America liked Pat Nixon, maybe because a lot of them identified with her. But to know that she had been this wonderful – one of my great friends who was a CBS correspondent, Bob Pierpoint, which everybody knows, he was student at the high school in the town they lived in, in California. Was it Redlands – the town?
Smith: I’m not sure.
Angelo: I can’t remember. Anyway, he said at the high school everybody loved Pat Ryan. She was the head of the cheerleading squad, she was the teacher, as often happens in the small town, that everybody just loved. And he said, “I can’t see that person in the Pat Nixon that I cover these days.” So, you see, the White House can have a debilitating effect – or liberating effect. I think Barbara Bush certainly found it liberating. She did whatever she pleased and, I think, loved it. Laura must have, too. There is no indication that she didn’t. So we hope that Michelle Obama, who is certainly setting a track record for doing more things to show, “Hey, I’m a person,” and being out in the town, or having school kids come in to meet her. For one who has covered so many kinds of first ladies, I just kind of look in amazement at how quickly the atmosphere can be changed.
Smith: That’s perfect.
Angelo: Thank you. My pleasure.