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A host of tips, leaks, rumors, and wild speculations swirl around President Nixon’s resignation from the presidency and upcoming departure from the White House (see August 8, 1974). Nixon has pardoned himself and all of his aides before resigning, one rumor goes. Nixon has already sneaked out all of his secret tapes of White House conversations to his private residence in San Clemente, California, claims another rumor. Another one, more worrying, has Defense Secretary James Schlesinger informing military commanders not to take orders from the West Wing in case a drunken, suicidally paranoid Nixon refused to leave or ordered a nuclear strike. Vice President Ford’s press secretary, Jerald terHorst, assures reporters that none of the rumors are true. The press listens to terHorst because he is one of them, having resigned a senior position with the Detroit News to take the position in the White House. (Werth 2006, pp. 17)
Newly installed President Gerald Ford (see August 9, 1974) has no intention of pardoning former President Richard Nixon. Press secretary Jerald terHorst tells reporters, “I don’t think the American people would stand for it.” TerHorst adds that Ford even opposes granting Nixon immunity from prosecution. “I can assure you of that,” he says. (Werth 2006, pp. 17-18) Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski is “stunned and upset” by terHorst’s statement that Ford is not considering executive clemency for Nixon. Jaworski wants to avoid any court and constitutional battles over Nixon’s legal liabilities, but he suspects Ford is attempting to pressure him into making the first move. Jaworski has tried to work with both Nixon chief of staff Alexander Haig and with his own staff, who to a man suspect him of having more loyalty to Nixon than an interest in pursuing the truth. But whatever loyalties Jaworski has towards Nixon have eroded over the months of investigations. Jaworski will later recall a “galling frustration” with Nixon, who “continually twisted the facts while I, who knew the truth, had to remain silent.” (Werth 2006, pp. 30-31)
During a White House press briefing, Press Secretary Jerald terHorst is grilled about the fate of the thousands of hours of recordings made by former President Richard Nixon, recordings clandestinely made by Nixon of conversations with his aides, staffers, advisers, and visitors (see February 1971 and July 13-16, 1973). The practice of secretly recording White House conversations began with Franklin D. Roosevelt, but Nixon had gone far beyond the simple recording systems made by his predecessors. He had hidden microphones in the lamps and room fixtures in the Oval Office, his office in the Executive Office Building (EOB), the Cabinet Room, and in the Aspen Lodge at Camp David. In all, he made over 3,700 hours of recordings between July 1971 and July 1973. The tapes are loaded with evidence of criminal conspiracies and deeds involving Nixon and dozens of his closest advisers and aides, and are of intense interest to reporters and the Watergate prosecutors. TerHorst causes a stir when he tells listeners that the tapes are currently being guarded by Secret Service personnel, and “they have been ruled to be the personal property” of Nixon. Ruled by whom? reporters demand. The “ruling” is based on a “formal,” albeit unwritten, legal opinion by White House lawyers Fred Buzhardt and James St. Clair, who had helped frame Nixon’s Watergate defense. TerHorst is unaware of the legal dispute over the tapes brewing in the White House and in the office of Leon Jaworski, the Watergate special prosecutor. Ford was not involved in the decision to turn the materials over to Nixon, says terHorst, but concurs in it. TerHorst is speculating far more than the reporters realize; he has been given little information and only scanty guidance from Buzhardt. When asked if the decision to give the documents and tapes to Nixon comes from “an agreement among the different staffs, the special prosecutor, the Justice Department, and the White House legal staff,” terHorst replies unsteadily, “I assume there would be because I’m sure neither one would just take unilateral action.” (Werth 2006, pp. 71-75)
Republican political adviser and corporate lobbyist Bryce Harlow recommends former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller over former ambassador and current Republican National Committee chairman George H.W. Bush to serve as vice president (see August 20, 1974). Bush may be a better choice for party harmony, Harlow says, but that choice would be considered indecisive and overly partisan. On the other hand, Rockefeller, a liberal Republican, would be considered a “bold” choice and “would be hailed by the media normally most hostile to Republicans.” Rockefeller’s selection would also “encourage estranged groups to return to the Party and would signal that the new president will not be captive of any political faction.”
Watergate Allegations against Rockefeller - Rockefeller’s naming as vice president, strongly supported by President Ford, is briefly held up by unfounded allegations that Rockefeller hired thugs to disrupt the 1972 Democratic National Convention, and that the papers to prove the allegations were stolen from the offices of convicted Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt. The charges are leveled by an elderly anti-Communist activist named Hamilton Long. The story leaks to the press, and Ford, taking no chances, orders the FBI to investigate Rockefeller, Bush, and senior staff aide Donald Rumsfeld for possible selection as the vice president. Long’s allegations prove baseless when Watergate investigators locate the safety deposit boxes in which Long says the documents are stored, and find the boxes empty.
Ford Offers VP - After learning that Rockefeller is free of any Watergate taint, Ford privately asks him to accept the vice presidency. Rockefeller will have strong influence on the Ford administration’s domestic and economic policies, Ford promises, and, additionally, Rockefeller will be Ford’s vice presidential choice in the 1976 presidential elections. The last obstacle is the press, which is all but convinced that the White House is involved in another Watergate cover-up, this time with Ford at the helm. A White House source tells reporters that the so-called “Rockefeller Papers” are nothing more than a hoax concocted by “right-wing extremists who decided it would be useful to blacken the name of Governor Rockefeller.” The explanations by press secretary Jerald terHorst, himself a former reporter, and terHorst’s acceptance of the blame for giving confusing and somewhat misleading information about the Rockefeller allegations, somewhat mollifies the press. White House counsel Robert Hartmann recalls the Long incident and its handling as an example of the inexperience of the Ford staff and of Ford himself. “[W]e were all babes in the White House,” he later writes. “We had done the right thing and truthfully told what we had done, but it was unfair to Rockefeller to give presidential credence to Long’s hearsay. And of course, the press castigated us for that the next day.” (Werth 2006, pp. 93-105)
President Ford discusses media reports of a feared coup attempt or unauthorized nuclear strike in the final days of the Nixon presidency (see August 22, 1974) with his ad hoc chief of staff, Alexander Haig, and Defense Secretary James Schlesinger (see August 25, 1974). Ford believes the leak that formed the basis of the story came from the “highest level of the Pentagon,” but he is unaware that Schlesinger is most likely the leaker. He is also unaware of the hornet’s nest of bureaucratic rivalries involved in the situation. Ford knows nothing of the strained relations between the White House and the Joint Chiefs of Staff going back to the Moorer-Radford spy affair (see December 1971), nor of Haig’s blurred loyalties and his network of connections between the Pentagon, the National Security Council, and the White House. Ford is distressed by the stories, and furious when Haig assures him that the story is false—no such measures had been taken.
Implications of a Secret Deal - Ford worries most that the story will escalate into a whirlwind of media speculation about the nation being “at the brink” during Nixon’s final days, and more to the point, the media and the citizenry may begin speculating about the possibility that he took over the White House as part of some sort of secret deal. Ford also knows that such an extraordinary leak three weeks into his presidency is a direct insult to his own position. Ford orders Schlesinger to straighten out the entire mess right away.
Haig Also Involved? - Although Schlesinger denies his involvement in the stories, his credibility in this matter is wanting. And, if the stories are indeed true, then Haig must have been involved as well. Indeed, former Nixon aide Charles Colson will later write that Haig himself initiated the reported military watch, asking the Pentagon to disregard any order from Nixon. Like Schlesinger, Haig denies any part in the Pentagon watch, and calls the idea of a military coup of any stripe “an insult to the armed forces.” Haig will later accuse the so-called “countergovernment”—Congress, the courts, and the press—of successfully engaging in their own coup of sorts, in combining to drive both Nixon and former Vice President Spiro Agnew (see October 10, 1973) from office. But Haig has also dropped dark hints of his own to reporters about “dangers to the country deeper than Watergate,” and has spoken about the threat of “extra-constitutional” steps during Nixon’s last days.
Presidential Denial - Publicly, Ford, through press secretary Jerald terHorst, tells the press that “no measures of this nature were actually undertaken.” Questions about whether any requests for a military watch, or other such preparations, were ever made to forestall a military coup are referred to the Pentagon. (Werth 2006, pp. 191-193)
President Ford, realizing that has got all the concessions he is likely to get from Richard Nixon (see September 6, 1974) and fearing that Nixon may die before he can issue any executive clemency, finalizes his plans to announce a pardon for Nixon. He informs his closest advisers. Press secretary Jerald terHorst is not fully aware of the internal dealings for any pardon until he enters the press room, having been informed that Ford is preparing to make a major announcement. TerHorst is stunned at the news that Ford will pardon Nixon. He belatedly realizes that for weeks he has been misled by Ford and, accordingly, he has inadvertently misled the press and the American people about Ford’s intentions. Ford’s explanation that he did not want to force terHorst to lie to the press carries little weight with the press secretary. He feels that his 25-year relationship with Ford has been irrevocably tainted. Nevertheless, terHorst restrains himself, agreeing to come in early the next morning to help craft the statement to the press. But, driving home at the end of the workday, terHorst decides to resign. (Werth 2006, pp. 312-313)
After attending church, President Ford works on the final wording of his statement announcing the pardon of Richard Nixon. His statement will emphasize Nixon’s failing health and decades of service to the Republican Party and America. Ford alerts a few Congressional leaders of his upcoming announcement. Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) is nonplussed. “What are you pardoning him of?” he asks, “It doesn’t make any sense.” Ford replies, “The public has the right to know that in the eyes of the president, Nixon is clear.” Goldwater is taken aback. “He may be clear in your eyes, but he’s not clear in mine,” Goldwater retorts. House Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-MA) is equally blunt. “I’m telling you right now,” O’Neill says: “this will cost you the election. I hope it’s not part of any deal.” Ford responds, “No, there’s no deal,” to which O’Neill says, “Then why the hell are you doing it?” O’Neill says that if Ford has to pardon Nixon, the timing is bad. He needs to wait. Ford disagrees. The resistance from without is reflected inside the White House, when press secretary Jerald terHorst tenders his resignation to Ford (see September 7, 1974). TerHorst’s letter says in part, “I cannot in good conscience support your decision to pardon” Nixon, “even before he has been charged with the commission of any crime. As your spokesperson, I do not know how I could credibly defend that action in the absence of a like decision to grant absolute pardon to the young men who evaded military service (see August 31, 1974) as a matter of conscience and the absence of pardon for former aides of Mr. Nixon who have been charged with crimes—and imprisoned.… [I]t is impossible to conclude that the former president is more deserving of mercy than persons of lesser station in life whose offenses have had far less effect on our national well-being.” (Werth 2006, pp. 316-319)
Just hours after President Ford announces his pardon of Richard Nixon (see September 8, 1974), he sees evidence that the pardon is even more unpopular than he had feared. The White House switchboard is flooded with “angry calls, heavy and constant,” as Ford’s lawyer Philip Buchen will later recall. The response, says resigning press secretary Jerald terHorst (see September 8, 1974), is roughly 8-1 against. TerHorst’s admission to the press that he is resigning over the pardon adds even more fuel to the blaze of criticism. “I resigned,” terHorst tells reporters, “because I just couldn’t remain part of an act that I felt was ethically wrong.” Reporters almost uniformly side with terHorst against Ford; as author Barry Werth will later write, “the press concluded intrinsically that terHorst’s act of conscience trumped the president’s.” TerHorst’s resignation is inevitably compared to Nixon’s infamous “Saturday Night Massacre” (see October 19-20, 1973), and engenders a similar avalanche of press criticism and public outrage. The day after, protesters greet Ford in Pittsburgh with chants of “Jail Ford!” Conservative columnist George Will writes, “The lethal fact is that Mr. Ford has now demonstrated that… he doesn’t mean what he says.” The New York Times calls the pardon a “profoundly unwise, divisive, and unjust act.… This blundering intervention is a body blow to the president’s own credibility and to the public’s reviving confidence in the integrity of its government.” Ford’s popularity plunges almost overnight from 70 percent to 48 percent; fewer than one in five Americans identify themselves as Republicans. Ford’s biographer John Robert Greene will write that journalists begin “treating Ford as just another Nixon clone in the White House—deceitful, controlled by the leftover Nixonites, and in general no different than any of his immediate predecessors.” Werth will conclude that Ford’s “self-sacrific[e]” is the political equivalent of him “smothering a grenade.” Nixon’s refusal to atone in any fashion for his crimes placed the burden of handling Watergate squarely on Ford’s shoulders, and that burden will weigh on his presidency throughout his term, as well as damage his chances for election in 1976. Ford will later write: “I thought people would consider his resignation from the presidency as sufficient punishment and shame. I thought there would be greater forgiveness.” (Werth 2006, pp. 328-332) Years later, Ford’s chief of staff, Dick Cheney, will reflect that the pardon should have “been delayed until after the 1974 elections because I think it did cost us seats [in Congress]. If you say that that is a political judgment, it’s true, but then, the presidency is a political office.” (Dubose and Bernstein 2006, pp. 27)
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