Wayne Hoffman was a friend of President Gerald R. Ford. Hoffman was the retired chairman of Tiger International, the Los Angeles-based parent company of the Flying Tiger Line. Wayne Hoffman was interviewed for the Gerald R. Ford Oral History Project on December 4, 2008 by Richard Norton Smith.
Smith: First of all, thank you very much for doing this.
I have to ask you, what does it mean to be back in this room?
Hoffman: Well, I’ve been a frequent visitor with the president in this room for going back since it was built. I know it’s nostalgic in some ways but it’s common to me. I know right before he died, I had a long visit with him here.
Smith: Did you?
Hoffman: Yeah, so I’m familiar with [it] and we’re old friends of both Betty and President Ford going back a lot of years. Forty years.
Smith: Well, that’s the perfect place then to go. When did you first become acquainted?
Hoffman: It was back when he was minority leader. In fact, maybe even before that when he was in the Congress. But I was appointed by President Nixon before his Watergate times to sit on a businessmen’s panel to examine ways in which the government could use normal business techniques to improve the way in which the government was run. I was on that for about two years. I was running a company here in Los Angeles, the Flying Tiger line and Tiger International. I ran into and had business with President Ford, or at that time, Congressman Ford on and off very casually. From then, we had a home in Eldorado Country Club, just a weekend thing for us.
One day, Leon Parma, whom you’ve talked to – I had dinner with him and his wife last night at the theater – Leon called me one day, this was probably 1971 maybe ’70, and said, “Jerry Ford’s coming in and wants to play a little golf and I wondered whether he could use your home.” I said, “Fine” because he knew we didn’t stay there except to come in and out over the weekends and so on. So they came two or three times, usually over Easter, and would stay in our home. And we got to know Betty and the president before he got involved with all the things that followed.
Smith: What was your impression of them then?
Hoffman: I got to know them well enough to know that his reputation, particularly talking about him, was exactly honest and a wonderful person to negotiate with. Totally trustful and considerate. They both proved to be that throughout their life. And, of course, after he retired and moved here, we had a home here and have one now. We’re Vintage Country Club now, which is our principal home, but we live half of the year in Del Mar when it gets hot. But anyway, we then had a much closer relationship that expanded. And we got to know Betty well because I was on the board of the Eisenhower Hospital for many years and she was also on the board. So, I gained knowledge and experience with her in what I call her business capacity.
Smith: What kind of business woman was she?
Hoffman: She was, of course, the founder of the Betty Ford Center and very interested in it given her own experience. She was the chairman and founder and she actually ran that thing, not day to day, but she was the chairman of the board and she saw that they had the proper people working and building the things she wanted done.
Smith: She was hands-on?
Hoffman: She was hands-on, very much so. And, also, I enjoyed learning so much about her instinctive abilities in the business area.
Smith: And this was all new for her now, wasn’t it?
Hoffman: Well, it was brand new. It was an idea that was brought on by her own problems, in her case, with alcohol.
Smith: Where you aware of this, by the way? When you knew them earlier, was that something you were aware of?
Hoffman: We were not aware of that at all until the papers started reporting on this and so on. Early on, we didn’t, and as I got to know her, we never discussed anything but the business side of her operation, but I knew the history of it. I’d come to the conclusion that Betty was sensitive to unfair criticism of President Ford as he was moving into this maelstrom of Watergate. I think she was always a lady and always very pleasant and also worrying to do the missions and the work that the First Lady needs to do. But you couldn’t help but see, when you got to know her, how the pressure was affecting her. And so, when Watergate was over and the president’s term in Washington was over, Leonard Firestone had this piece of property here and he fixed it up so that they could build a home here.
So, when she did that, I don’t know when the decision to start the Betty Ford Center actually emerged, but I know the whole family was involved in sitting her down, as her book said, and saying, “Mother and Jerry, you’ve got to face the problem that you have here.” And they were the ones that got her started in her own treatment. I’m a great admirer of her, my wife and I are friends going back and she’s one of the strengths that the president had through his difficult journey during difficult times, and that followed on until the day he died. And I know that the president’s death has affected Betty in ways that you would normally expect, but much more so because they were very, very close.
Smith: It’s interesting that you say that because a lot of people didn’t realize that. And when he died and people saw Mrs. Ford, it was impossible not to be moved by the fact that she wasn’t well herself at the time, and yet she was resolved to go through that whole punishing week-long ordeal, in front of cameras, no privacy. Toward the end, remember she got out of the wheelchair and she walked all the way down to the gravesite. Someone expressed their admiration to her and she said, “Well, that’s what my husband would have wanted.”
Smith: They were incredibly close, weren’t they?
Hoffman: They were, and for the public and the United States, this was a very educational experience to see all this happen on the television because his reputation will increase as they get more and more into it. The thing that the president regretted so much was that he was not elected. Not because of any personal feeling that he deserved it, but that he had learned so much and he had gotten into so much that was important and he wanted to finish it. And that would’ve cemented in the minds of many of the scholars in later years their assessment of his presidency, because he had that kind of personality we needed at that time, whereas, for example, President Carter did not. And the whole country had changed.
Smith: And yet, of course, they became good friends.
Hoffman: They became good friends. Jerry was the kind of person that could set aside any, what he called ‘minor things’ and think in terms of people and what they’re trying to accomplish in life. It’s all of the ex-presidents who are alive and I can’t tell you how many congressmen and so on, there was never a bad word about the president, President Ford. And that makes him very unique, because in politics, as we saw in the last campaign, a lot of hatred comes to the front amongst the voters and everything else, but that never was the case with President Ford. I’m not sure he ever really understood how much people appreciated him. One of the reasons is, his roots were in pre-World War II and he knew and understood a lot of the important things that were happening in the Cold War . And then Ford was able to take us up to the point that he could eventually resolve all these very strong, dangerous, and common arguments that existed between the Soviet Union and the United States. He had a tremendous experience.
He was a great football player. In fact, as you know, the history of that at University of Michigan, which was very much sports oriented. And then he went to Yale, was a coach there and sort of worked his way through on scholarships and graduated from their law school. He was in World War II early and was on a Jeep carrier that almost sank in a horrible storm during some battles around the Philippines, and his vessel almost sank. There was a huge fire on the vessel and the captain was a young sort of Reserve-type captain. This wasn’t the real Navy, this were the guys that were running these additional ships that were built and thrown into the battle. But they did marvelous, marvelous work. There’s a book out on this as you’re familiar with, and a recent book that President Ford had suggested not be published until he died and other such information has broadened out the public’s knowledge of what kind of a great human being he was. And then the open way in which Betty and he treated her own problems. You know President Ford liked to have a drink and he smoked a pipe and things like that and he stopped doing any drinking at all in support of his wife and so on.
Smith: Did he reminisce about the war? Did he talk much about it?
Hoffman: He never talked about it. He talked to me about it. Before I read this book on Halsey that had a whole important paragraph about President Ford in it, I didn’t realize other than sketchy that he was a Reserve officer and was in early and so on. But it turns out that he was very close to being killed or dying in that battle, very close. In fact, he was trying to put out the fire in a huge storm and he’d slid off the carrier deck and was hanging by his hands in a huge storm on the side of the vessel trying to get back on board. If he’d gone into the water, it’d have been goodbye.
But he and I and Laura, my wife, and Betty were at the local restaurant here with Leon Parma and Barbara, just the six of us, going back as I’m describing and somebody, I think Leon said, “You know, I’ve often wondered how we were able to put sixteen million people under arms.” And suddenly, in fact just before the attack on Pearl Harbor, we had an army that was the seventeenth largest army in the world, 117 thousand people or something like that, 170 thousand. And yet when we built all those ships and created all those divisions and so on, the greatest number of junior and mid-rank officers were just right out of civilian life and so on. Some went to ROTC, as I did, and went off to get trained. But the interesting thing is that we did and as rapidly as we did, you know, building fifty thousand airplanes a year and getting people to know how to fly them, these complicated big airplanes and fighter planes and bombers and so on. And people, some of them late teenagers and so on.
So at this dinner over in town here, Leon said, “You know, I’ve often wondered how we got sixteen million people suddenly brought into the Army, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the Air Corps and all that – how they got trained, how they learned to do what they did,” talking to me and to the president. And I said, “Well, I’ll give you a fast answer. A lot of the training was very superficial and a lot of the knowledge that was gained to lead to our later success was on-the-job training. And, you know, it sounds like you’re making a joke, but this is true.” And that’s the first time the president began to talk about his days on the Jeep carrier. And he told a story about how they were on a Jeep carrier, it was a carrier that was a converted older naval vessel, usually a large one, and they converted them to small and therefore called them Jeep carriers and they could carry about half of the airplanes of the big carriers, but nevertheless there they were.
There were a lot of them out there and we were building them. And as we went along, we had a huge naval collection of modern carriers as well as these Jeep carriers. The Japanese and Germans began to suffer because we had command of the world’s oceans along with the British and so on. But, [about] the on-the-job training, the president at this dinner said, “Well, I want to tell you a little story. We were on board and I happened to be up in the wheelhouse with my captain who was a young guy,” maybe three years older than Jerry and Jerry had handled all the sports efforts on the vessel and all the crews. He had other relationships with the crews, but he got to be the number three officer as I recall that they had on this Jeep carrier. And they got a call on the radio from a cruiser that said, “We’re dead in the water. We’ve got to get towed out of here.”
It turned out that it was a cruiser and the Japs didn’t have any cruisers, but they had a lot of destroyers, much smaller guns with less range. But by continuously charging at this cruiser, they had damaged it as they say ‘Dead in the water.’ It was only a matter of time before the Japanese got in there and sank that vessel and there’d be a couple thousand men, eighteen hundred people, on that would just be in the water and so on. So anyway, he said they’re up in the bridge and they get a call that said, “Anyone in position close to get to us, please get out here and tow us out of here.” They looked and found they were close, so they kept on-the-job training and the captain said, “Well, I wonder what we’re supposed to do.” And President Ford said he said to him, “Hell, I don’t know. Can we tow a cruiser? Are we big enough to tow a cruiser?” And [there’s] a big storm going on. So the captain said, “Well, I don’t know. Anyway, let’s get going.”
So they took a heading and got close by. Then, embarrassingly, they had to get on the radio and the cruiser captain was very anxious and said, “Well, how do we do this?” meaning how do we hook up with this. “We’ll send a little boat out with the ropes and then you tie it up and you pull us out of here as fast as you can.” So, they did, they got them out of there and saved them. And, of course, when they got them with other vessels to protect them, they were able to do whatever they did.
I didn’t follow up on that story, but I thought that this is a powerful story that I’ve never seen in print. I know it’s true, every word of it and that they were all endangered and under fire as they did this work. And they’d never done it before and they didn’t know how to do it, how to actually get down there in the water and hook up and tow them out of there. And they were embarrassed to talk to the regular Navy captain of the vessel who said, “Tie a line to us and get us out of here!”
Smith: It’s also good training, I suppose, for on-the-job training as president.
Hoffman: Yes, but you know, the side thing we said here talking time and again about military things and so on is that he had this background and he never raised any issue alluding to bravery or anything like that and he never gave the public an understanding of how much he really knew, how much he’d learned as a young man before he got into Congress.
Smith: That’s interesting. Tell me about his mind, his intelligence.
Hoffman: Well, President Ford had great judgment. His brain worked at a very high level on matters involving judgment. And you know the brain has hundreds of different areas and it’s an amazing thing the human brain, but he had this ability. And there’s more to intelligence than what’s your score on an IQ or you’re brilliant enough to go to Harvard at eleven and all that. But this is different.
Smith: Plus, often, glibness, verbal facility is equated with IQ whereas they may not be related.
Hoffman: And a lot of people didn’t realize, the political tactics were to make fun of him. There were pieces in the paper about how he stumbled and he’s clumsy. Actually, he was the best athlete we’ve ever had in the presidency.
Smith: Did that perception that some people had bother him, you think?
Hoffman: He was very sensitive, as Betty was, to unfair criticism, but he never reacted the way people did, the way you or I or somebody else might do. He was able to evaluate what was happening, what people were saying and minimizing conflict. One of the reasons he was so successful as minority leader was that he could work with both sides of the aisle. And he had friends and I knew some of them, the majority leader in the House and so on, that used to come out here and play golf with him and they were very close. It was on that level, those kinds of people. Yeah, I think, to answer your question directly, he was sensitive to this.
Smith: Do you think it bothered her even more?
Hoffman: Well, I can’t evaluate that, whether it was more or less, but I know it bothered her. It always bothers, I think, the First Lady more than it does the person being ridiculed and criticized and so on because their loyalties are what they are and they can’t respond.
Smith: Did you see them while they were in the White House?
Hoffman: Yes, yes. Just as an example of that, a lot of years ago now – I’m eighty-five years old. When I was fifty-three years old, I had a heart bypass and they weren’t all that common in those days and it was something that’d come up fairly quickly. I was chairman of my company and before that had been the number two man as a very young person of the Vanderbilt companies in New York and so on. And had a lot of early experience in business and so forth and Jerry and Betty would come visit us in our home and play golf and I’d set up games with him with Bob Hope and people like that. They really enjoyed it, usually over Easter, but his attitude was always sound, and he didn’t change. You knew what you saw was what you got.
He wasn’t the best speaker in the world, except when you, as I did – I attended a meeting with the city council of one of the towns we have here and we were trying to get some dollar help for the theater. I was on the board and he was on the board, we used to sit together on the theater. Almost from the days it was built, they got involved through our association and later, when it was built and so on, Betty was interested and on the board of the hospital and he was sort of the person from the former White House who was more interested and asked to do more with the theater. And we had gone to the meeting of the city council and I was impressed.
He got up in the audience and there were a lot of controversy and we, the theater, were asking, “Look, the theater is in your area. It was built all with private money. We never asked for a dime, but isn’t it time, now that you have this wonderful facility – we’ve provided entertainment for children, we bring all this good entertainment for the members of your city and so on. It’s just time you came up and recognized we need money. We raise money every year, two million dollars every year. We go to the people that have the money and we say, ‘You know, we need two million dollars” and after a while, you’re going year after year after year, you’re going often to the same people. When do we get some help from you people?”
There were people with signs saying don’t and blah-blah and were walking around. And he was standing there and in a quiet way – there were newspapers there and so on – and he sold them on the idea that politically, even if you don’t believe in this, you’d better start thinking of getting some money. And he got five million dollars from them, and since then we’re getting about ten million dollars or fifteen million dollars from people every year from the various little towns that benefit from having the theater. And this is what I call intelligence, judgmental skills, people skills, all of which he and Betty both were on a very high level and they didn’t pretend to be intellectuals. They didn’t masquerade in any way and they took the beating that they took when he stumbled and didn’t do well in a speech when he had to use it in the White House. So, in a long way of saying, yeah, this bothered him but again, he rose above it.
Smith: Did they tell you why they decided to move out here when they left Washington?
Hoffman: I think partly, maybe largely, it was because of these wonderful visits they were having here. The interesting thing was, when he got to be vice president, he called me and he said, “We can’t use your home.” We had a nice home. We had a separate pool house, and they could use four or five bedrooms, it’s not an elegant place, but just a nice place. They had a very good country club and they had a good golf course and so on and that’s what we were interested in, in those days. We were a lot younger and that was absolutely vital, but I got the surprise of my life when he said, “We can’t go to the Hoffman’s anymore.” And I said, “Why?” And he said, “Because we’ve been out there, we’ve sent our security people out there and we can’t set up the kind of security we want for the vice presidency, for the vice president and his wife.”
So I laughed and he laughed and it turned out the Annenberg’s have this beautiful place, have their own golf course, and some of our friends said, “The vice president would like to come out” and so when he got to be president he came out, always to the Annenberg’s. And their great friend and also a wonderful person was Firestone, Leonard Firestone, who had a home, it’s still there, but Leonard is dead and the Firestone’s don’t live in that particular home now, but they were there.
They were walking this piece of land, actually, so when he retired from the presidency, I think Leonard said, “What would you like to do?” They wanted to be in Vail or someplace near there and they wanted to be here and this was the way they wanted to make their life. And Leonard was very helpful and said, “We’ve got a piece of land right there, adjacent, bigger, it’s right off the fairways of the country club there. And here’s a piece of land. Go ahead and build a house on it and so on.” And then he helped them that time also at Vail. And then they fell in love with both places and, of course, they were here and then when the weather got hot, really hot, then they went to Vail. And, of course, they had children who would come and visit them and so on.
I got past the question you asked, but I had surgery on the very day that he lost the election. That’s on a Tuesday in November of 1976. This surgery was very difficult and is still difficult. You feel like a truck has rolled over you. I had this done at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles. And, about three days later and I’m out of surgery and in my private room at the hospital and the nurse came running in bug-eyed. She said, “The White House is on the phone! The White House is on the phone!” You know, just in a state of panic.
Well, I had been on this White House committee and the White House telephone set-up included this large office building next to the White House and I get many calls from people, always the phone set-up said, “The White House speaking for Mr. Hoffman” and so on. You’d ask, “Who is it?” And some cabinet member or assistant or whatever would be on the phone. So I said, “Go back and find out who it is.” So, you know, she couldn’t believe it so she turns right around and she comes running back and she says, “It’s the president! It’s the president!”
I pick up the phone and he’s at the Oval Office. It’s nighttime. He’s already thinking in terms of, “Okay, I’ve lost the election.” He’s got his feet on the desk and he said, “How’re you doing?” And I said, “I’m doing fine, Mr. President. How’d you find out?” He said, “Well, I called your secretary. I’m coming out and I want to set up a golf game”, which we did that way. And I said, “How’re you feeling? How’re you doing?” And he said, “Well, I’m feeling awful, but I’m through with this. And, by the way, what happened to you? How are you doing?” Of course, I knew from reading the papers. And, again, in his own way, as I remarked to my wife, his comment was, “Well, you know, we were running behind and we almost overtook.” He said, “Four votes and I would’ve been in the White House.” Never a word of censure or criticism about the bitter campaign or anything like that. The person that he resented the most throughout this thing and I think he felt he lost the presidency because there was the interference he got from our president, the movie star.
Smith: Ronald Reagan.
Hoffman: Reagan. When he first tried to gain the nomination and then they had a lot of interference and he was apparently very unhelpful as far as President Ford was concerned. And I remember sitting here about two years before he died and he had been telling this reporter that he had been getting over the years that the person that he really holds responsible and he just can’t have a warm place in his heart for is Ronald Reagan. And I sat there talking about that with him later and I said, “You know, this is the first time I’ve ever heard you criticize somebody.” And he said, “Yeah, I guess that’s right.” So, there were people, but the public didn’t know that.
Smith: I only heard him disparage two people and the worst thing he could think of to say about someone was, “He’s a bad man.” That was the worst epithet he could come up with. And one of them was John Dean and the other was Gordon Liddy. And you could understand where he was coming from.
Hoffman: Oh yeah, and those were people he didn’t trust. If anyone demonstrated that he was not honest and predictable and true to his word, then he got on the quiet list, but he didn’t talk about it. He didn’t go out of his way to criticize people, but yeah, he had what you and I and normal people would say are enemies were people that he didn’t like or didn’t like him, but you didn’t know it. And over time he got out of it.
I tell this little anecdote. They were heading for the Anwar…
Smith: …the Sadat funeral.
Hoffman: The Sadat funeral. And there were four ex-presidents going and President Carter was sitting next to him. And then we all got, his close friends got this photo of all these ex-presidents together that are alive and so on. And he called me and he said, “I want to give you something.” And he gave me this and I said, “How’d your trip go?” And he said, “You know, I sat with Carter,” they were in a military airplane, and he said, “I can not, I can not get to like him.” It was that light of a comment and I was surprised he was making this effort successfully. That of all the people, ex-presidents, that I would expect to hear make the kind of wonderful speech that Carter made, Carter that would be very low on that list. But he had worked to get over that. This man was not an enemy. He was somebody he didn’t like, but…
Smith: Yeah, but they became good friends, didn’t they, over the years?
Hoffman: Well, not really friends. Not really friends, but not enemies.
You know, I didn’t mention this, but in 1980, this was after he had settled down and had his home built here and so on, I said, “You know,” and it was in this office, I said, “I’d like to ask you if you’d like to join my board.” It was by that time, we were a large Flying Tiger line and we flew over all the oceans, had the best route structure for cargo in the world and we had a number of companies. The holding company was our company that had the outside directors. And I said, “One of the reasons I’m asking you – I want to be honest – is that you had experience that’s important to us in evaluating certain situations. Everything we do turns political. We’re always looking for routes. We’re handling a lot of government business and so on. And, if you accept, we’d like to be able to use you on the QT as a consultant. We’ll publish that that’s what you are, but we won’t go into the details.” So I said, “Think about this.” He was then doing a little of this. And he called me back and he said, “Yeah, I’d love to do this.” And so we did. I retired in ’86, ’85 actually, but I continued to have an official title as chairman and so on. He stayed on the board until our people, including the board that he was on, sold that entire entity to FedEx. FedEx had no international routes at all. All their routes were domestic. Now they have the best route structure in the world and, today, believe it or not, bar none. We’re not talking passenger versus cargo, they’re the largest airline in the world and they make more money than anybody in the world.
Smith: Do you remember what you paid him as a director?
Hoffman: Well, what our directors’ fees were, when you look at what’s happening these days, that was before that insanity, but, you know, a director would get maybe fifty or sixty thousand dollars and we expected them to work. When they came to board meetings, they had read the data and so on. And then we paid them a figure for consulting, I think it was about fifty thousand dollars and we had a helicopter and so, to ease for him, we would bring a helicopter and land right over here and pick him up and land him on our office building in Century City. So, then, when the board meeting was over, we’d fly him back in the helicopter, so we spent money on him that we didn’t do for the other directors. But to give you an example of some of the things that he did, he was very obviously well-read up on everything and he didn’t make questions that are more speechifying to the other guys on the board or anything like that. He asked questions that made sense and you had to give him answers that made sense. He was a good director and everybody got to know his quality.
One time, we were sitting in the boardroom for our board meeting in Century City and my secretary came in and said, “Mr. Hoffman, Mexico is calling.” We had a division, not of the airline, but of a company that we owned in Mexico City. And I sort of wrinkled my brow and I said, “I’m in a board meeting. I don’t take telephone calls.” She said, “Well, you’d better take this one.” So, I knew this was something so I told the board, “I’ve got a phone call I normally wouldn’t take, but I’ve got to figure out what it is.”
He said, “The president,” it was a young guy by the name of Spencer, they were calling from our company, he said, “He’s disappeared and some bystander saw him. He was driving down la Forma(?), going home from the office, and a couple men jumped out with shotguns in front of the car and stopped the car, dragged him out of the car, and he’s gone. We don’t know where he is.” And so I said, “Have you talked to the police?” And he said, “Yes.” But, you know that may be the last people you want to talk to and so on. So I could see we had a complex problem, but I said, “What do you mean you don’t know where he is?” He said, “Literally, we don’t know where he is. We haven’t been able to talk to him. Nobody will tell us where he is.” So I went back to the boardroom and I said, “Jerry, you’re a consultant and I’ve got something I want you to work on for me.” So, he said, “What’s that?” I told him the story and he said, “Well, listen. When we’re through with the board meeting here, let me get a hold of the Attorney General of the state of Mexico. He’s a man I know well. He and I get along well. He speaks good English” and so on and so forth.
So at the end of the meeting, he called him and he came in after his call and he said, “Well, here’s what he said to do. He wasn’t aware of the situation, but he said that he would find out where he is and get back to us.” And on the QT, this is the retired president of the United States of America. And that’s exactly what we needed to know. So, anyway, shortly, he called and came back here and he said, “I heard from him and he’s in a prison in a huge ward with eight rapists and bank robbers and murderers and one guy in there is a captain and he’s the guy that protects everything. You know, you have to give him handouts” and so on. So I said, “What’d they charge him with?” He said, “Apparently there’s a business dispute that’s resulted in litigation.” And, unlike our situation, of course, Spencer, our president had spent many years in Mexico, he knew Mexico well, we didn’t know Mexico that well.
But he said, “I’m going to give you some advice. I know the judge that this matter will be brought [before].” And this is outside Mexico City, somewhere far away. “And I’ll talk to the judge and he will set a bail session for your man. When he does, you pay the bail and then skip bail, go back to the United States and then this situation will be handled. You can handle it from there on.” So, this is what we did. Here’s a young man with a young wife, got four kids and so on and he had a home there and had been living there for years. So, that was one example of the efficiency with which he could get something done. We didn’t call him in and say, “We’d like to consult with you on we’re trying to get into Russia.” We didn’t get into anything that was political or which we could handle better than to bring him in. But he was there and knew it to help us and wanted to help us where his unique insight and contacts and so on in a proper way. Don’t ever go to him and try to beat somebody else out of a flight pattern or bilateral decision as to who gets a route. That’s not what he wants to do and he won’t do that.
Smith: Where did he come by this range of contacts?
Hoffman: Well, as the president, this would be not at all uncommon for him to go down and visit and meet these people. Certain people would seek him out and he’d seek them out. He’s a lawyer and highly regarded. He’s president of the United States, so knowing the Attorney General was just happenstance that worked in our favor. Otherwise, as you know, this country is not governed by the kind of laws that we are.
Smith: I just want to ask you to step back a bit because the president took some criticism for being on boards, was part of a larger criticism directed at the so-called commercializing of the presidency. What’s your reaction to that?
Hoffman: Well, again, if everybody were Jerry Ford, you probably wouldn’t have that criticism. Now days, I can’t believe how much money President Clinton has made where his wife had twenty-one million in her bank account she could throw into a campaign. Jerry never did that. He did things that he would enjoy, would keep his mind active and so forth. But I think there’s good reason to be careful that there’s some oversight here, because this can be abused and this present situation we’re in now, which is a very serious situation, won’t be over very fast. We’ll make some corrections in some of this huge money that flies around.
But I’ll give you another example of his activity in the business world. The government owns an entity called Aerospace Corp. And that was a company that had six thousand people working for them, half of whom were Ph.D. and master’s degree levels in various sciences and so on. They were involved in top secret work in launches and so forth of satellites, and other such things the government was involved in. They had a board of about twenty-one people that was made up of four or five business men, and then they had people from the academic world, usually, and they had people from the military, four-star generals and whatever, and naval officers. Bob Gates who was on the board and people like that.
I was on the board in point of, not age, but in point of service. I wound up when I retired as the senior director in the company, so I was involved as a business man and so on. Every year, we would lose people from our board and we wanted to have good people. They had to be conscious of security. They had to be able to pass the security tests and so forth, and they had to be the kind of people you could trust and so on. This was very, very high level stuff. For example, when Powers was shot down, the government – I can tell you this, there’s a lot of stuff I was involved in that is still classified – but one of the things we were working on that’s been declassified was launching satellites that would operate in stationary orbit over certain places, and it eliminated the need for flying these missions across. We had satellites that you couldn’t shoot down, and the various people that these were being used to obtain information from it didn’t have the capability to shoot them down, didn’t have the capability to build these kinds of things and so on.
So anyway, we had a number of security clearances and all the board had to have security clearances and so on. Every year we were looking for somebody, and somebody said, “You know, we need some people from the government,” which was part of the group. And I said, “As I sit here, let me ask you a question? What about President Ford?”, now retired. And they said, “Well, what about him?” I said, “Well, he might be interested.” And, of course, they thought that was a great idea. And so I came here and I said, “Would you like to do this?” He could get paid a modest director’s fee and that was it. But you sat in on meetings, very important meetings, and so on and so forth.
A little bit amusing anecdote. He joined the board, and I’ve got a picture of him here, you don’t need to see it, that has him on the board. You see he’s in the picture and all of our directors. We had a couple of meetings and we got into a meeting where they were going to discuss a codename clearance. A lot of people think ‘top secret’ is the highest, but that isn’t the way it works. They have “on a need-to-know basis,” they have all kinds of different levels and they only bring in “in codename clearances,” if, for example, you might have six people on that under a codename and that’s all they needed and wanted. It goes on under the correct analytical conclusion that the more people that know about it, the less secret these things become.
So we’re sitting in a board meeting and we get to the agenda and the chairman turned around and he said, “Do you have the codename clearance?” The president said, “No.” He said, “Well, we’ll have to ask you to leave the room.” Along with him, of the twenty-one, sixteen of them left the room. There were a number of us that had code clearance. And he left the room cheerful enough, came back in ten, fifteen minutes, back on schedule, and I said, “You know, I was amazed to learn that you wouldn’t be admissible to any kind of discussion.” “No,” he said, “a lot of things we were not involved in, did not want to be involved in, didn’t want to carry around, certainly didn’t want your secretary involved in and so on. No, I understand this and I understand the theory behind this very well.” I said, “We can get you code,” because one of the things we were talking about was a satellite that we had approved for launch in zero-sync orbit over Russia. We were able to read license plates on parking lots. We were able to interdict phone calls and so on. It was unbelievable what we were able to do with these things. We had a whole bunch of problems, like problems with Kaddafi and so on and we were involved in a lot of things that we knew that we, the United States, knew about. We were able to send the entire Sixth Fleet somewhere and nobody knew, the public, “What’s the fleet doing there with battleships and carriers?” and blah, blah, blah. “Don’t know.” Well, we knew and so on.
In fact, we had to get clearance if we ever went abroad. Laura and I hadn’t been to China, we didn’t operate in China as an airline. We had routes there, but we never operated there. The government didn’t want us and we didn’t want them. But anyway, we were going to go to China. So I reported to them and they called me back and said, “It’s not cleared.” And I said, “What do you mean it’s not?” I thought, “What do you mean it’s not cleared?” I said, “My wife and I are going to China. Why would you say something like that?” And he said, “Well, I don’t want to go into that.” And I said, “Well,…” And he said, “Fine. How are you on having your fingernails pulled out?” I said, “What do you mean by that?” He said, “Just what I said: How would you handle that kind of thing?” And I said, “Okay, I won’t go to China.” Because they didn’t know what I knew, but they knew that I knew it. And you just couldn’t risk it because you could just disappear and never be found and that kind of thing. But before you disappeared, they would’ve found out what it was they wanted to know.
So, he was on that board for only about two or three years because we kept rotating the board. He was a wonderful board member there. He could pick up on things that he had been involved in. You remember that Vietnam ship that – I won’t go into all these details, but he knew a lot about all of this stuff and whether he was in on code clearances or not was really________. For example, we had Bob Gates on our board and he had clearances that were similar to the president’s if he needed to know, or had to know, but otherwise, he didn’t have it. We’d say to Gates, “Do you have this clearance?” “No.” “Goodbye. We’ll call ya.” At that time, he was head of CIA, so you know how those things worked. So this is an example of the things that he would do, got paid for, but that’s what he liked to do where he felt he was accomplishing something that was helpful to the country. He would attend meetings, and we would have parties, and we were going to cut ribbons and so on. He would show up at things. We gave him as few of those things as we could because we know he traveled around a lot.
Smith: He loved to travel, didn’t he?
Hoffman: Yeah, he did. And especially where he didn’t have – when you become a civilian later, after his presidency, you don’t always have government aircraft at your disposal. So, he didn’t like to travel in terms of enjoying the trip itself, but he liked going somewhere and seeing people.
Smith: Did he have a sense of humor?
Hoffman: Excellent sense of humor and you could tell him anything. You didn’t have to tailor a joke or a story with him. If he liked it, he liked it. If he didn’t, he didn’t. That kind of thing. But yeah, he had a very much alive sense of humor. So did Betty! I keep bringing her up because she’s so much a part of that team and she’s now ill. She’s here, actually, as you may know, but she’s getting to the point where she just doesn’t want to go out and isn’t able to do a lot of things. She’s ninety years old now.
Smith: I know she’s told one of her granddaughters, “You know, this getting old is not easy.”
Hoffman: And when you lose a spouse… I met a girl, my wife, when I was at the University of Illinois. We were nineteen years old. It was sort of love at first sight type of thing, but I was in ROTC and they were going to pull me out whenever they wanted to. I didn’t want to get married and then leave and have babies born back [here] and I didn’t want to do that. She didn’t either. But, we met September 24, 1942 and I got back just the end of ’45 and I was in the service until April of ’46. I went back to law school to finish law school. She came back and was teaching at the university. But in any event, we met sixty-six years ago, and I look at her now and, of course, we’re getting at an age and I look at her and I think, “What would I do without her?” So I gave her instructions when I woke up, I said, “I’ll make a deal with you, if you die before I do, I’m going to kill you. I don’t want to be left without you.” It would be very difficult.
Smith: Yeah, I think the Fords were inseparable. When you said ‘partnership,’ that’s absolutely right on. In later years, I think he almost felt some guilt about how, early in his career, he had been away as much as he had, had been on the road as much as he had, and really entrusted raising the kids to her. I think he went out of his way to try to compensate for that in the later years, both being here and with the kids, too.
Hoffman: Well, the other thing I think that bothered him was that there were a lot of things he couldn’t talk to her about.
Smith: Like what?
Hoffman: Well, anything that had any security rating, you couldn’t talk to your wife about. You couldn’t go home and say, “Gee, I had an interesting meeting at Aerospace Corp where we’ve got a satellite in geo-sync orbit over Russia.” You just couldn’t do it. So your wife felt sort of excluded from a lot of things that were important. Or she’d hear it on the television two weeks later and say, “Oh, that’s what you were doing.” “Yep.” So that was hard and then raising the kids. The children suffer badly. They’re lucky in that they’ve got a great group of children, but that’s one area that you don’t envy them at all. It’s not an easy job.
Smith: But it must be so fulfilling for her, for example, to know that Susan is taking over the Betty Ford Center.
Hoffman: Very much so. And Susan, like her mother, is a very sharp hands-on executive. Betty doesn’t go to any of the hospital meetings anymore and she had, when she was up and about, she had her meetings in her own offices there right on the campus of the hospital, but she doesn’t now. She brought Susan in at a time when she knew that physically she wasn’t able to get about as much as she used to.
Smith: In the last few years, when I mentioned travel, up around his ninetieth birthday, he was able to travel pretty extensively and then I guess his doctors pretty much prohibited it. And I wonder if a little bit of him died at that point, accepting those restrictions on your freedom. It’s something he’d enjoyed all his life. Those last few years, how would you describe his –
Hoffman: Well, I had an interesting life with him in a lot of ways. He’s a good athlete. He and I played golf when we were in our late thirties or forties. He was, you know, about a ten handicap, as I was. But he wouldn’t play much as we went along. He’d play in the Bob Hope Classic and things like that and so forth. And we played quite a bit. But then it got to the point where he really wasn’t able to play as much as he used to. And so we had, at the Vintage Country Club, and this is in this last book that was written he mentions it, so I know he enjoyed this. I called him up a couple of times and said, “You know, we have got a nine-holer group here.” And then we’d meet. In the men’s locker room, there’s a table that will fit about ten people and that’s all. You’re not out there where every time you try to take a fork full of something to eat, somebody comes up and says, “Remember when I met you back in 1918” or whatever they would say. So, he said, “Yeah, I’d like that.”
So we did this and we had a group of about ten or twelve people and we’d play two foursomes at least once a week. He really loved it because he enjoyed that and he enjoyed staying for lunch. Normally, if you played golf, he had the car there. He didn’t have lunch. He didn’t like the idea of everybody out in the dining room coming up and then he’d try to think through, “What’s their name? I know their name” and so on. Very difficult for him. But he always stayed for lunch for this.
So, one day, he called me, and a man named Tim Blixseth had built his own country club here called Porcupine, totally private, but it’s a professional layout – he’s got a long story on that. But anyway, he said, “Would you like to play nine holes?” I said, “Fine. Where?” He said, “Meet me at Porcupine.” It was a very hot and humid day, very, very uncomfortable. And I think he was then about eighty-nine. I had my cart set up. When he was playing with me, he liked to drive the cart. He could go where his ball was and he wanted to be the driver, so I set it up. It was just the two of us. And, of course, the golf course is entirely private so we’re the only two people, as it turned out, playing on the golf course.
So he shows up in his car with the Secret Service. And, by the way, Secret Service, I got used to dealing with them and after I get through with this story, I want to make some comments about that, that you don’t think of. But anyway, he shows up in the car and he gets out of the car and he sort of stumbles and he doesn’t look good to me at all. So I said, “Well, how are you doing?” He said, “Well, I’m doing fine.” And I said, “What do you mean ‘well’?” He said, “Well, I was swimming this morning,” as he did every morning, laps, and he said, “When I got up out of the pool, I got a little dizzy.” And I knew that he had doctors at Eisenhower and I was on their board and so on. And so, I said, “It’s hotter than Hell. You want to cancel?” “No,” he said, “let’s go.” So we get out there and we hit off on the first tee and so on. And, second tee, he’s going toward the green and he stumbled and he’s on his knee.
The Secret Service are there and so I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so I said, to him, “Do you want to continue? It’s hotter than Hell and I don’t think we’re going to do nine holes because I don’t feel up to nine holes. What about you?” He said, “Well, let’s play another hole.” We played another hole and then I got a hold of one of the Secret Service guys that I knew and I said, “Call the doctor. Do you have his doctor’s number?” “Yep.” “Call his doctor. Don’t call Betty because there’s nothing she can do at this stage. Just call the doctor. Tell her you’re on your way.”
And so he went there and I later called him at home to talk to Betty to see how he’s doing and she said, “He’s here. You want to talk to him?” So it was one of those things, it was really caused by some medicine he was taking and so forth. But the press carried this story. All over the world, there were stories that the president… I could tell then that they were on a death watch, so to speak.
Smith: And did he know that, too?
Hoffman: Yeah, he knew that, but it was amazing how, first of all, the first person that gave this story was, whoever was called said that it was very hot and we think that this may have been heat exhaustion of some kind. And, of course, I knew what it was.
But he enjoyed those things and we played. I think that was the last effort at golf that he had and I was glad I was there because it could’ve been dangerous and so on.
But, talking about the Secret Service, early on, when he got to be vice president, we had him around. And Eisenhower used to come and he’d be playing on our golf course. He had a home there that he used and there’d be Secret Service guys behind the trees and so on. And when I first started dealing with that with President Ford, I said to him, “You know, we’re going to have some lunch. Now, what do we do about the Secret Service?” And he said, “I’m glad you brought that up. We never provide for the Secret Service. As far as we’re concerned, they can starve to death. We don’t care. We don’t think that they’re behind the tree.”
Well, we know they are out of your mind and particularly, when we’d have events at our house, we used to have them as guests, they’d show up as guests. Of course, Secret Service would be out a couple of hours before that. They’d look over everything in the house and so on and then they’d be there. And I knew them and they knew me, but we didn’t make any provisions. We didn’t tell them to have a drink or some food or anything like that. And that was the protocol. They took care of themselves and didn’t make a nuisance. They had all their communications, they were there, they had the vehicle, and that’s where he got the benefits.
Smith: One sensed, just from some of the agents I’ve known, that they were fond of them both.
Smith: And I don’t think that’s universally the case.
Hoffman: No. Well, you know some business man made this statement that when talking about evaluating people for new employment, he said, “I always take the high-end candidate out to dinner, just the two of us. And when they’d say, ‘Where should we go?’ I’d say, ‘What’s your favorite? People that know you.’ ‘Fine. I’ll take care of it.’ ‘I’ll pick up the tab and so on, but you do that.’” And then he watched how he handled the wait staff. And he said, “You cannot believe the number of people that automatically went off the list because of the way they handled the people who were waiting on them.”
So I followed that advice, because there are people that become Dr. Jekyll and Hyde. They begin to want to throw their weight around, or whatever it is, and that’s not what you want out of a president or somebody who’s in the news and so on. And President Ford was, again, very – a bad meal, he never had. You know he did, but he never had a bad meal. And he was always polite and he always tried to remember their names.
We were at Jillian’s last night and June Trubee, she and her husband own the restaurant. His favorite place was Jillian’s to go to, so we used to eat there a lot. They had a fish that he loved and so on. Of course he knew everybody there. They were all very circumspect. You could go in there with the president alone or with six people, sit down there in the middle of the dining room, and nobody ever made a big deal because they saw a lot of him and so forth. But this was part of his character. You’d be surprised, or maybe not, how many very top people wouldn’t pass that test. Simple test.
Smith: You’re absolutely right. It’s an absolute litmus test of character, how you treat people “above” or “below” you on whatever scale you set up.
Describe for me this place, this whole community, in the 80’s or even in the 90’s for people who haven’t been here. My gosh, you had Bob Hope, you had Sinatra, Spiro Agnew was around here. You had all these folks, Hollywood stars, and the Fords were clearly part of all this. What was it like then and is it essentially over?
Hoffman: Do you mean with respect to the Fords?
Smith: I mean that whole sort of generation is gone, but when they were here, what was this place like?
Hoffman: This is a strange community, but what’s happening that is worthwhile observing is how the place is growing. This is becoming one of the largest cities, take all of it, will be one of the largest cities in the United States. They’re talking about a population of 500,000 people. We’re already up to 300,000 people. And when I first joined at Eldorado, the roads that lead in and out of Eldorado were dirt roads except for one street. Empty lots everywhere, empty properties that are now being filled. Changing dramatically. Traffic, unbelievable. We never had any traffic here, you know. And people, more and more people that are regular people, live here. By that, I mean they have jobs and they come and go and they have their own place to play golf and they enjoy life as anybody would. But then there’s lots of social structures that you’ll find everywhere.
Smith: Was Sinatra very visible around here?
Hoffman: Oh yes. And Barbara particularly because she had a center for children, the Sinatra Center, right next to Betty’s Center. And we’d see her at board meetings she’d be invited to join and so on both before and after he died. And he had a very large home at one of the clubs here, so he spent a lot of time here.
Smith: So, he would cross paths with the Fords as a matter of routine?
Hoffman: I don’t really remember the Fords spending a lot of time with Sinatra. I didn’t either. He was a sort of a different person. Wonderful act, beautiful voice, wonderful to watch him. I still like to hear him. But he had special friends. I would say this about the desert that it has not changed much. For example, at the hospital, over seventy percent of our business is Medicare business. We have people from Canada, people from Europe, people from all over have homes there at Vintage now and has become much more worldwide and I think all for the better.
Smith: Spiro Agnew lived out here, didn’t he?
Hoffman: He came out here during and after his problem. And so his social life was, I think, impaired a bit by that.
Smith: Did you ever see him and Ford together?
Hoffman: I’d never seen them together, but they might have been.
Smith: The last time you saw him, when was that?
Hoffman: The last time was really the time I mentioned earlier when he opened up about his service and Leon and Barbara Parma, the six of us, were at Jillian’s. He came in with a cane. He was then ninety-something, -two. I think it was a year or less before he died, but because of his athleticism and his habits, you would’ve thought he would’ve outlived Betty. Betty had problems and I considered him to be the luckiest man alive or dead because he went so long. You know, you just fall apart. You don’t realize why or maybe you do, but if you look at it, you’d be surprised at how many of these long-married couples, when one dies, the other is gone in three or four months or whatever.
But Betty -her whole life has changed – is there, but Jerry’s not and everything to do with life was the two of them. So, there’s nothing you can do about that. We sent her some flowers for her birthday and Laura, my wife, remembered that she loved coral roses and so we picked out some nice flowers and brought them out to the gate out here. Betty wrote us a long letter and said, of course Laura knew, but she said, “I love those flowers.” But it’s a hard life.
Smith: Final thing: What do you think, for people who never knew him or for whom he’s just a name in a textbook or an old film clip, what should people know about Gerald Ford?
Hoffman: Well, I would like to have, and it will happen, somebody said one time it takes forty years to get a piece of history. History, when you read the general’s first book after World War II, it’s not accurate. First of all, I was a student of reading and so on and I’d been in the invasion of Normandy and fought with an elite division called the First Division. And so I’d fought all the way through war, was wounded a couple of times and I knew what this was all about. So I have our baby and I’m in law school. So I start reading these books and, boy, these generals, they really knew what they were doing. One of the things I never knew until twenty-two years later was that they’d broken the German code. And so they were reading the German’s mail and listening to them, in effect, on the telephone. And that never showed up when they talk about their judgment to do this and that. So now as you read a book as you do that happens to be on one of our big generals or whatever, now you get an honest piece of history.
But I think, to answer your question directly, I think that history will reward Ford. The perception will be more honest. [inaudible] isn’t looking for somebody to tape over something. The same thing that happened to Truman. Truman was really considered to be a very weak president, being shoved around by his general in the Korean War and so on. And kind of a dumbbell, but, as it turned out, he was a very good president, but it took about thirty-five or forty years to figure that out.
Smith: That’s perfect.