Bob Woodward was wrong.
The journalism legend found out about former President Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon in a phone call from fellow Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein.
“It was a surprise,” he told a large audience last night at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library in a talk commemorating the library’s 25th anniversary.
It was Sept. 8, 1974. Woodward and Bernstein were fresh off investigative coverage of the Watergate scandal that forced Nixon out of the White House, making room for Ford, a University alum.
The reporter, then 31, was in a New York City hotel room when the call came.
“The son of a bitch pardoned the son of a bitch,” Bernstein said.
Immediately, Woodward now says, he imagined Nixon and Ford had struck a backroom deal in which the disgraced president would resign and the vice president would take his place in exchange for a full pardon.
“It looked like the continuation of Watergate rather than the end of Watergate,” the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner said.
History would paint a different picture.
“His explanation for the pardon made total sense,” Woodward said.
It turned out to be an honorable and courageous thing to do, he said, although some say the controversy surrounding the pardon caused Ford to lose the 1976 election by a slight margin to Jimmy Carter.
It was the right choice for a troubled nation that needed to firmly put the scandal in its past, said Woodward, who has reported extensively on seven presidents.
“If Nixon was investigated further, tried, indicted, and the possibility of him going to jail – it would have been a banana republic,” he said.
Woodward would grow to admire Ford for his openness – a trait he sees as lacking in the current administration.
As evidence, he cited Ford’s first State of the Union address in 1975, in which he spoke bluntly about the economic troubles of the nation, famously saying “the state of the union is not good.”
Ford once allowed a reporter from The New York Times to shadow him for a week – day and night.
“Can you imagine Bill Clinton doing that?” Woodward asked, earning one of the evening’s many laughs. “Not very likely.”
Twenty years after leaving office, Ford told Woodward that spin doctors from both parties should be banished from the White House.
“Suppose they did that in the White House today,” he said. “What would they do with all the vacant office space?”
Standing at a podium to which a seal reading “Presidential Library” was affixed, he did criticize one aspect of Ford, a University alum. He said the former president still has an inaccurate view of Watergate, believing Nixon’s top deputies were more to blame for the misuse of presidential power.
“He did not understand Watergate or Nixon in my view,” Woodward said.
Later, it was announced that Ford and his wife, Betty, were looking forward to watching a tape of the talk. Woodward probably didn’t mind that the 38th president would hear his criticisms. He’s used to making presidents uncomfortable.