Werth (The Scarlet Professor, 2001) sheds new light on the four weeks following Nixon’s departure from the White House and that period’s ongoing effects.
Gerald Ford, who reluctantly assumed the vice presidency following Spiro Agnew’s resignation, needed desperately to prove his independence when he just as reluctantly became president in 1974. In his first month in office, the author writes, Ford made strong decisions—and quickly reversed them. In Ford’s estimation, empire-building Nixon aide Alexander Haig had to go, to be replaced by a young, efficient staffer named Donald Rumsfeld. Haig, for his part, muttered, “We have to save Ford from his own inexperience” and frightened Ford into keeping him on as chief of staff, at least for a time. Rumsfeld had to content himself with an overseas appointment, while Nixon favorite George H.W. Bush was exiled to ambassadorship in China. Henry Kissinger, having engineered coups around the world and developed a doctrine of cold realpolitik, advised the new president on the matter of Vietnam that “the most popular move was to cut and run.” Always careful to court popularity, Ford eventually did so, but not before he had squandered his scant political capital and chances for actual election by pardoning Nixon for any crimes committed in office. With that, writes Werth, “his month-long honeymoon, which he and the Republicans hoped would propel them through the fall elections, crumpled overnight.” There had been no honeymoon within the White House, however, as residual members of Nixon’s old team battled Ford’s picks. One of the former, Rumsfeld, sensed where his future lay and reinvented himself as a Ford loyalist; he turned on former mentor Kissinger, who finally took Haig’s place in mid-September 1976—and immediately appointed Richard Cheney deputy chief of staff.
An eye-opening tale of vicious interoffice warfare, implying that dog-eat-dog politics remain in place on Pennsylvania Avenue.