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President Richard Nixon`s chief of staff Alexander Haig pays an urgent call on Vice President Gerald Ford to discuss the terms under which Nixon will resign (see August 8, 1974). Haig gives Ford a handwritten list of what White House counsel Fred Buzhardt, the author of the list, calls “permutations for the option of resignation.” The idea is for Nixon to agree to resign in return for Ford’s agreement to pardon Nixon for any crimes Nixon may have committed while president. Ford listens to Haig but does not agree to any terms. The next day, after learning of the meeting, Ford’s own counsel, Robert Hartmann, is outraged that Ford did not just throw Haig out of his office. With fellow counsel John Marsh, Hartmann demands that Ford call Haig and state unequivocally, for the record, and in front of witnesses that Ford has made no such agreements. Haig considers Hartmann essentially incompetent, and Hartmann views Haig as a power-hungry “assh_le.” The subsequent tensions between Haig, one of the Nixon holdovers in Ford’s presidency, and Ford’s staff will shape future events in the Ford administration. In part to counteract Haig’s influence, Ford will name former NATO ambassador and Nixon aide Donald Rumsfeld as the head of his transition team. Rumsfeld will in turn name former Wyoming congressman and current investment executive Dick Cheney as his deputy; Cheney has lectured his clients that Watergate was never a criminal conspiracy, but merely a power struggle between the White House and Congress. (Werth 2006, pp. 20)
Despite President Ford’s insistence that he is not considering a pardon for former President Richard Nixon (see September 5-6, 1974), and Ford’s own denials in his 1976 memoir A Time to Heal, Ford tells his lawyer, Robert Hartmann, that he and his wife Betty have decided that if Nixon resigns, Ford will likely pardon him for any Watergate crimes. “We felt we were ready,” Ford tells Hartmann. “This just has to stop; it’s tearing the country to pieces. I decided to go ahead and get it over with, so I called [Nixon’s chief of staff] Al Haig and told them they should do whatever they decided to do; it was all right with me” (see August 1-2, 1974). This is not the last time stories will conflict over Ford’s decision on whether to pardon Nixon (see August 30, 1974 and September 5-6, 1974). (Werth 2006, pp. 204)
Alexander Haig, President Nixon’s chief of staff, is briefly staying on at the White House to ease the transition into the new, hastily assembled Ford staff. Haig, knowing that President Ford will not consider retaining him in the position, believes that Donald Rumsfeld, the US ambassador to NATO, might be the person Ford needs to head his staff (see August 9, 1974). (Nixon held Rumsfeld in grudging admiration, referring to him as a “ruthless little b_stard,” but had sent him to Europe and NATO headquarters because he did not like Rumsfeld’s obvious ambition.) Although Ford is not sold on having a chief of staff at all, Haig believes Ford needs someone with Rumsfeld’s “strong personality and fine administrat[ive skills]” to help him establish himself. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, whom Ford is retaining, sees Rumsfeld as, in Kissinger’s words, an exemplar of a “special Washington phenomenon: the skilled full-time politician bureaucrat in whom ambition, ability, and substance fuse seamlessly.” Ford has a good relationship with Rumsfeld, who in the 1960s led an insurgency among House Republicans to replace Minority Leader Charles Halleck with Ford. He views Rumsfeld as something of a maverick, and wants someone not beholden to the entrenched Nixon loyalists remaining in the White House as well as someone with a good relationship with Congressional Republicans. Rumsfeld fits the bill. Rumsfeld, a former Navy pilot, will later write that Ford “had to provide sufficient change to make the transition from what many perceived to be an illegitimate White House and administration to a legitimate administration. It was a bit like climbing into an airplane, at 30,000 feet, going 500 miles an hour, and having to change part of the crew.” (Werth 2006, pp. 60-61; Unger 2007, pp. 49-52) (Rumsfeld will, in turn, ask his own former assistant, Dick Cheney, to once again join him as his assistant in the Ford White House—see 1969). Ford’s longtime aide and speech writer Robert Hartmann will be equally blunt in his own recollections: “The Nixon-to-Ford transition was superbly planned. It was not a failure. It just never happened.” (Dubose and Bernstein 2006, pp. 26)
The White House announces that none of former President Richard Nixon’s documents and tapes will be released to him, but will instead remain in White House custody pending a resolution of the legal issues surrounding the materials. Nixon has correctly argued that all other presidents routinely receive their files and documents upon leaving office, but these are extraordinary circumstances and Nixon has no constitutional or legal right to those materials. President Ford’s counsel, Philip Buchen, speaking for Ford, notes that the decision to keep the files “in no way constitutes a denial” that they legally belong to Nixon. Another of Ford’s counselors, Robert Hartmann, later writes that the key to this question is not Nixon’s desire for the files or the Watergate prosecutors’ equal desire for them, but that “Ford wanted to get rid of them. He had no desire to be the daily arbiter of this no-win contest. Nixon’s files were a millstone hung around his fledgling presidency. He desperately wanted to cut himself free.” (Werth 2006, pp. 83-84)
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)