Smith: What does it feel like to be back in this room?
Circle: It’s very difficult. I spent so much time in this room with him, and every time I’d walk in after he passed away, I couldn’t stay in here long because I really feel his presence in here.
Smith: He spent a lot of years in this room, didn’t he?
Circle: Yeah, exactly. It is very hard, even when I walked in today.
Smith: How did it all begin for you?
Circle: For me? Through a mutual friend who asked me if I would like to go out with Bob Barrett on a date. I had seen his picture and I said, “No, thank you.” And he said, “Well, you know he works for President Ford.” And I said – and this was only when President Ford was coming back and forth – he was still in office.
Smith: Oh, he was still in the presidency? Okay.
Circle: This was in 1977 – or he had just left in ’77.
Smith: That’s right, the beginning of ’77.
Circle: So it was ’76 that I first had been offered that wonderful opportunity…So I said, “No, no, I don’t care to go out with him.” And at the end of ’76 they came out here and for some reason, I was introduced to Bob Barrett. I was some place and he walked in and I was with my male friend, and he introduced me to Bob. So Bob and I (does all of this get printed?)
Smith: You’ll see a transcript – this will all be printed and you’ll have a chance to look over the whole transcript.
Circle: Will someone see this other than us before I see it again?
Circle: Okay, because I don’t know if this should be part of it.
Smith: Don’t worry about it because you’ll have an opportunity – within reason, yes – you will have an opportunity.
Circle: So anyway, Bob asked me out and I went out with him for dinner, and he kind of indicated that he’d like to take me out again. He also had talked to me about the job, that possibly in the future I could get a job here, which was right up my alley. So, I said, “I’ll tell you what, the job is going to last longer than a relationship with you would, and I would really prefer to have the job.” And he said okay. So, we’d date from time to time and I met all of his friends and we’d all go out in groups and all of that.
Then a relative died in the San Francisco Bay area, and I went up for the funeral and Bob and all of his friends and President Ford were all going to be at the Bing Crosby Golf Tournament, which is what it was called at the time. So Bob called me and said, “We’re coming up to San Jose, President Ford wants to look at some property he has. We’ll pick you up and bring you down to the Bing Crosby – you were going home today, weren’t you?” I said, “Yes,” so they came and picked me up and took me down to the Bing Crosby, and so I followed President Ford around.
But the night I got there, it was the night of Jimmy Carter’s State of the Union address, and they whooshed me into the house, and sat me down and there was President Ford. I’d never met him before. He stood up and he said, “Hello.” He was very interested in the speech. After that they invited me to dinner, so Bob Barrett pushed me into the car with President Ford.
I had no idea what to talk to him about, I’d never met him, and he was just very friendly and very social and very nice. We went into dinner and I sat there with fifteen men and me and everybody in the whole restaurant – I mean it was an experience I’d never had before. It was very interesting. And that’s how I got to know President Ford. A couple of months later, Bob Barrett called and said, “I’d like to offer you the job.”
Smith: What was the job – the original job?
Circle: As a staff assistant. I would do scheduling. Well, I guess I was doing scheduling – it was with another person.
Smith: And how was the office organized in those days?
Circle: There were about fourteen people in the office at that point. There were about three people in the very front office in the reception area, and then Bob Barrett and Dick Wennekamp were in the office that I acquired. Then the scheduling office was the next office – there were two of us in there. Then Mrs. Ford’s assistant and then President Ford’s personal secretary, who was right here where Shelli is. And then the mailroom had a couple of desks in it – and two desks in the hallway. So there were a lot of people here at that time.
Smith: So, obviously this building was standing before they built the house?
Circle: No. Well, yes, the building was standing. It was Ginger Rogers’ mother’s house. They renovated it into an office, as you can tell. You can tell this had to be a house at one time. While they were building his house, and Leonard Firestone owned this property, and bought this house and then gave it to USC. Then we leased it from USC – the Secret Service and we – through GSA-leased it from USC.
Smith: This property. But their home was separate.
Circle: But their home, President Ford bought from Leonard Firestone. But he figured that we needed an office and a place for Secret Service, and then the gate was put up and that sort of thing. You’ve seen Leonard’s house, right?
Smith: I’m not sure which is Leonard’s house.
Circle: The third one down. Well, when we leave here I’ll drive by there for you.
Smith: Oh, okay. Clearly Leonard is a very important part of this whole story, isn’t he?
Circle: Oh, absolutely.
Smith: Had they been friends before the Fords came out here?
Circle: Oh, yes. Yes, in fact, I think that’s one of the reasons they moved out here. I think Leonard was pretty instrumental in getting them to move out here. They leased a house in Thunderbird Heights while this was being built, and then the office was up the block. In fact, some friends of mine had owned the house, and sold it to Pat Priest, I guess her name was, and then she leased it to whomever – probably GSA for President Ford’s office. Then they came in and the year that I started, I started May 1, 1978, and we moved into this building, probably mid-May. So I originally worked in that building when I started.
Smith: Was it the 20th or the 25th anniversary when he gave you your pardon?
Circle: I have it. It’s going up in my office at home. It was my 20th anniversary, yes. He gave me my pardon. Well, that was very interesting because on my 20th anniversary I wrote a letter to President and Mrs. Ford and told them that, “I know that all these years he thought that I was one of Bob Barrett’s girlfriends,” – but that I really hadn’t been, and I wanted them to finally know that. Because I’m not really sure – I think President Ford, when I started here, he was very, very leery of me. I had to prove myself.
Smith: How so?
Circle: By working twice as hard as everyone else. Because he made a comment, at least Bob Barrett told me that he made a comment. I think it was Bob that told me that, that said, “I don’t want some (he said bimbo, but President Ford never would have used that word) walking around here, tossing her hair around while all these people are working so hard.” But he came to find out that I was probably the hardest worker around here.
Smith: He was a workaholic, wasn’t he?
Circle: He was, absolutely.
Smith: You were in here on Saturdays?
Circle: Not every Saturday, but – when I started here, I probably had a day off in the first five years – I probably had one day off – if that, a week. If that. There were days I worked all the way through – twenty-four hours.
Smith: And what was the volume of work that sustained that?
Circle: He traveled six out of seven days. He traveled Mondays through Saturdays. Sometimes he’d come home on Saturdays. But the travel, we would do scheduling for him at the conference table. We would probably have to do – I can’t remember how many schedules – probably thirty or forty, forty-five – and I would put them all around the table. If there was a mistake or a change to be made mid-schedule, I would have to start typing from the first page if I couldn’t cut and paste and make it work. It was an extraordinary job in those days. It was unbelievable. I just don’t know how we managed with the travel that he did.
Smith: What was that travel for?
Circle: Speeches. Board meetings – no, he didn’t do board meetings until after the ’80 election. But meetings, and mostly speaking engagements, I think. And then, campaigning – he would campaign every year. He campaigned in ’78 and ’80 and that sort of thing.
Smith: That was before his rapprochement with Jimmy Carter.
Circle: Yes. Well, you know, when we went to Detroit for the convention in 1980, you know what happened there. The co-presidency with Reagan.
Smith: What’s your recollection of that, because it’s been reported a number of ways.
Circle: Oh, I remember it well.
Smith: What do you remember?
Circle: We were in the suite, pretty much the whole time. I have pictures of it. We’d sit around and we were kind of bored. Leon Parma was there, Bob Phinney and his wife were there, Leon Parma and his wife, and President Ford and I were sitting at a table and we’d work and do – I really don’t know what kind of work we had, but we had piles of work to do when we were there. We didn’t have mail or anything in Detroit, so I’m not sure what we worked on, but he would sit down with me and we’d work and go through correspondence and that sort of thing. And it was kind of boring. Jack Marsh and all of those people would come in and out.
Now, mind you, I was new then and I was not, I guess my job – I had been promoted by then – so I was second in line after Bob Barrett, but I really wasn’t involved and I didn’t know all the players then. But Stu Spencer and Jack Marsh and all of the heavyweights – Henry Kissinger were in and out of there all the time. Henry Kissinger stayed there a lot of the time because he was in my pictures. Nothing was happening and I don’t think President Ford seriously considered it – at least from my perspective. And we were all saying, I would look at someone and say, what are we going to call him? President Ford, Vice-President, you know, what you call him after he’s been President of the United States. And I think he kind of felt that way, too.
The co-presidency – there’s no way it would be a co-presidency with Reagan – and considering the background, this is from my perspective now, I’m telling you. I can’t imagine that could ever have happened – and I remember sitting there for a long time and nothing was going on and I looked at the television – we were watching the television constantly, and I decided, “Oh, there’s nothing happening, I’m going to go downstairs and change clothes and shower,” and I’d be back because we’d have to go to dinner eventually.
This was quite late – and time for the convention to start, so it was what – seven, eight o’clock. And I went downstairs – I had to go down two elevators. I got in the shower, came out and I had a towel around me and I was trying to figure out what I was going to wear, and Dan Rather said, “The decision’s been made. Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford are getting into the limousines to go to Convention Hall.” I went, “Oh, my God!” There I was, standing in a towel and I’d been waiting for days and days for this to happen. This isn’t about me – and so I rushed, I got dressed real quick, I got in the elevator, got in the next elevator, ran into the suite, and everybody is still sitting there watching television. I mean, Dan Rather, that was his first big faux pas, it really was, and I mean, more to come…but that was his first big one. And then it was just announced that he had picked Bush, and so it was really kind of unremarkable to me – the whole thing. Behind the scenes, I’m sure there was a lot going on, but President Ford was pretty much in the suite the whole time.
Smith: Barrett left when?
Circle: He left after that. I think he really thought President Ford would become president again in 1980. He thought that they would draft him, he could really get the draft going and all of that. And he didn’t want President Ford to be a board member – that’s why I changed that a little earlier, saying no, he didn’t have boards then. Because that would have been bad if he was going to run for president again. But after all of that happened in Detroit and all of that – I think Bob left that year, or maybe the beginning of ’81 – no, I think he left the end of 1980.
Smith: Now, the president took some heat over “commercializing” the ex-presidency.
Circle: He did.
Smith: Some of that was siphoned off on to Bob. How much of that was fair? I’m asking for a value judgment, I realize. But let’s break it down. The boards, you know, that’s a different category altogether, it seems to me, because he took them seriously and obviously worked at it and what’s wrong with doing that?
Circle: There’s a lot of blame to go around on that. But President Ford is the least to blame, because he was very naïve about all of that when he came out of the White House.
Smith: In what sense?
Circle: Money. And earning money and what anything was worth, and that sort of thing. And he was pretty much brainwashed to think that he should expect and deserve everything. Okay? I saw that happening and, I’m not speaking out of school here, but to make $25,000 for a speech was like “unbelievable” to him, in comparison to now when you look at what Clinton is making. That was unbelievable.
Harry Walker was his speaking agent and he was pretty brutal, too. He was a tough guy. I don’t know if you knew his reputation or knew about him, but he was a really tough guy. He and Bob, together, really got these speaking engagements going and he made a lot of money. The thing is that President Ford was also told that he should expect private planes, and that sort of thing and he was very uncomfortable with that at first. But started to believe that this is what was expected of a former president – or that he should expect that kind of treatment. Did I answer your question?
Smith: Yeah, well, it’s interesting because it seems as if he almost had to learn the job of being an ex-president.
Circle: He did. There was really no precedent for what he was doing before that. Let’s see – Nixon – there really was no precedent, so he had to learn it all.
Smith: Plus, two things. He left office without any money.
Smith: Had a family to provide for.
Smith: And the other big thing that people don’t take into consideration is, all of a sudden he was told: You have to raise X million dollars to build a library and museum. And I know he was quoted as saying that was the toughest thing he ever did. In those days, again, by comparison – it was like nine million to build a museum and then whatever the library cost. But he had to raise it as a defeated, former president.
Smith: And a lot of those speaking fees went to the Foundation.
Circle: Well, and not only that, he worked hard for his money, Richard. I mean, he prepared for those speaking engagements. He really worked hard for that. It wasn’t as if anyone was giving him something for nothing. It wasn’t as if he went on these things and partied all week and went to the spa, and all of that. He worked very hard. So, I don’t begrudge him that, and no one should, except that was the first time it ever happened. And so they accused him. Tom DeFrank is one of the people that said it at that point. He did an article about how much President Ford made.
Smith: Was he sensitive about it?
Circle: Yes, he was – very.
Smith: Of course, another thing that people didn’t take into consideration were all the college campuses and the charity work that he did – which didn’t get the kind of publicity that the paid engagements did.
Circle: Exactly. And that was when anybody would call, I would always use that – the charitable work that he did, the academic work that he did. And he did a great job on raising money for the library and museum. He did, he worked very hard for that. That was his baby, it really was. You know that.
Smith: About the decision to split the facility – that’s what you’d expect a congressman to do.
Circle: I just never understood that.
Smith: Well, because you don’t want to alienate anyone, so, like Solomon, you split the baby.
Circle: I’m telling you, a couple of years ago, when it was brought up again, he said, no, I don’t want to do that. He was adamant about that.
Smith: Yeah. Well, that was the model. He created it. He was comfortable with it. Obviously at that point the Ford School didn’t really exist in the way that it does now. But the university held a very special place in his heart, didn’t it?
Circle: Oh yes, up until the very end, it still did. It is very strange. Sometimes I still think he’s here. I speak about him in the present and it’s been so much a part of my life for so many years, it’s hard to believe it’s over sometimes.
Smith: Someone said, I think today, that he really, in those last months, almost every day would say, I’m going to Ann Arbor for the dedication of the school.
Circle: Oh, he did. Definitely. He really planned to go and he was going to go, except that he had, I can’t remember what happened that week, I believe that he got very ill, I think he might have had pneumonia or something like that, and he couldn’t go. Oh that was the biggest disappointment of his life. He was just devastated by that. And really, he shouldn’t have gone. It was so cold, do you remember?
Smith: I wasn’t there.
Circle: No, I know, but I’m sure you knew.
Circle: It was so cold he could never have survived that. He was not in good health at all to have survived that.
Smith: Tell me about his sense of humor.
Circle: Well, he had a very odd sense of humor. I know I would sit here – sometimes I could make him laugh. It would just depend upon the mood, or the subject, or whatever. I knew the things that could really make him laugh. But sometimes we’d be going through stuff and I’d make a comment that would just absolutely crack me up. You don’t usually laugh when you say something funny, but it would just crack me up and I’d look at him and he’d just be looking at me like it just went right over his head and I could never understand that. He had a good sense of humor. But there were certain things that made him laugh more than others, which I can’t recall at the moment.
Smith: There were certain TV programs that they watched together. And I know they enjoyed going to New York and to the theater.
Circle: Yes, he used to watch Steve on the Young and the Restless soap opera every day when Steve was on. Yes – did you hear that? Oh, yeah, well Steve was in this soap opera for years and we’d turn it on at eleven o’clock every morning and he would watch him. He’d work, but he would watch him. Football game, he’d sit right there in the chair and watch the Michigan football game.
Smith: And there was no chit chat.
Circle: Don’t talk to him. Don’t ever talk to him when you’re watching. I’d walk in the door and I’d look and I’d close the door and go. I mean, I don’t care how important it was. The world could be coming to an end and he’d yell at me if I said one word to him.
Smith: I think they saw The Producers in New York.
Circle: Yes, they did.
Smith: They enjoyed it?
Circle: Yes, very much. They really enjoyed their trips to New York. They had to stop it after a certain period of time, but they’d go every fall, and she’d do some Christmas shopping, and they really enjoyed that trip.
Smith: Well, I guess they both had happy memories of New York, too, from long ago.
Circle: May I tell you a really nice story – a Mrs. Ford story?
Circle: It’s kind of about me, but it’s a really nice story.
Smith: That’s fine.
Circle: In 1979, I think it was, maybe it was in 1980, we went to New York and she was losing her secretary and she was going to interview some people on the East Coast. She was invited to a party at Halston’s penthouse. I don’t remember the reason for the trip – oh, I guess she did something with Martha Graham, because Martha Graham was there and she and Martha Graham were in a limo together at one point. So I went with her. We stayed at the Waldorf and then we went to Halston’s for dinner. Elizabeth Taylor and Liza Minnelli and a few people came over prior to the dinner and then we all went over to Halston’s and had dinner.
I mean, it was just celebrities from wall to wall, and then we went to Studio 54. There was Mrs. Ford, and she was so attractive, she looked so good, with Elizabeth Taylor and Halston and all these people – Liza Minnelli and a whole group of people. I was with Chris Chase, who wrote their book with her – both books, I believe, with her. We went into the ladies room, and of course there were all the lines of coke in there. I had no idea what that was, because I’d never seen coke before. I’d never been around it. It was just never in that area in my life. Anyway, Mrs. Ford and I laughed about that later. She said, “What did you do?” and I said, “Well, there was powder all over and I just went (blew).” And she said, “Oh! You didn’t do that!” And I said, “No, no, I’m just kidding.”
Anyway, we’re going home and I think it was that night, and it was late, and she said, “You’ve never been to New York before have you?” And I said, “No, I haven’t.” She said, “Let’s go to Fifth Avenue,” and she made the agents go to Fifth Avenue and I remember St. Patrick’s because they drove us there. I think Saks Fifth Avenue, and all these stores were on the other side of the street, and we walked and we window shopped down Fifth Avenue so she could show it to me. She was telling me all about the first time she went there with Martha Graham and all of that. It was really a nice trip. It was really something I’ll never forget.
Smith: Tell us about Phyllis Brown.
Circle: I can’t really tell you about Phyllis Brown.
Smith: Okay. The only reason I asked was, supposedly she, late in life, I guess, contacted the office about dropping by and it was politely suggested that probably…
Circle: I’ll tell you that story. Okay? I mean, she contacted the office quite frequently. Now I don’t know if we should put this in here or not.
Smith: When you see the transcript you can…
Circle: Nobody will see it before I do?
Smith: No one will see it before you do, I guarantee you.
Circle: Okay. She got my name, so she would call me all the time. Which was good, because it’s better nobody else ever knew about this. She would write occasionally, and I don’t know how I ever really found out who she was. Well, Jim Cannon interviewed her for his book, and Jim Cannon talked to me about her a lot, and he talked to her a lot. But she called and told me she was coming out here with her new boyfriend, an attorney from here, I guess. She wanted to see President Ford and he was kind of on the downswing at that time. It was a couple of years before he passed away. So I came in and I told him, and he said, “Well, what does she want?” I said, “Well, she has a boyfriend and she wants to stop by and say hello.” He said, “Oh, of course she does.”
Of course. I mean, this was the biggest thrill of her life – why she ever gave him up – so, he said, “Well, talk to me when you hear from her again.” And I said, “Okay.” And so, I did, and he said, “No.” I said, “Okay,” and I just left – don’t change your mind, you can’t change your mind. So then I told her and she got mad. She said, “I just don’t understand.” I said, “I’m sorry Phyllis, but he just doesn’t have the time today. It’s just a very difficult situation, he has so many people coming in and he’s involved in a project right now and it’s…” and I was just blah-blah – with anything that would come into my head. She bought it but she wasn’t happy. That really worried me because I thought, oh God, what is she going to do now. But she didn’t do anything, thank God.
Smith: Over the years, I guess the staff was reduced in size?
Circle: Yes, gradually.
Smith: Was there a kind of decrescendo in travel over time, or was he just as busy…
Circle: He was always busy, always busy. And the traveling – he always traveled a lot. He stopped doing the six days a week thing, which was really good because Mrs. Ford was so unhappy with him being gone so much.
Smith: You came onboard before the intervention?
Circle: No, right after. It was in April, I started in May.
Smith: Okay. Did he feel guilty at all – being away as much as he was – when they came back from the White House – leaving her in effect on her own…
Circle: I’m sure it did, and the way he treated his children, you knew that he felt guilty that he hadn’t spent the time with them that he should have. But that was his makeup. That was his being. If he felt guilty, he’d make it up with other things.
Smith: Including time, toward the later years. Steve is maybe the most obvious example, they spent a lot of time together?
Circle: Well, not a lot. Not like some families. You know what I mean? But more than he ever had before, okay. Steve would come and they would sit and talk, and spend time together and all of that. But, I’m telling you, as guilty as he may have felt about it, he couldn’t change it. It was just within him and that was his life. And that’s what kept him active, that’s what kept him young, that’s what kept him on top of it. He just had to do that.
Smith: Did you ever see him with Nixon?
Smith: Or Reagan?
Circle: No, but I heard about his trip with Reagan. He went over to see him after he’d had Alzheimer’s.
Smith: What did he say?
Circle: He said he didn’t know him. It was very difficult. But I’ve learned so much about their relationship. Before I knew anything about their relationship, I assumed that the reason for the bitterness – this has nothing to do with the Fords, this is just my feeling about it – that they knew he had Alzheimer’s, and they knew that if he was going to be President of the United States, he had to do it when he wanted to do it. And for President Ford to get the nomination, they were too bitter. You know, people are bitter, but there has to be a reason for that deep bitterness that Nancy and Ronald Reagan had – not Ronald Reagan as much as she had. Now maybe I’m totally wrong, but they just didn’t have a warm relationship and they blamed him. Look at the things she’s said since, really, really nasty things about them.
Smith: You read the DeFrank book and you get the sense that the president’s attitude, whatever resentment he may have felt since ’76, sort of was washed away once the Reagan Alzheimer’s diagnosis appeared.
Circle: He never showed any animosity towards them to me. You make little comments from time to time, when you’re talking about something, and he would make little comments, but he never showed any bitterness or bad feelings towards them at all. He was a remarkable man. He really was. I learned so much from him in his acceptance of everyone, no matter who it was. He never held a grudge. You know how he’d get mad? Then it would be over with, and it would be completely forgotten.
Smith: How much of that – because politically you saw that – we talked about this – the Republican Party sort of went over here, and I don’t know whether he changed, whether she influenced him to become in some ways more liberal, particularly on social issues, but, they were who they were and they were quite outspoken. And they seemed to be quite comfortable with where they were and if the rest of the party wanted to go over there, that was okay. How much of that just him being him? Did he change over time?
Circle: No. He’s the most disciplined human being I’ve ever seen in my life. When I quit smoking, I quit cold turkey, and everybody thought it was the most remarkable thing in the world. He did that with everything. He quit smoking, he quit drinking. He loved to have a cocktail and he was funny as can be when I first started here and we’d be places and he would have a couple of drinks and somebody would make him laugh. He had the best laugh. Have you every heard that laugh? I don’t think you’d hear it very often after that. But he just quit that. Nothing bothered him. He thought that was the thing to do, and he would do it. There are very few people on this earth who have discipline like that. It’s incredible. And for her. He didn’t have a problem with drinking, but because she couldn’t, he didn’t.
Smith: Pro-choice, that was controversial, but it was something that grew out of the ‘70s, and something with which they were long associated. To be as supportive of gay rights, in today’s Republican Party, was a different matter. Did they have friends who were gay?
Circle: I’m sure. I’m sure they did. I’m sure people that have worked for them have been gay. Those things did not bother him. Being pro-choice, gay rights, none of that bothered him. That’s the way – see he was not judgmental at all.
Smith: Different kind of conservative.
Circle: Yeah, he is. But, I tend to be pretty much that way, too. And maybe I even learned a little more from him. He was so equal with everyone. He was so much the same with everyone, including Clinton and Carter. He wasn’t partisan at all. I know too many people that are and the contrast is unbelievable.
Smith: Tell me about the evolution of his relationship with President Carter.
Circle: Oh, it happened on their trip to Sadat’s funeral. It happened on the airplane, and I don’t know – everyone asks about that – no one can understand how they could possibly be friends.
Smith: Well, I’ve often thought one thing that brought them together, was Ronald Reagan.
Circle: Yeah, exactly, that’s true.
Smith: But also, when you peel away the surface you realize in some ways, how similar at least their values were. Their backgrounds, workaholic, kind of rural faith, a mainly traditional, kind of rock ribbed family. They would have a lot in common if you could get beyond the fact that they ran against each other.
Circle: Well, yes, and you know, I kind of think – people would always comment on that relationship and I think President Ford kind of liked that. I think he kind of proved to everybody how magnanimous he really is. I really do, and I think that was just the example that he set to show people. Because he would always get this smile on his face when someone would say something to him about his relationship with Jimmy Carter. Because I think he knows what people think about Jimmy Carter.
Smith: And he had a very good relationship with the first President Bush.
Circle: Oh, yes. He had a pretty rocky relationship, I think, over the years, right? When he went to the CIA – Bush – just from what I’ve read.
Smith: Well, in fact, Bush was being a good soldier. The story was Don Rumsfeld was deep sixing Bush over at the CIA at the same time that he dumped Rockefeller from the ticket. And what it said was, Bush was the ultimate good soldier because the price of his confirmation as CIA director was to publicly renounce any interest in 1976. Which, of course, is exactly what Rumsfeld wanted to hear. So, not a rocky relationship, I think it would be a very good relationship, but to the Bushes, at that point in their lives, it would seem like, at the very least, a dead end. And yet, the president asked him to do it, so he did it.
Circle: I see. Well, I think then, Bush thought he’d never have an opportunity to be president.
Smith: But they’d been in the House together, and of course, President Ford knew his dad, Senator Prescott Bush.
Circle: Right. Bush is a good guy, ’41, a really good guy.
Smith: Was it difficult for him in the last few years dealing with the second Bush administration?
Circle: I think so. Let me tell you, we kept hearing that they were coming out here. Remember when he made the visit out here?
Smith: In the last year of the president’s life.
Circle: Yes. Do you know that I called Cheney’s office and said, “We haven’t heard from the White House. Are they really planning to come out here and not visit President Ford, because he can’t do that?” And she said, “Oh my God, you haven’t heard from anybody? I can’t believe that would happen.” I said, “Please do something, he’s got to come out.” Do you think he would have come out here and not met with President Ford?
Circle: I mean, I can’t imagine that.
Smith: But when it did happen, by all accounts, it was a very…
Circle: It was very nice. Very warm. I was at the house when they were there with – who’s deputy chief of staff, do you know? I can’t think of his name right now, but he was there.
Smith: Was it Josh Bolton?
Circle: No, no. The other chief of staff – what was his name – Andy?
Smith: Andy Card.
Circle: Andy Card? It was his deputy, and I can’t remember his name, but he was a really nice guy. And we were sitting there and we were talking, and they had really nice visit. Very warm, as I said, and it was good. I don’t think President Ford was real happy with him in many instances, but that would never go any further than his house.
Smith: Was he uncomfortable about the war?
Circle: I don’t know. I could never get a feel for that with him, and I never asked him. I used to, early on, ask him what he thought about certain situations, but in the last few years, I really didn’t. I never went there with him.
Smith: Let’s talk about the Clinton story. Well, first of all, confirm that I guess President Clinton, shortly after becoming president, visited the Fords in Vail. Wasn’t that right? Or in Beaver Creek.
Circle: Right. That was nice.
Smith: And played golf.
Circle: They played golf and he did his normal, what do you call them, Mulligans. Clinton did, everybody in Vail was talking about it. I was in Europe at the time, but when I got back I got filled in quickly.
Smith: Then, when the whole impeachment business began, what did President Ford…
Circle: Oh my God, he was just appalled that Clinton would do what he had done. You know that, Richard. Well, you know how he felt about it, and the whole impeachment thing – he just said, “He has a real problem and he needs help, and he’d better get it.” He was disgusted by that whole thing. And I think it was a respect for the White House, the presidency and all the rest of it, and you know how he felt.
Smith: And yet, when the time came, he went out on a limb to write that Op-ed piece in the Times that proposed a very dignified ending to a pretty sordid situation.
Circle: He loved that. Yeah. That was just the answer for him.
Smith: And what was the response?
Circle: From Clinton?
Smith: Well, no. You took a lot of heat.
Circle: Not really.
Smith: I thought – Tom DeLay wrote you…
Circle: Oh, he wrote President Ford a terrible letter, oh yeah, he did. I forgot about that. Oh I wonder where that letter is. Is it in the library?
Smith: I don’t know.
Circle: It must be. It must be because he must have sent it to the library. Because otherwise I’d have it.
Smith: There were two letters from Tom DeLay, remember? There was the first letter in which he took him to task over why all this was unconstitutional. And then, just a couple weeks later, there was a second letter asking President Ford’s help in getting him into a golf course.
Circle: Oh, exactly. Oh Tom DeLay was a bad guy. He was such a bad guy. Even President Ford thought that. He thought that all along. The guy didn’t show anyone anything. But, no, we didn’t take much heat about that Clinton thing. Actually, most people agreed with him.
Smith: I wondered. Because on talk radio, the Rush Limbaugh’s and all of those folks, were really upset that…
Circle: But he didn’t care about that. Judy used to come in here and say, “You know what Rush Limbaugh said?” And he’d go, “I don’t really care.” Because he didn’t. He was never a conservative to that degree. That’s fanatical – it is. I mean for President Ford that was fanatical.
Smith: Yeah. I wish he’d known – I found out years later – when the article first appeared, there were people in the Clinton White House who thought it was a life preserver thrown to them.
Circle: Oh, yes, to Clinton, I’ve heard.
Smith: And, of course the Republicans on the House committee who were feeling their oats and didn’t see that they were about to go over the cliff, said, “Absolutely no way.” They were the impediment. Then come the mid-term elections where, guess what, Republicans don’t do as well as they expect, and at that point I’ve been told something by Lanny Davis – that at least two members of the Republican House committee, one of them was Lindsey Graham, said, after the election, “You know, maybe we should dust off President Ford’s proposal as a way of bringing this to a close.”
Smith: And by that point, the Clinton White House was feeling its oats and figured, hey, these bastards are going to impeach us anyway, let’s play it out. But if the two sides had been able to look beyond their passions.
Circle: I know – there was no other answer. That was the perfect answer. Anyway, he was very happy with that, and I didn’t get any grief from the media or anybody. It doesn’t even remain as a big thing in my mind, except how furious he was at Clinton.
Smith: But then, subsequently, I think the whole story of the impeachment proceeding itself – I was told, Bob Strauss called him at one point, and asked him on behalf of the White House, if he would be their witness in front of the House Judiciary Committee. Asked President Ford. This was after the article appeared and Bob Strauss…there were going to be hearings before the House Judiciary Committee on impeachment and so each side would get to make a presentation. And they thought, we’ll have one witness, and we’ll get President Ford.
Circle: Really? I don’t remember that at all.
Smith: And he said, “Bob, I wrote the article, and when the time comes I’ll make phone calls, but that’s asking too much.” So they went ahead with the hearings and so on. And then subsequent to that, there was a telephone conversation with President Clinton – ending with President Clinton, in a very friendly way, suggesting that this idea is unconstitutional. They can’t do this. There is no precedent for this. As it was reconstructed for me, at that point the president said, “Bill, I spent twenty-five years up there, and in my experience, they can do pretty much anything they want.”
Circle: Really. See, I don’t know any of this. The Bob Strauss call, maybe I was aware that he called, but I don’t remember that. It was unremarkable to me, anything that happened after that. All I remember is that everyone was just so bowled over – especially, what’s her name? – not Yvonna – remember? She called me? What’s her name?
Smith: Arianna Huffington!
Circle: Huffington – I couldn’t think of her name. She called me and goes, “Penny (with Greek accent)” – what is her? – I can’t talk like her.
Smith: Greek – I don’t know – but very foreign.
Circle: Yeah, very foreign, like a phony, affected accent.
Smith: Maria Callas.
Circle: Yeah. “President Ford didn’t really write that OpEd.” And I know she was sitting there with Nancy Reagan, I know she was. I could just see them sitting there together and they are looking at each other – and I’m sitting at my desk and I have this mental image of them. And I said, “Yes, he did.” She said, “Ohhhh, no, he didn’t. Richard Norton Smith wrote it.” And I said, “President Ford wrote it, Richard Norton Smith edited it.” She said, “No, no, no. Richard Norton Smith wrote it.” I said, “Well,” what’s her name again?
Circle: I can’t stand the woman, Arianna – I said, “Arianna, think whatever you like, President Ford wrote the article. He signed off on it.” And she said, “Oh, well, I know differently.” “Well, good.” I called you and told you that didn’t I? I mean, that woman, I can’t stand her.
Smith: Who were his friends?
Circle: Well, he has lots of different friends. And I think I mentioned this to you, Leonard Firestone was his really close friend. Leonard Firestone loved him dearly and he felt the same. Leonard would come over and sit in my office for hours at a time, and he’d turn his hearing aid off, and I’d be sitting there for an hour trying to talk to him. He would talk about what they’d done in the past, he and President Ford. When he appointed him ambassador to Belgium – Belgium, right? – and he would talk about him. He was a very close, probably his closest friend.
People who were irreverent and could say anything. David Kennerly could walk in anytime and say anything he wanted to. But let me see, some of the people like Jim Greenbaum, like – I can’t gossip here because this is an oral history.
Smith: Oh, well…
Circle: And, I mean, Jim Greenbaum was in Vail and here, and so they did things. Jim really cares about President Ford.
Smith: And Bob Hope.
Circle: Oh, yeah, Bob Hope. He loved Bob Hope. But friends with President Ford, this is why I’m having a little trouble, were not the kind of “Come over for dinner, we’ll see you next week,” that sort of thing. A phone conversation, a golf game, maybe a social event where they all went to dinner together with their wives. The people Paul Jenkins, Wayne Hoffman, were fairly close friends. Fred Wilson was a good friend early on in the desert and Kirk Kerkorian is a good friend of Fred Wilson’s and so they would always come to President Ford with business opportunities and that sort of thing, which kind of never came to fruition, or he’d do a speaking engagement for them. But Fred was a good friend early on. The Grand Rapids people – good friends. He had such a loyalty to Grand Rapids. And Sandy Weill was a very good friend.
Smith: Were there people back in Washington that he kept in close touch with?
Circle: Well, Sandy Weill was American Express and Citigroup – he made these two companies and he retired the year President Ford died, I think, in 2006. But he was a very good friend with President Ford.
The Vail people – like Bill Hamlin and, God, there are so many – the Stouffers, and Sheika and Pepi are very good friends. But President Ford never really pursued friendship because he didn’t have to. Do you know what I mean?
Circle: He would never just call somebody out of the blue, or rarely. Marvin Davis was a good friend.
Smith: A number of times this week I’ve asked people to describe – this place in the 80s must have been – when you had Sinatra and Dinah Shore and Ginger Rogers was still around, and Alice Faye – all of these – Spiro Agnew was even out here – but …
Circle: Spiro Agnew and President Ford never got together. Did Lee Simmons mention Spiro Agnew? I think Spiro Agnew said something derogatory once to Lee Simmons – I think he saw him someplace and Spiro Agnew said, “Where do you work?” and he said, “I work for President Ford.” And he said, “Oh, that’s a shame,” or something like that. Spiro Agnew – why would he have a problem with President Ford? He really shouldn’t have, he’s the one that got in trouble. It wasn’t President Ford that made him do it. President Ford had nothing to do with becoming vice president. They never crossed paths, I don’t think – maybe once or twice, but –
Smith: How small a world is this?
Circle: It was smaller in 1980, much smaller. Frank Sinatra was at Susan’s wedding. I believe Bob Hope was there – I know he was invited. But there were a lot of celebrities.
Smith: Another thing – we’ve talked to a couple of your colleagues – seeing Bob Hope in his last years and how he was sort of trundled out, must have made a negative impression on his friends, including the President, and I just wonder whether they took that into account, thinking, God I hope that never happens to me.
Circle: Well, it was really sad because they kept dragging him out to that golf course for the Bob Hope Classic every year. The last year he was there I was making dinner and I turned the TV on, it was a news station, and they were having some Bob Hope thing, and a photographer was following him out. He went out to the golf course, and he was with the guy that was taking care of him, and they were walking and Bob Hope looks at him and says, “Where are we?” He said, “We’re on such and such a course. We’re going to go meet Jerry Ford and…” “Who’s that?” I went, “Oh my God.” I mean, it wasn’t on national news or anything, but I wonder how many people in the desert saw that. He was just gone, the poor man. He should never have been out there. My God, he was what – ninety-nine years old? The last time he went out there and he just couldn’t handle it. That was very sad. That was very hard on President Ford, too, I’m sure.
Smith: There are stories that – talk about generous – the word would come that Bob Hope would like to play golf with him, so they’d go out and play one hole, or maybe two holes…
Circle: Yeah, they did.
Smith: And then Bob Hope would want to lie down and President Ford would come back to the office until the call came that he was ready for the next hole.
Circle: Oh, no, I never heard that.
Smith: Oh, yeah, I heard that.
Circle: No – no, I don’t think so.
Smith: No? Okay.
Circle: No, President Ford didn’t ever go back out. He never would. He’d be too involved in what he was doing at his desk. I could see him going out and playing one or two holes with him, and he did that, I believe. I think it was Bob Hope, it was someone. He’d go over to Morningside and they’d play two holes and then that would be it.
Smith: I assume, once a Congressman, always a Congressman, which meant, the mail had to be answered pronto.
Circle: Oh, God. Within 48 hours. He had a staff meeting when I first started here and he said, “I want a turnaround within 48 hours,” of all the mail that came in. And the mail – piles and piles this high every day, but we did it. I still do that now. I’m still that conscientious about my own mail because I was inundated with mail. But, he would have to work Saturdays because he wanted his mail, and when the anthrax scare came – oh my God – Shelli and her husband, who was a Secret Service agent, put on those suits and went out and sorted the mail.
We didn’t get our mail on Saturdays because it was too much trouble. They would have to put them in a big barrel at the post office – put all the mail in a big barrel that was closed outside, and it was just too much to do it on Saturdays. There was not one Saturday – the week before a Saturday that we didn’t go through absolute hell with President Ford because he wanted to know why we weren’t going to be there Saturday to do the mail. And he couldn’t get that – so, yes, is that a congressional thing? He never got over that.
Circle: That was just so important to him.
Smith: Did the mail taper off over time?
Circle: Yeah, it did. The last couple of years when he wasn’t working – when he was not well enough to come in and work a lot, it started tapering off. Because people got the message and knew he wasn’t going to travel anymore and do speeches, and once that happened, it started tapering off. Although there was still quite a volume in 2006.
Smith: And he wasn’t the most mechanically inclined of people – is that fair to say?
Smith: Telephones were a challenge.
Circle: Oh, God! You know my story, don’t you? He’d pick up the phone – I have to do this for you – you don’t have to move…
Smith: You’re attached – just be careful with the cord. Go ahead.
Circle: He’d pick up the phone – [demonstrates] “I would like you to speak with Penny. Okay, hold on, I’ll get her for you.” [clicking noise] Get up, go down the hall, “Penny, Penny,” he’d say, [clicking noises] “there’s a call for you.” I’d say, “What?” He’d say, “There’s a call for you.” And I’d look down at the phone and there was nothing blinking, so I’d have to come in and hang up the phone and go back and put it on hold, and go back to my desk. Isn’t that funny? He just didn’t get that for the longest time. The last couple of years he finally got it and he learned how to put it on hold. But he could never program a VCR or anything. And had a little trouble remembering how to do this – no he wasn’t mechanically inclined, but he didn’t have to be.
Smith: And computers?
Circle: Oh, yeah. I used to play bridge with him on his computer. And he could get his e-mail with help. But when he first got his computer, to get him to learn how to use it, I would come in here for about an hour, maybe three times, four times a week, and we’d play bridge on the computer and he loved that, because he loved playing bridge. And he really didn’t play bridge much in the years I was here. I don’t think he ever did. But apparently they had played quite a bit before.
Smith: How special was that day at the Kennedy Library in 2001 with the Profiles in Courage Award?
Circle: So special. Weren’t you involved in that? Okay.
Smith: He wasn’t going to go.
Circle: When he got the initial call, he wasn’t going to go. And I came in and told him and he said no. He said, “I’m just not traveling that much anymore.” I said, “President Ford, this is so important.” And he said, “No.” And I knew I wasn’t going to push it right then. I’d come back. When he said no, you don’t argue with him. It just makes it worse. He’s adamant at the moment.
Smith: I got a call from Ken Duberstein.
Circle: And then did you call me? And then we put him on the phone with Kennedy, right – Ted Kennedy?
Smith: Well, I think the strategy was – what is it going to take to impress upon him, and I think we agreed that Mrs. Ford was crucial.
Circle: Really? I thought we had Kennedy call him.
Smith: He may have. I don’t remember. But I do remember the call from Ken and clearly, she might have a more instinctive appreciation. He was so modest – that was part of it, too – that this was – to us – the ultimate vindication. But he wouldn’t see it that way.
Circle: He wasn’t thinking that way – and then once he realized what this was about, then it was no question at all. But I remember you calling me and I said, “Yeah, I talked to him and he said no,” and I said, “but I’ll go back.” And then I thought Kennedy would call him, and when he talked to Ted Kennedy he said, “Oh, sure, I’ll be there.” But, see, he wasn’t processing it. He wasn’t thinking what that was, at all.
Smith: Yeah. And then when it actually happened…
Circle: Oh, he never got over that. That was just total vindication for him.
Smith: Both the Senator and Caroline, they could not have been nicer, and I’m sure he never knew what a controversy it sparked internally in the Kennedy Foundation.
Circle: It did? Oh I didn’t know that. I always wondered about that.
Smith: If you notice, remember, he shared the podium with John Lewis, and that was – which was great, it turned out to be wonderful, but they created this lifetime achievement award to placate the people on the board who were opposed to the Ford selection. And the person who actually persuaded a majority of the board – in the end the board was fine – but the person who drove it through was David McCullough.
Circle: Oh, no kidding.
Smith: And remember, David McCullough had come to the museum.
Smith: And spent some time with the President, and for whatever reason, it paid off.
Circle: Yeah, it did. It was a pivotal moment in his life. I’ll tell you, he never forgot about that and he talked about it frequently.
Smith: And then, of course, there was the re-dedication of the Museum in ’97. He must have been surprised how much money it took. They built the place, and they had a little endowment, and it just grew and the demands grew with it.
Circle: I know it.
Smith: I thought he came back to Grand Rapids frequently – to my way of thinking – at that age, I was delighted that he would come back as often as he did.
Circle: He would have come back more often, I think, had there been a reason to. He loved Grand Rapids. I would ride in the car with him when I’d go with him to Grand Rapids, and he would point out everything in the town, and how it used to look, and how it looked now. He was very, very proud of Grand Rapids. And I really think, Richard, had there been activities or events or something, he would have gone back more often. But then again, he didn’t have any plane, and it was difficult because you had to change planes from here. And no one would provide a plane for him, so it was very difficult getting back there. I’m sorry, but…
Smith: No, no, listen, you won’t get any argument here.
Circle: I’m not talking about you.
Smith: And I tried – I will say this, though, nothing like patting yourself on the back – I think he came back more often when I was there, just because we were doing things.
Circle: He did. Exactly. The Christmas lighting, the Christmas tree lighting – that started with you.
Smith: No, but for example: the twenty-fifth anniversary, I just thought this is too good an opportunity to pass up, so we had Alan Greenspan. He came back and introduced Alan Greenspan. Justice Stevens, he came back and introduced Justice Stevens and then Billy Graham, which was an amazing event.
Circle: Wasn’t it amazing. It was. But, see, a lot happened when you were there. Nothing happened after you left and before you were there. There wasn’t a whole lot happening. Frank Mackamen was good, but he was an academic.
Smith: And he was based in Ann Arbor – at the Library.
Circle: Right, he was. Dennis Daellenbach was in Ann Arbor, too, wasn’t he? And nobody really liked Dennis that much. He didn’t do a lot. After that was Elaine, and that was so late on, so far on in his life that he couldn’t really travel that much. But it was fun when you were there. There was something happening all the time.
Smith: It was so great to see him come back, and it was an event in Grand Rapids whenever he came back. You must have seen this all the time, the autograph seekers.
Circle: Oh my God.
Smith: It had to be a bane of his existence.
Circle: Oh, it was his. He hated that. He really disliked that. He would sit in the conference room and sign and sign and sign and sign. And then there were the people that just kept coming back for more. And you know darn well that they were selling them. That was a bad part of his job because he didn’t like at all. And it really was funny because he and Mrs. Ford went before Congress for something for the Betty Ford Center, and I was sitting there and every Congressman had a photographer there. President Ford just couldn’t go with that. He just couldn’t believe that because he hated that so much. And he said, “And then they are going to send all those pictures in to be signed.” He couldn’t believe that every Congressman had a photographer. That was just amazing.
Smith: When they went back to Washington, did they stay at the Willard?
Circle: Yes, usually.
Smith: Did they ever use the official guest house?
Circle: Yes. In fact, I was there with him, early on in the 80s. Yes, they did – Jackson Place. But he couldn’t really sleep there, there was no room for him. He’d have to sleep at a hotel, but we used it as much as we could for an office and that sort of thing. Then the year that he went back, he went into the – what is it when they vote? Do you remember when he went back to Washington?
Smith: Yeah, the well of the House.
Circle: And he went into the House, and they were all there and he walked in, and he got a standing…oh my God – I couldn’t go in there. You can’t go in there – you have to be a Congressman, or whatever to go in there. And I walked around and I went to the exits and I could see him and, boy, he was in his glory. Do you remember when he did that?
Circle: That was not too many years ago.
Circle: And everyone turned around and saw him and they stood up and they cheered – oh, it was just amazing. It got me.
Smith: Did they enjoy going back to Washington?
Circle: Yeah, he did.
Smith: Of course, every year there was the event of the Press Club. The journalism prizes that he gave out. And the board meeting. The reunion.
Circle: Yeah, he would look forward to that. He did, he looked forward to that. He looked forward to seeing everybody at the dinner and that sort of thing. He enjoyed the journalism awards, he enjoyed that luncheon.
Smith: By and large, he did like reporters, didn’t he?
Circle: Oh, very much. More so than any other president I’ve ever seen. And he knew them all by name, just like Secret Service agents. It was amazing, he knew them all by name.
Smith: And was he pretty accessible to the press? People wanting to talk to him – call him, that sort of thing?
Circle: Yeah, he was – if there was a reason for it. Not just to chat. And he had his favorites. And he’d always take care of local people. He’d always do that, which is a really nice quality of his – that he would take care of the people that counted.
Smith: Again, I realize that this is sort of asking you to guess, but do you think he knew that Tom DeFrank would write a book?
Circle: He knew. He knew. Every time he was interviewed he knew. But I have to say one thing, he was very accessible to Tom DeFrank. I mean, he was always willing to do it for him once a year. But when they invited Tom to lunch, this is my only regret about that book, my only personal regret about it. I haven’t even read the whole thing yet, but when he came for lunch and he reported on how President Ford looked, that was out of line, totally. That was not part of the agreement, and I’m really mad at Tom about that. I think everybody in the family is.
Smith: He kept pressing and pressing and pressing.
Circle: Oh, later on in life, Tom changed somewhat. He was always very nice and a good friend, but I’m really mad at him about that, because I have to say, and I’m not patting myself on the back, but I protected President Ford and his dignity to the nth degree. No one knew how sick he was, no one. People would call and I would talk to them and I would say, “Oh, he’s going to be fine.” People knew that he wasn’t well, but no one knew to what degree he wasn’t well. And nobody would ever have known had he not written that in that book.
Smith: Tell me about Philadelphia.
Smith: 2000 – you went from Vail…
Circle: Yes, we went from Vail, and I remember Monday morning someone called me as I was loading my car and told me that President Ford had something wrong with his throat and he couldn’t talk right. And it wasn’t his regular doctor, he said he had shingles in his throat. I said, “I’ve never heard of shingles in your throat. That can’t be.” And they said, yeah, that’s what it is, but he’s going to go. And he sounded like he was inebriated. He was slurring – his tongue was swollen. Oh God, that whole trip was just such a nightmare. So we got to Washington and he had all of these interviews scheduled, and so he did the interviews, one by one. You saw them, didn’t you? He sounded like there was something terribly wrong.
Smith: On the C-SPAN program, in particular.
Circle: With Wolf?
Smith: No, C-SPAN, I think with Steve Scully.
Circle: And then there was Wolf Blitzer, but he did it on the floor, and Larry King, and God, I can’t remember who else. Oh my God, it was just awful. And then they went into the booth where they went during the convention and I can remember seeing his hair was all messed up and he was waving and his hair was all messed. We were all in the Green Room. Prior to that McCain and Cindy McCain and Bush ’41 was there, all these people.
The agents called me at six o’clock in the morning, said, “You’ve got to get up here.” I said, “What’s wrong?” He said, “President Ford’s leaving.” I said, “Leaving the hotel?” and I went up and he had his briefcase and he was all dressed and he had his briefcase on his lap, and I knew something was desperately wrong. He said, “Tell the manager I will never stay at this hotel again.” I said, “Okay,” and he said, “I am so unhappy here.”
Well, apparently he hadn’t slept all night and it was just awful. I went in and saw Mrs. Ford and she was getting ready – he thought to go on the plane – but they were taking him to the hospital. That’s when they determined he had a stroke. He had had a stroke. He’d gone the night before because he hadn’t felt well, and they wanted to keep him, but he said no. They should have kept him. They should have said, you have to stay. But nobody did, so then they found out that he’d had two strokes.
I went to see him at the hospital and I sat down and he said, “What do you have for me?” He looked at me, “Penny, we get to work.” I said nothing. I just sat there with him and talked to him. It was such an uncertain time. It was just an awful trip. Then, when they were going to do the operation on his tongue, because they figured it was a virus, they asked every department head in the hospital to give their opinion as to whether they thought they should do it or not, because if it was cancer, it would have spread through his whole body. They called his doctor here. They called Dr. Mahler, who had been his doctor early on, who was in New York. They called everyone and everyone gave their opinion and they decided to do the surgery. I remember I went and sat in the park and just sat there and prayed and hoped that everything was going to be okay. I got the call and they said that he was fine. Oh God, that was just an awful trip. He had no idea what was happening to him. You never want to see somebody in that position, ever.
Smith: How was Mrs. Ford handling all that?
Circle: Oh, she was just amazing. She was so strong. Everyone calls her frail. She’s the least frail person I’ve ever known in my life. She was just unbelievable. When I went in that morning – I can still see her standing, looking in the mirror, doing her hair – she said, “We’re going to take him to the hospital.” I said, “That’s good.” She said, “He’s just not going to be able to stand it.” And I said, “He’ll be okay, and you’ll be okay.” She said, “I’m fine, I’m fine.” And all those days in the hospital, she was so strong. She was just amazing.
Smith: And Bush ’43 visited him at the hospital.
Circle: Oh, did he?
Smith: Yeah, during the convention.
Circle: And I think ’41 did, too, didn’t he? ’41 was right above me. He called me – the people that called me every single day from that hotel and from that convention, President Bush called me every single day, Henry Kissinger called me, he would leave messages. I was on the phone in that damn room from six o’clock in the morning until three in the morning. I swear to God my phone wouldn’t stop. I had almost no sleep. Henry Kissinger called every single day – he would call and he left a message the last night, and he said, “I don’t care what time you get in. I don’t care what time you’re available. You call me.” And he did that every single time President Ford was in the hospital, he did that the last year – I swear to God, Henry Kissinger called more than anybody. And Cheney called a lot.
Smith: You know the call I got – in Grand Rapids – as soon as the news was out. Within twenty minutes, I got two calls. One from Tricia Nixon, and one from Julie Eisenhower.
Circle: No kidding. Oh, isn’t that nice.
Smith: Both very concerned, wanted to be remembered.
Circle: Isn’t that nice, really nice. They have always done that. And Lady Bird Johnson was really good about that, too.
Smith: There was a real friendship there, wasn’t there?
Circle: Yeah, she was a darling woman, really. And she had a great staff, too. I really like everyone around her.
Smith: There’s a question, because people are always trying to play divide and conquer with the former presidents – as if they think that you don’t talk to each other.
Circle: Right. Ohhh, yes.
Smith: Explain how that works.
Circle: Oh, it’s wonderful. It’s a wonderful group of people, and we all stay in touch. There is just this little…further away, the Reagan people, they are just a little further away because they are so much better than we are – but they are pretty close with the other presidents. Like Joann Drake – she’s quite close with – Fred Ryan was a great guy. He always stayed in touch and there was never any of that with him. But women are different, I think. But I am so close with Jean Becker, the Johnson people, too. And the Carter people.
Circle: Nancy Konigsmark. And the one I talk to even more than Nancy was his personal secretary, my God, I can’t remember her name. She retired about 2005, I think she retired. But she was wonderful, and I talked to her a lot. But we all kept in touch and we figured we were all in such a unique situation that we should get together once a year. We never did, but we still stay in touch, and that’s really nice. Everyone always checks in.
Smith: People trying to prey, prey, prey.
Circle: The letters – okay. I would get a letter that said President Bush had agreed to do this, and they were going to contact President Carter, but President Bush had indicated that he would like President Ford to be involved. So I would call Jean and say, “Tell me about this,” and if she didn’t know, she would call me and say, “No, we got the same letter. President Ford’s involved.” People did that all the time. They would write – and Carter. All the former presidents. I never really got – but to some degree I got involved with Clinton’s people after they left. Clinton’s people, Mack McClarty, was the greatest guy in the Clinton administration. I adored him. He was the greatest guy. I worked with him on NAFTA. I worked quite closely with him. He and a couple of other people stay in touch with me all the time – from the Clinton administration. But as far as this sort of thing, and his chief of staff, or whomever – I don’t really know their staff or who is what.
Smith: Speaking about that, because I’ve run into Mack at a couple of things, he knows who you are…
Circle: He does.
Smith: He’s very good on the personal, very good. But remember, it was, you know – let’s be fair – of course, Mrs. Ford got the Medal of Honor during the first Bush presidency. And then it was in the Clinton presidency that President Ford – it was the 25th anniversary and two days before, it was no accident, another Op-ed piece – the one on affirmative action. And Willis Ward, which really made waves.
Circle: Yeah, exactly.
Smith: Because I was told later on – it would have been nicer, frankly, in an ideal world, if they had just honored President Ford – but being the Clinton White House they had eight or nine other people that they were going to include. But he turned out to be the star attraction of the day. And in part, because of that piece, which, again, was so counterintuitive.
Circle: Exactly. Yeah, when we went for that – oh, how much of this should I tell you – Bob Barrett and I walked over with Henry Kissinger to the White House. Bob and I weren’t invited to the reception, so we walked into the room and were seated. The room where he was going to receive the Medal of Freedom.
Smith: The East Room.
Circle: Was that the East Room? Okay. The stage was here, and the seating was in front of the stage, and then back and around we were over here, we were in the last row over here. And it was fine. We could see the stage just fine. We were sitting there waiting while the reception was going on, and Mack McClarty was – well, I recognized him because he and I had been on the phone together for hours and hours over a period of months, but I knew him from his pictures in the paper and on television, but he didn’t know me from Adam. And he came up and he was talking to someone down the row, and I leaned back as he was finishing up and I said, “Mack,” and he came over, and I said, “Penny Circle.” And he went, “Ah! Penny Circle!” and he was just all over me and he was so happy to meet me – I mean, you could tell, and I was so happy to meet him face to face. And he said, “What are you doing here?” and I said, “Well, we’re here for the Medal.” And he said, “Why aren’t you in the reception?” I said, “Well, we weren’t invited.” And he said, “Well, of course you were invited to the reception.” I said, “No, it’s okay,” and he said, “Well, okay,” and he left and then a couple of ushers came up and escorted us into the reception.
We were thrown into the receiving line and I get into the receiving line and President Clinton is right there and he comes up and I said, “Hello, sir.” I’ll just tell you – I wasn’t going to tell you what I thought at the time, I just said, “Hello, sir, I’m Penny Circle, President Ford’s chief of staff.” And then Mrs. Clinton came up and all of that – and it was really nice. Bob Barrett was kind of left a little bit in the background there, because he didn’t know Mack McClarty or anything. So later in the limo Susan said, “So you knew Mack McClarty?” And I said, “Yeah, I worked with him on NAFTA with your father.” And she said, “Oh, because my dad asked Bob how he knew Mack McClarty and he said, ‘Oh, he was doing some business with him in the White House.’” And I said, “He did?” I said, “The only reason we were in there was because he knew me,” and she said, “Yeah, I know.” But, this is how it works in this business.
Smith: NAFTA – there was a classic example of former presidents coming together, across the aisle to support free trade. Were there other instances? Of course later on and more recently you had the tsunami relief effort.
Circle: There was another one, too.
Smith: 9/11, of course, after 9/11.
Circle: 9/11, yeah.
Smith: What do you remember of 9/11? They were in Vail.
Circle: They were. Yeah, I’m getting confused with Reagan’s funeral. They were in Vail and I was coming home on Friday – it was September 11th. I was coming home on Friday, and the Fords – that was 2001, that was a year after his strokes, so he wasn’t completely healthy then. He got much better after that, but that was just a year later and I don’t think he was in great health. I think it was hard for him to travel. But you saw them on television, I’m sure – behind the Clintons, who were sleeping at the time. Remember that picture? That was a good picture.
It was so upsetting. I remember an agent – he’d been swimming in the morning and an agent came and told him and he just couldn’t figure it out. He couldn’t come to terms with it. He came back and he sat down at his breakfast table and read the paper and he turned the television on. It was hard for anyone to realize what really happened. It was like a bad dream. But it was very somber around the house and then they left and I guess I didn’t see them again until they came back at the end of September.
Smith: Remember – talk about one of the last missions – remember when King Hussan of Morocco died? Was it the King of Morocco or King Hussein?
Circle: King Hussein.
Smith: King Hussein died and he went. How exhausting was that?
Circle: It was – it was terribly exhausting. Because we found out like at two or three in the morning. The Air Force called and said, “Okay we have to go.” I was asleep and I called President Ford and woke him up and told him to get ready to go. I ran to the office and I had Judy go to the office, too, just in case he needed anything. He didn’t. But it was very exhausting, especially jumping out of bed. But he was ready to go because they knew it was coming at any minute. I mean, the plane was there and all, so they knew it was imminent. It was an exhausting trip when he got back.
Smith: Because as I remember it also entailed a long procession on foot.
Circle: It did and we were kind of worried about that, but he was fine. He managed okay. But, yeah, that was hard on him.
Smith: Did he ever meet Queen Elizabeth after the ’76 Bicentennial? Did their paths ever cross?
Circle: I think so. I’m not sure. But, I wonder when he was in London if he saw her. Maybe not, maybe not, but he’s very fond of her, or was very fond of her.
Smith: How difficult were the last couple of years?
Circle: I can’t imagine ever going through something like that again. It was terrible. It was so stressful and so – I don’t think I had one easy moment in about two years. And this is not about me. It was for him.
Smith: How obnoxious, for lack of a better word, was the media deathwatch?
Circle: It was terrible. It was God-awful. Every single time he’d sneeze, I’d get a phone call, and I mean they were just vultures. And the cars would pile up – people in this area had to be just sick of it, because the whole front of the hospital was just all media. The minute he would go into the hospital… It was very difficult because there were factions who would tell me the minute he’d go in the hospital, to announce it. But that was just the wrong thing to do because, if we could have twelve hours to prepare for him to go into the hospital – I mean, they find out soon enough. They find out. There is someone at the hospital who reports it.
I’m telling you, they were vultures. They were terrible people. There are only a few that came out unscathed from my perspective, and that I’ll stay friends with – that had consideration and cared about him enough – but most of them were just vultures. Some of the national – I’ll tell you what – the media changed between 1985 and 1990. They were a kinder, gentler group of people before this. Now they don’t care. And they are just nasty and rude and obnoxious.
Smith: He was fond of Hugh Sidey, wasn’t he?
Circle: Very. He wrote an Op-ed piece on him when he died. Remember? It was over Thanksgiving. I can’t remember what year. He was very fond of him. He was very fond of most of his press people that were in the White House when he was there. Most of the group.
Smith: Do you remember the last time you saw him?
Circle: Ah. I do. It was – he died on Monday – I saw him on Friday. He was sleeping and I had gone to see him and I put my hand on his arm and he held my hand and I stood there – and he held my hand for maybe an hour. I wasn’t going to move. It was just a very sad time. He knew it was me. It was a tough time.
Smith: Were you surprised by the reaction? The public reaction over the ensuing week?
Circle: Oh, yes. The people – it was a holiday weekend – and the people in Washington surprised me most of all. I was surprised by the people here, standing on the side of the road when the motorcade went by. There were a lot of people at the airport, but I think the thing that surprised me the most was Washington, D.C. As hard as those people are, there were so many people standing on the sides of the road when we went through. When you got to Alexandria, you can understand that, but that was still overwhelming. My God, that whole town was out. The whole town, I’m sure, out on the streets. And, of course, in Michigan. But Washington, D.C. surprised me the most.
Smith: Remember the day of the service at the cathedral, because I was up at the cathedral for ABC, so I wasn’t in the motorcade. But, remember, he had insisted on no caissons in the streets of Washington?
Circle: Yes, I know.
Smith: And yet, the crowds apparently that turned out as if there had been a caisson.
Circle: I know, I know exactly. Remember, that was in 1990 when you and Marty came out, and I believe that was the first time he said he didn’t want the caisson, wasn’t it? I still have your notes that you wrote. In fact, I don’t think I have them. They are in the funeral files.
Smith: Did they find it distasteful? The Fords, to be involved in this process – the funeral planning?
Circle: It was hard at first, but they got used to it. You know, they did get used to it finally. Because they knew it had to be done. And I think after Reagan died, they realized that they had to do something.
Smith: Do you miss him?
Circle: Oh…yeah. Yeah, more than I can ever say.
Smith: What did you learn from him?
Circle: So many things. What I told you about his not being judgmental, that was such a good lesson for me because he would accept anything anybody believed, and, whether he believed it or not, it was fine with him. He showed that in every part of his life. In his bipartisanism, in his reaction to people, he just never really criticized anyone’s values or thoughts or feelings about anything. He was very, very pragmatic about that. I learned that and that was very good. And his discipline was just beyond belief. What a good example for other people, if they took that example.
Smith: That’s what Lorraine said. She said she learned discipline from him.
Circle: Yeah, absolutely. And if somebody needed to learn discipline, to be around him, boy, that was a good, good lesson. He was a good teacher, and he was such a fine person. People will always say he was a good man. “He wasn’t so smart, but he was a good man.” He was very smart, he was very smart. He was a lot smarter than many people who claimed to be intellectuals, I’ll you that. It was a lesson every day. Not so much in things like having to have your mail on Saturdays or not taking vacations because you have to work.
Smith: And you didn’t get rich working in his office.
Circle: And I didn’t get rich working in his office. Well, that’s another thing I learned. I’m a little more generous than President Ford was, and I make a lot less money. But he was such a good man and I was so fortunate to have the experience and the opportunity to be around him as closely as I was. We had a good relationship. I can’t remember, except for the first day I was in here, where I don’t really think he was mad at me, the very first day when I had the job, when Bob Barrett left. I don’t think he was ever angry at me once for anything. That’s saying something. He never yelled at me.
Smith: He did have a temper.
Circle: Yeah, sure he had a temper, but once it was over, it was over. And I was never the beneficiary of that directly. Which is nice to say.
Smith: Yeah. That’s perfect. Perfect.