Peter Abruzzese was a former neighbor of President and First Lady Betty Ford’s in Alexandria, Virginia. Abruzzese was interviewed for the Gerald R. Ford Oral History Project on July 8, 2009 by Richard Norton Smith.
Smith: First of all, thank you so much for doing this.
There’s so much I want to talk to you about, including, not only Gerald Ford, but the Congress that obviously was so much a part of his life. When did you come to this neighborhood? When did your paths first cross with the Fords?
Abruzzese: I left the Army in 1970. I’d only been married a few years. I had a daughter. And when I left and got the job on Capitol Hill, I bought this house in October of ’71. I didn’t focus on him being in the neighborhood because I had some officers down the Hill who were my instructors when I was a cadet. That’s what I really was interested in. One day, the following spring, Betty came over when I was at work with a gift for my son who had just been born and I thought it was a very nice courtesy call. But actually she and my wife, Louise, got to be very friendly and Susan began to babysit for her. I think she was about 16. A wonderful babysitter.
Abruzzese: She was absolutely wonderful. I could even show you a couple of embarrassing pictures that she took later on of the children, especially my youngest, that we don’t show because I don’t want to be arrested.
Smith: What made her a wonderful babysitter?
Abruzzese: She genuinely loved being around small children. She was affectionate. She was even without any knowledge – I don’t know how much babysitting she did – but she really knew how to take care of them. She was very good in every respect, attentive, never missed a thing.
Smith: Very conscientious.
Abruzzese: Oh, yeah, and when they went to the White House, I think in Thanksgiving of ’75, she wanted to take the children to the White House for Thanksgiving pumpkins. And when she got home, they’d locked themselves out of the house. We’d gone out that evening and that’s why she was babysitting. When we got home, I found out the Secret Service broke the screen in the upper window to get into the house.
Smith: So she continued to babysit even after they lived in the White House?
Abruzzese: No, I think slowly that went out. She may have done it, but I don’t know that she did it very often. Essentially, it was while they lived in the neighborhood, which was from ’71 to ’74, about 2 ½ years.
Smith: Describe the neighborhood. What was it like then?
Abruzzese: Very few young children. I think there were only one or two neighbors that had young children. About a half a dozen military and Colonel Jack Meyer was from, if you don’t mind the parochial thing, was from the West Point Class of ’39. Had built the house down the street and he was a real estate agent. He sold the house to a neighbor across the street. Sold a house to the neighbor two doors away. All classmates. He was a tactical officer when I was a cadet. Another officer up the hill, Dick Lafferly(?) was a math instructor as a plebe. And Ray Marlin(?), a two-star general had been a tactical officer my last two years, for whom I have great thanks.
Smith: So almost a military enclave in some ways.
Abruzzese: Yeah. It was still more Democratic than most neighborhoods. I would say then it was about 50/50. But most military officers are Republicans. Now it’s even more Democratic, though. We have many more families that are Democrats, although I don’t know what their politics are. We have parties frequently. Every Memorial Day, we close off the street and have a party, so it’s also a very social neighborhood.
Smith: Let’s go back to the Congress because it’s obviously a very different institution today from what it was then.
Smith: And everyone talks about Ford being someone who was almost as popular among Democrats as he was among Republicans. What was it like on Capitol Hill then as opposed to later years? And what was it that made Ford the success that he was?
Abruzzese: It depended on where you worked and to some extent on your own member. Most members, even the conservative ones and the liberal ones, were fairly bipartisan at that time. Members of the different party would meet for lunch occasionally, frequently rather, in the members’ dining room. When I organized my trips, we would always have almost an equal number of Democratic and Republican members, even though in the early 70s, well after Watergate, the Republicans only had about 140 members in the House. But we’d go on a trip, six Republicans, six Democrats. And there was a good reason for that, though. And it was because the Democratic members had subcommittee chairmanships, so they had their own field of operations. And when a recess came and that was the only time we could travel, they had businesses to do. They would do their own hearings in their district or they would do a foreign trip of their own. Of course, on our delegation, it was very pleasant because we went to NATO countries. And who doesn’t want to go to England, Germany, Italy, and Spain? After awhile, everybody loved it. And I recall getting on the plane one time and just before we took off, Wayne Hays stood up and said, “Gentlemen, I only have one thing to say. I want you to enjoy yourself. For anybody who doesn’t go to meetings, plan on buying your own ticket back home.” It worked perfectly.
Smith: So these weren’t junkets. These were working…?
Abruzzese: We had members who would go on a North Atlantic assembly trip just for the trip. And they loved it. And after that they became regular participants. Another aspect of it was that, if a Republican wanted to participate in the international leadership of the organization, the rest of the delegation supported them. So we had Republicans and Democrats sharing leadership positions in the organization.
Smith: You mentioned, of course, Watergate. It comes along and begins to devour the Nixon presidency. Did you have almost over-the-fence conversations? I mean, what kind of interactions did you have with your neighbor across the street? And would you talk about it?
Abruzzese: No, when we first began to talk, I said, “Look, I think you ought to know that I work for Wayne Hays.” He said, “I understand everything.”
Smith: What do you think he meant by that?
Abruzzese: Well, Wayne Hays was a conservative Democrat, but he was not conservative on everything. He was sort of supported by unions. On national security and foreign policies, Republicans and Democrats very largely voted alike. The most important characters to come out of it was in WWII, General Bradley and General Patton didn’t get along. And Bradley was a three-star in North Africa and Patton was a two-star. When Patton got in trouble over slapping a soldier, every once in awhile this would happen, and he was very forward about pushing his unit to go forward and he was really an outstanding tactical leader. And somebody, after the war, said to Bradley, “Well, what do you think about Patton, though?” And he didn’t want to be disloyal and he didn’t want to be dishonest so he said, “He’s really a very strange duck.” And that was what people would say about Wayne Hays, something like that.
The chairman of the committee and he lived, Doc Morgan was the chairman, they lived in adjacent districts. Doc Morgan liked him very much, but he couldn’t protect him when he got in this trouble over Liz Ray. So afterwards, we were chatting one time and he said, “You know, it sure was a shame about Wayne. You know, if it wasn’t the way he dealt with people, he would’ve been Speaker.” Couldn’t avoid insulting another member. He was bad at that, but he was very sharp. He always knew his stuff. He never came into a hearing ignorant of the subject or the issues. Not only the international aspects of it, but the domestic political implications of it. He was really very good at that. And if he got up on the floor and made a statement about something, it was usually because he felt strongly in a non-partisan matter. And he would always carry 20 or 30 votes with him. Always. So he was a very able individual.
Smith: Beyond saying to you “I understand all about that,” is that all he needed to say?
Abruzzese: Well, after that, we never discussed any issues on the Hill. When they would visit the house, we would have dinner and we would talk about children, the national situation or international situation, but we didn’t get to that stuff. That was more sensitive than our national security.
Smith: I understand.
When Agnew resigns, was there speculation in the neighborhood? Because it all happened very fast.
Abruzzese: I was surprised. And I was very happy because I thought he would change the atmosphere. And he did. Everywhere he went, he improved the atmosphere, especially with the press. He was just very good.
Smith: I assume you must have had press staked out here at some point. And this was before he becomes President, but during the vice presidency…
Abruzzese: We would occasionally have press here when something was happening, but it was not like the week of the resignation.
Smith: Let me just back up for one moment. By that time, did you think there was going to be a resignation? Did you believe that your neighbor was…?
Abruzzese: I thought he was going to go down. I thought he was good. I felt that when Sirica came out, to me that defined it for me. The eighteen minute tape, that’s what helped the Republicans change. It gave them their excuse. Even before that they knew he had to go but they weren’t going to do it because they were loyal. And when that happened, then seven members of the 16 Republicans on the judiciary committee voted for impeachment and all the Democrats. And the only person who was ever unpleasant to Ford on that committee, especially during his hearings and afterwards when he came up once to discuss the pardon, was Elizabeth Holtzman. But she had a very prickly personality. She would not allow Democratic liberal colleagues to be friendly with her on some occasions.
Abruzzese: We had a friend who was the staff director of a joint committee on the workings of the House and he went into her office and asked to see Congressman Holtzman. He wanted to help her to see if she wanted to have any work done to modernize the office. They threw him out.
Smith: Really? So, in some ways, it’s almost a badge of honor to be harassed by…
Abruzzese: She was from Brooklyn. Her worst enemies were other liberals from Brooklyn. But I think that’s a more common situation than you think.
Smith: And I think it works on the other side of the aisle as well.
Abruzzese: For instance, upstate, Sherry Boehlert and Jerry Solomon were always at loggerheads. And Sherry Boehlert would say, “God won’t let me get along with him.” Of course, Jerry wanted him to be a good right-wing Republican. I almost got fired over that, too. Among other times, I was really almost officially fired another time, but that’s another story.
Smith: Was it your sense that Ford got along with just about everyone?
Abruzzese: Oh, yeah. He was never threatening. Never condescending. Never uncivil. And he would never do something even when he was going to run for Majority Leader. At that period, they were not satisfied with the Minority Leadership.
Smith: Charley Halleck.
Abruzzese: Oh, yeah. Even at that time, he says, “No, I’m not going to do that because I’m not going to do anything in secret.” And afterwards, Halleck said, “Don’t worry about it, Jerry. I understand.” And he was really concerned about the impact on their friendship because he was fond of him.
Smith: Really? That’s interesting.
Abruzzese: Yeah, he really had a generous heart for other people. Along with Phillip Hart and half a dozen members, he was one a very small group of members that to me took the Thomas Moore attitude on serving your country. Be ambitious. Work hard. Be loyal. And be a man of character. Don’t put your ambition above the country. Which was the problem Thomas Moore had about putting the country before his faith. And Ford was like that and so was Phillip. And there were other members and in every Congress there are members like that.
I think by and large even now, members are largely honest and aboveboard and they really want to do good work. But they get trapped in the partisan system. They get trapped in being forced to raise money to get a subcommittee chairmanship. Leadership calls on them for a favor. You don’t want to be loyal to your district. You don’t want to be loyal to what you believe is the best thing. It’s very difficult to do that nowadays.
Smith: And so much, including the media, drive you in the direction of partisanship.
Abruzzese: That’s because media can’t work when people are getting along and when they’re all doing the right thing. During the Wayne Hays investigation, I got a call from, I think, Jack Whitman, who was working for Jack Anderson. They’d gone into his funding for a lot of things and there wasn’t anything there. And he asked me a lot of questions about the operation of our delegation. And I said, “There isn’t a dime out of place because everything we do is by check. We can’t even go across the street without writing a check for it, you know. And it’s spent overseas. We do the report when we came home. The only thing we don’t report is the cost of the airplane. And the overtime for people.” And he said, “Well, that’s good news.” And I said, “Why don’t you report that?” He said, “We don’t do that. I’m a muckraker.”
Smith: It says volumes, doesn’t it?
Smith: Once he became vice president, I mean, at that moment, was there excitement in the neighborhood? What was the reaction?
Abruzzese: Oh, yeah. The cars going through the street were terrible. And the Secret Service was out front and, you know, they took out his garage and they put in a reinforced driveway. And while they were doing it, a newspaper wrote, “How much is this going to cost?” So he paid for it himself out of his own pocket. He didn’t need a driveway. He needed a garage for his cars. And when he sold his house, they said, “Boy, he’s going to be rich.” He got an assessment and an assessed value and he sold for exactly that amount of money. He sold it for $137,000, I believe, and he could’ve gotten another $30,000 or $40,000, at least. So he was always taking the heat.
I recall a friend I knew who worked on the judiciary committee, when he was being vetted for the vice presidency, they were going into all his official travel. And he traveled every weekend. They went through every receipt for every trip. And that was about 50 trips for about 33 years. What is that, 400 trips? There was $47 out of place. And they thought they had him so they went to Congressman Brooks. Congressman Brooks was very partisan and he would not let friendship come between him and getting a Republican. And they said, “Well, we’ve got this.” He said, “Anything else?” They said, “Well, we don’t have anything. He’s clean. He’s clean as Caesar’s wife.” He was always that way.
Smith: Tell me about Mrs. Ford in those days. Did you visit back and forth?
Abruzzese: My wife would go back and forth. They would go back and forth all the time. When the Bishop lived here, he and his wife used to babysit for the children. If ever she had to travel with him, which happened occasionally, the children would stay here. And the kids put plastic things on the showers. They decorated different parts of the house with all sorts of junk which was really quite attractive. And when we had to redo the bathroom up there and put a new shower in, we were not happy, but we had to throw them away. You know, after they sold the house, the fellow who bought the house wanted to keep everything that was in the house that was historic. And at one point, they took out the sink in the kitchen. That sink in the kitchen, that old sink, sat in the back of the den until 3 months ago. These people bought the house and when they put it in, they just took it out.
Smith: Describe the interior of the house, because we’ve heard people say it’s actually quite small.
Abruzzese: Oh, no, not at all. It’s got nice rooms. It’s got over 3,000 square feet. They have a large living room on the right side which goes to the rear of the house which is about 13 by 20. There’s this den that used to be the garage, so that’s about 20 by 20. And the kitchen and dining space was out in the back and looked on the swimming pool. He swam. He had a heating element in it, so he would swim until November. He would swim 10 or 11 months a year. I guess if it weren’t really freezing, he would swim every day if he could.
Smith: Great exercise.
Abruzzese: Oh, yeah. And upstairs, they’ve got one, two, three, I think they’ve got 4 or 5 bedrooms upstairs. A lot of space. Really pretty nice.
Smith: What were the kids like?
Abruzzese: Susan was a real teenager. She didn’t like school work and all that.
Smith: She liked her jeans.
Abruzzese: Yeah, and she was a lot of fun to be around. Mike was already out of the house. I think he was finishing college about that time. And I think he very quickly began teaching in Winston-Salem. And I think now is the dean or something. Jack, after he got out, he wanted to travel. He did some travelling and he got on television. He had a long time booking on a television show. I did not get to know the other boy.
Smith: Steve. He was on a soap opera.
Abruzzese: Steve was the one on a soap opera. But Jack had moved out also. But Steve also was a great deal of fun and actually he gave them a little bit of heartache, too. He didn’t get in serious trouble, but he gave them a little bit of heartache.
Smith: What kind of parent was Jerry Ford?
Abruzzese: He travelled a lot and I personally think he felt guilty about his travelling. But he accepted it. And they had a housekeeper who was wonderful and was really a member of the family. But she was very social. She didn’t run around a lot, but she was very pleasant. She was just nice to be in the neighborhood. When she came out of the house, she would always talk to somebody. You know, conversations. It’s just actually at that time and even now, my wife will go out in the street and if she sees somebody driving by, she’ll go out to talk to them in the car. A car would come by and stop. After five minutes, that car would go down. A second car would stop. They would have a conversation. This went on all the time. And, until I resigned myself that that was part of life here, I just couldn’t believe that that’s the way people live. And it’s always been that way.
Smith: Was the Secret Service disrupting the neighborhood at all?
Abruzzese: No, they were pretty good. On a couple of times when the Fords came over, my wife would feed them. When Susan came over, she would make pizzas for the Secret Service. And so, coming over was a good deal.
Smith: Tell us about the week when I assume everyone’s life changed forever.
Abruzzese: There was a lot of rain that week and you couldn’t move the Secret Service and the press. They had the press stand across the street and because of the rain, I felt as a matter of self-protection, my garage at that time, I was new to the house, was still empty. So I would pull up the garage in the morning, make a pot of coffee and put it out there. And they could use the downstairs bathroom. And in my little den down there, they made telephone calls. I never got charged a dime for a long distance call or anything like that.
Smith: That’s pretty gracious on your part.
And you had network people as well.
Abruzzese: Yeah, and they were really always, I never heard a word. I think on the second or third day, we paid for a beach house at Delaware so I gave a neighbor the key and she would come up in the morning and make the coffee and put it out. Then I’m ashamed to say this, but in the afternoon, I would make a pitcher of martinis. I suppose I shouldn’t be saying that anymore, but that’s what I did.
Smith: But they were well received?
Abruzzese: Oh, yeah.
Smith: That week did you see the Fords or did you talk with them at all or any members of the family?
Abruzzese: Well we were gone for the whole week. And, of course, he was here for a week while he was President. The only thing that happened that was really out of the way was that, on one occasion, I backed out of the driveway and I hit his car. I spent $90 to have it repaired. I didn’t even report it because, if I did that, other things would’ve come up and I didn’t want to bother with it.
Smith: So the night that Nixon resigns and he has this little impromptu press conference you were out at the beach?
Abruzzese: Well, he was mobbed. When he came to the house, we couldn’t get close to him. I mean, early in the morning, I think that first morning after Nixon announced his resignation, I went out to the house and Betty came to the door in her housecoat. And we chatted for awhile and somebody got a picture of that. But Louise spent much more time with them.
Smith: Did she seem—?
Abruzzese: She was smooth. She took everything well. She could’ve been an army wife. I mean, she put up with so much of his travelling.
Smith: That’s an interesting characterization.
Abruzzese: And, for her, it was just like being an army wife.
Smith: Did you sense that she had “a problem” however you define that?
Abruzzese: No, I didn’t. I have to say, I really didn’t know it until I saw it in the papers. My wife saw it, but she didn’t even say anything to me. But that’s my wife. She won’t say anything either. One time before it was reported, a neighbor’s wife mentioned, “You know, she drinks.” And I would talk to her on the phone several times, frequently, when she would call to ask for Louise or something like that. I could understand everything she said, but every once in awhile, on reflection, I may have heard a little slur in her voice, but she still spoke clearly. To be honest, I don’t think it was one of those very big, drunk all the time problems. It was just that she had taken medication for her neck pain and she would have a couple of drinks to get through the day.
Smith: And she was in pain, wasn’t she?
Abruzzese: She was really in pain. Now, I had a similar condition with my neck. I still have it in fact. And I was taking three Motrins a day, 800 milligrams. And I went to my doctor and told him, “I can’t do this anymore.” So I took some three or four weeks of traction. And then I discovered that if I was in the shower and the shower was over my neck, I would get relief. Now, I do that and I don’t have any trouble anymore. I’m fixated on that and every time somebody tells me they have neck pain, I peddle that to them.
Smith: So, the night that Nixon resigns and he comes out of the front door to tell everyone, among other things, that Henry Kissinger is staying on, were you in the house while that was going on?
Abruzzese: Yes. I might’ve been outside, too. I don’t think I stayed out that much, but I could see all the TV lights set up.
Smith: I mean, there’s not a lot of room. Was the street closed off at that point? I’m just trying to imagine where they put reporters.
Abruzzese: Cars did not come down the street. They would go up to Vassar, the next street, and go around and come up to their house the other way. I must confess to one of my crimes at that time. When I came in the neighborhood, they would let me in to get in my driveway. And I couldn’t get in the driveway, so I parked on the street facing that way and I got a $50 ticket from the Alexandria police.
Another thing that happened was, a woman in that house, while he lived there, her house was broken into and she was attacked. And the police came around asking. The detective was asking us what kind of a person she was. I said, “What do you mean? She just lives a normal life. She doesn’t do anything. She’s a working woman and comes home.” He said, “Well, do you know that she drinks and has parties?” And I said, “Gee whiz, are you telling me that if she drinks and has parties, it’s alright to rape her?” He says, “Well, thanks a lot” and he left. Being paranoid, I always connected that to the $50 ticket I got afterwards.
Smith: That’s interesting. Well, who knows?
Abruzzese: Yeah. I don’t know that there’s any connection.
Smith: Once he is sworn in, do you remember your first conversation?
Abruzzese: Well, my daughter was born in ’74 in September. He was already President. And my daughter was born on the day that Betty Ford was operated on for melanoma. I mean her skin cancer.
Smith: Or breast cancer?
Abruzzese: Yeah, breast cancer. You’re right. And I did not know that she’d gone into the hospital, but the next day, when I got up there, it was in the papers, so I knew. And when I went up to the hospital, the chief nurse in the ward said, “We’ve broken rules. We’re really sorry, but we had a problem.” I said, “What it is?” He said, “The press has been calling.” It was at Bethesda Naval Hospital which is a military hospital. We were using it for that. And they said, “They kept calling all day.” They wanted to know what my wife is doing in the hospital. And he said, “Having a baby.” And they said, “What entitles her to be in the hospital?” Because someone had an idea that we know. They got her into the hospital because of a personal relationship. And he says, “Well, after a while, we just finally told them that she’s a member of military family.”
Smith: As I recall, I think Mrs. Ford took your wife a present for the baby.
Abruzzese: Well, that was before then, when we were new to the neighborhood. In ’72, she came over. My son was born in March of ’72. We moved in October of ’71. She brought over a present then for the baby. They really looked upon things alike and they both found each other likeable.
Smith: Did they have any interaction during that period when they both were at Bethesda?
Abruzzese: I don’t think so because, after another day or so, my wife came out of the hospital and Betty Ford stayed in for several more days.
Smith: Did you go to the White House during the Ford presidency?
Abruzzese: Yeah, we went there several times. My wife took the children up there for Thanksgiving in ’74. We went there for a couple of dinners. I think at least two. I think for the president of Ireland and for the president of Italy.
Smith: That’s appropriate.
What was the reaction in the neighborhood to the pardon?
Abruzzese: Well, I thought it was a mistake. I figured he had to do it, but other people in the House, I think, most of them opposed it at the time. I didn’t oppose it. I thought it was a mistake. I was looking at it in political terms. But the people I knew on Capitol Hill all of them said, “We’ve got him now.” By the way, his autobiography is one of the few autobiographies that I’ve read which is better than most of the biographies of him, because of the straight way he tells it. He doesn’t defend himself by attacking people. He’s never on a counter attack. I have a shelf of biographies if you want to look at them afterwards. I think that I have only one biography that I’ve read in which a man said, “I did something. I did this. And I was wrong and I’m ashamed of myself.” And that was General William Dean who commanded our forces in Korea when they were captured. He was captured with his division in Korea. And he said, “I didn’t behave the way I should’ve and I’m ashamed of that. So the only thing I can say is, don’t ever surrender your character.” I admired that greatly and Ford was like that. In his biography, when he talks about his actions, you would almost think that it’s a third person who’s completely disinterested who’s just relating events and his straightness really is a great tonic.
Smith: Did it bother you that he was caricatured as clumsy, physically – the kind of a guy who fell down a lot?
Abruzzese: I used to have unpleasant conversations and my view was a guy that could play football that well is not clumsy. He was a very graceful man.
Smith: Now, you said you had conversations with him?
Abruzzese: Oh, no, no, no. On Capitol Hill. Young Democrats, they loved seeing that stuff. They were entertained by that. But I just felt bad for him.
Smith: You had that whole crop of Watergate Babies that came in, in ’74, who changed the whole tenor of the House in many ways.
Abruzzese: Well, since that period, the sense of civility and courtesy has declined, but didn’t really go down then all at once. He really restored civility to that Congress and also in relations between the departments. He was absolutely wonderful in that respect. For me, I think they started the decline in the early 80s when Newt Gingrich came in. And I hope I’m being honest about this. And he had the philosophy that, “We really can’t win on the issues. Now, we know they’re sleazy,” and he meant that sincerely, “and that’s the way we’re going to get him.” And some of his own members said to him, “But, you know, if we go after that character, it’s going to cost some of us our jobs, too.” He said, “That’s alright. There are more of them than there are of us, so they’ll lose more seats.” And he was completely right. But it went down after that frequently.
I had arranged a lunch between him and three British MPs, I think, in 1982. They were three people with economic interests. They came over and the embassy asked me to set up a meeting with some members of the House. So I set up a meeting, then I also set up a private lunch with Newt Gingrich. They had a long, very good conversation. Very intelligent. And one of them said and he was not a Labor member, you know, I think he was a liberal Democrat, “But your proposals on economic issues, you know they’re going to hurt people.” He says, “We know that, but it’s the only way we’re going to get our program through.” But he never emphasized that in his presentations.
Smith: Bob Michel was sort of the last of his kind. I mean, he was very much in the Ford tradition.
Abruzzese: You don’t know how many times I had people tell me, “I wish we had Michel back.” I left in September of ’94 before the election where the Republicans took over because the unpleasantness had really gone too far. And I’d had enough time and I felt I don’t need this anymore. My wife was working, so we were wealthy. Not really. But I just didn’t want to stay there and watch all this unhappiness going on. And even Republicans couldn’t get along with each other to a certain extent. And I always thought that the Democrats were really terrible at internecine warfare. Just unbelievable.
Smith: ’76 campaign, did you have any contact with them at all?
Abruzzese: No, not at all.
Smith: And after they left the White House, did either through the kids, I mean, for example, Susan—?
Abruzzese: Well, we went to Susan’s wedding. A year or two later, we went out to the West Coast to her wedding and had a wonderful weekend there. I think he was quite happy. I really would have liked to have seen him reelected even though I was a Democrat because, well, you know, when it comes to the presidency, I have voted for Democrats and I’ve voted for Republicans. I’m not good at, “He may be a crook, but he’s ours.” I’ve never been good at that philosophy. My classmates and I have frequent debates on this, you know. And three quarters of them are Republicans.
Smith: But when you saw them out on the West Coast, they both seemed happy with their new life?
Abruzzese: Oh, yes. They loved it. They loved it out there. And Susan’s wedding was a wonderful affair.
Smith: Do you remember the last time you saw him or had any contact with him?
Abruzzese: I think it was some time later in the 80s, I’m not sure when.
Smith: When he died, were you surprised by the reaction? I know a lot of colleagues in the media I think were. That there was as much as there was. I know the family was blown away by the number of people who were out on the streets in Alexandria when they came back that Saturday night.
Abruzzese: I was slightly surprised. I thought it was going to be that way, but it was even more so than I ever expected. He’s just a very beautiful guy. Did a lot for the country. And I think the more things progress the way they are, the better his reputation will be.
Smith: Did you hear from anyone at that time? Because, Susan, of course, told us we should talk with you.
Abruzzese: Well, I think Susan talked with my wife about that time. And I think every once in awhile, they would hear about the house. It went through a couple of owners.
Is that thing still on?
Smith: Yeah, sure.
Abruzzese: Well, I’ll tell you. After he was in the White House, the fellow who owned that house was a bachelor. He decided to have a birthday party for the President. Invited a whole bunch of people, all the neighbors, all the Cabinet and all that. A couple from the Cabinet went, but no one else came and I didn’t think they would. You know, he’s a perfect stranger. We went over and the backyard was decorated with tables all around the swimming pool. I just can’t imagine how much it cost. He had a giant birthday cake in the middle of the pool held up by straps on all the sides. And, for the people there who were Cabinet members, it was a very painful evening.
Then we had a person move in who rented the house, who had his family living in the area and he rented this house with his girlfriend. I don’t want to get into that. I can’t get into that.
Smith: Had a somewhat checkered history?
Abruzzese: Every once in awhile, Betty would say, “Is there something that can be done?” And they said, “Just ignore it. That’s the best you can do.”
Smith: But it sounds like they took a continuing interest in the neighborhood.
Abruzzese: Yes. The most recent owner put it on the market about three years ago, I think, for a $1,025,000. It sold 6 weeks ago for $735,000 and even that was a lot because of all the work that has to be done. The swimming pool was neglected and it was in such bad shape that it would cost more to fill it in than to repair it. And if you repaired it, they would have a lot of trouble with that even afterwards. So they just filled it in. And what a mess that was because it rained every day. Streets were filled with mud. But now the people who are there are just wonderful, an English couple. Really very nice.
Smith: I take it are there still occasional tourists who drive by here?
Abruzzese: I would say once or twice a week when the weather’s good, somebody will drive by and slow down, look at the sign over my garage and look at the sign and they would walk across and look at the plaque on the house.
Smith: How do you think he should be remembered?
Abruzzese: I think that he was a much better President than he’ll ever get credit for. I don’t think it’s possible for him to get the credit he deserves because so much of it was in terms of the feeling in the country. And that was really because his qualities of leadership. Intellectual capability. He was very intelligent. But that’s not why. Intellectual ability, understanding, knowledge, they’re necessary for good Presidents, but qualities of leadership are what count and personal judgment. And there’s no relationship, in my view, between intelligence and good judgment. And he had all those things. And that’s what he will be admired for. And I think Lou Cannon has done a good biography of him, too.
Smith: And how do you remember him?
Abruzzese: I think he’s just a very fine person. Glad to know him. By the way, when Ford was vice president, Wayne Hays in the fall of ’74 went to a television station for an interview. And I went with him and I’ve told you before that we were not really that close. And we went in and he introduced me and said, “This is Peter Abbruzzese. He’s on my staff. He’s a good friend of Jerry Ford. In fact, he’s his only friend.”
Smith: Would Ford have laughed at that?
Abruzzese: Oh, he would’ve loved it because he understood Wayne Hays. His best friends would say to me, “Pete, why does he do those things?” “Well, I don’t know.” I mean, Wayne Hays.
Smith: And whatever happened to Hays?
Abruzzese: He went back and he immediately in the next election ran for the state Senate. He was elected. And in 1980, he lost out when Ronald Reagan was elected. But that seat was held by a Democrat for another 20 years.
Smith: Is he still around?
Abruzzese: Oh, no, he died several years ago. I don’t even know if his wife is still in the house. I think he sold the farm after he left. And after he sold the farm, he gave half the money from the farm to his ex-wife. I mean, all of a sudden, he just found himself a gentleman. So there was a very decent person trying to get out.
Smith: Were there people in the neighborhood who were, not on the personal level, but let’s face it – the circus moved on – were there people in the neighborhood on some level glad to at least see their lives return to normal?
Abruzzese: No, all the neighbors at that time liked them and were happy with them in the neighborhood. Their politics didn’t matter.
Smith: And they would put up with all the disruption…
Abruzzese: When it comes to a house or two away, it wasn’t so bad.
Smith: You wonder what the security would be like today. It’d probably be a lot worse.
Abruzzese: They’d probably move him out right away. They’d move him to the Hay Adams or across the street.
Smith: This is great.