It is a rare event when the multifarious components of a life come together and share no theme other than the man that connects them. Apparently this week, specifically this day, is one of those rare events for Ford historians.
Blame the cosmos, blame the fateful events of history, and please, blame former President Gerald R. Ford. For all his political ambition and measured success in what will always be remembered as a superb political career, Gerald Ford seemed to attract peculiar circumstances. Whoever said that in politics timing is everything didn't anticipate the unusual career of President Ford and the dual-meaning behind such a phrase. Timing being as essential as it was to President Ford's political life, it seems fitting that this week has seen so many Ford-related events align.
Earlier in the week, Anne Armstrong was laid to rest. Her presence in the history of the Republican Party, especially 20th century politics, is rivaled by few. She was the first woman to be the keynote speaker for either major party's national convention, served under both Presidents Nixon and Ford, was talked about as a running mate for President Ford in 1976, was the first woman to serve as counselor to the president, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Reagan, and was a close friend of the Bush family. It was her ranch that served as the unfortunate location of Vice President Cheney's hunting "accident." Without question, Anne Armstrong had a front row seat to the most powerful political events of the late 20th century.
One of those events Armstrong had a front row seat to occurred on this day in 1974--the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon. The only president to have resigned from the highest American post, Nixon announced he would resign the presidency and leave the country in the hands of the never elected vice president, Gerald Ford. Prior to the current Bush presidency, the only constitutional crisis of this magnitude had occurred over a hundred years before when this nation was engaged in a civil war.
Gerald Ford was thrust into the presidency in a way only few presidents have been, his situation unique in that he had come into the vice presidency due to resignation and scandal as well. Ironically, had Watergate occurred without the preceding events that caused the demise of Vice President Agnew, Gerald Ford may have been involved in impeachment hearings, hearings he had quite a bit of experience with. Instead, Gerald Ford found himself behind the desk in the oval office.
Switching gears slightly, I now marvel at yet another oddly timed event--the FBI's decision to release Ford-related materials. Yesterday the Washington Post reported that documents turned over to their reporters this week revealed that former President Gerald Ford communicated with the FBI regarding skeptics on the Warren Commission back in 1963.
As a member of Congress, Ford was appointed by President Johnson to serve on the Warren Commission (named after Chief Justice Earl Warren). Until his death he adamantly defended the conclusion of the Warren Commission and participated in a reprint of that report which he penned the foreword to. Perhaps his defense of the commission's findings in light of the newly declassified documents is now more pertinent.
The folks at JFK Lancer say that it has long been known that Ford was operating as J. Edgar Hoover's spy on the commission. Ford's conversations with Hoover's deputies at the FBI, specifically Assistant Director Cartha "Deke" DeLoach, do not come as a surprise to Kennedy assassination historians, however the notion that Ford operated as Hoover's spy is both disrespectful and a stretch. Granted, of the seven members of the commission, Ford was the least friendly to the Johnson administration and Democrats in general, but whatever differences existed between the administration and Ford, doing Mr. Hoover's bidding seems odd for a genuinely decent man like Ford. Additionally, meetings of the commission were not as secret as some conspiracy theorists would have you believe. Had Hoover wanted information about the proceedings or the general opinion of the members it doesn't seem likely that he would have needed an inside source.
Additionally, had there been serious concerns among the members of the commission, how would Ford reporting this skepticism to Hoover have changed anything? A powerful man in his own right, I dare to think what may have happened had Hoover approached someone like John McCloy or Hale Boggs. Of the materials released by the FBI about President Ford, it seems these memos suggesting there was skepticism among the commission are the least telling. We know there was skepticism both in the conclusion arrived at and published in the Warren Report as well as in the way in which it was received by the public. Had the Warren Commission incited no skepticism would there even be any discussion about who killed President Kennedy some forty years later? Doubtful.
Maybe the only thing these newly declassified documents tell us is that Ford's concern with any skepticism on the part of his fellow members of the Warren Commission amounted to his belief that a divided commission would not allow the country to properly heal from the horrific events of November 22, 1963. This is both probable and possible given the later events of President Ford's life when we would pardon his predecessor in an attempt to heal a nation. Gerald Ford was a genuinely decent man and despite his political ambitions and successes, it seems too calculated and cynical that he would approach or be approached by Hoover in attempt to stifle skepticism within the commission.
There is a certain amount of paranoia that exists among those who study historical events as riddled with confusion as the Kennedy assassination. An equal amount of paranoia and cynicism is attached to the legacy of J. Edgar Hoover. The two do not a conspiracy make.
However, these memos released by the FBI do not mark the end of this American saga.
When the Warren Commission's materials were delivered to the National Archives in 1964, they were initially sealed for seventy-five years. The documents would be released much sooner, in 1992 to be exact, when the JFK Records Act made those materials publicly available. In 1998 the remaining documents of the Warren Commission that had been sealed were made available to the public at the insisting of the Assassination Records Review Board. The first release cited the documents released as 98% of the Warren Commission's materials. The second release cited the documents released as the remaining 2%.
Now we find the FBI was holding memos related to the Warren Commission. Even I can see the problem with that math. No wonder such paranoia and general skepticism exists surrounding this.
Added to the materials that are currently available to the public, the remaining Kennedy assassination related documents are scheduled to be released to the public by 2017 (25 years after the JFK Records Act). Given that from 1992 through 1998 some 60,000 documents were released by the review board, there is no guessing as to the quantity that remains sealed. In addition to the materials that will be available in 2017 per the JFK Records Act, presumably materials related to the Warren Commission (though how would we know given that we supposedly already have access to all 100%), in 2044, the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston will release an oral history transcript upon the 50th anniversary of the death of Jackie Kennedy provided that her last child is no longer living at that time. The five hundred page oral history was transcribed prior to Jackie's death in 1994. Why this has remained sealed is a mystery in itself. It could contain information related to the assassination that is sensitive or it could contain information about Kennedy's health, personal life, or any other number of things that Jackie wished to keep from her children.
Regardless of what is contained in the remaining assassination materials or Jackie's oral history account, it is easy to see how the intrigue continues, something President Ford once called "dogmatic fascination."
The timing of the FBI releasing these documents was not intended to coincide with the anniversary of President Nixon's resignation. Upon President Ford's death in 2006, the FBI was then able to begin the process of declassifying his FBI file. It is merely a coincidence that the completion of that process and subsequent release of the material took as long as it did.
Even in death Gerald Ford continues to puzzle casual on-lookers with his innate ability to merge circumstance with fate. In life and death, for Gerald Ford and in politics timing is everything.