Jerry Ford has died. I seldom have personal feelings for politicians, but Ford's death makes me sad. Of course, that may be because I played such an important part personally in his presidency. This is a short story, so I'll try to make it long.
People born since 1973 probably can't imagine how weird the mood was then. Nixon was about to be impeached. Rumors predicted he might try to save himself by doing violence to the Constitution. Spiro Agnew, the vice president, had been caught taking cash bribes in his office.
Especially where I lived at the time, in Ann Arbor, people believed armed uprising was a real possibility. It was crazy.
So. I'm 27, a reporter for the Detroit Free Press. On Oct. 13, 1973, I'm dispatched to Grand Rapids on the western coast of Michigan to do a story about the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and its campaign to re-introduce a fish called the lake sturgeon, a prehistoric hold-over that could grow to 300 pounds. We like the story because the sturgeon has big teeth, a novelty in fresh water fish. The budget line for the story reads "Michigan Jaws!!!" The Department of Natural Resources hates us, for obvious reasons. I'm worried about getting the story.
The Free Press has a fleet of cars for reporters, but for some reason I'm able to sneak out of Detroit with the big prize -- the only car that has a working telephone in it, a technological marvel.
At the same time, Nixon tells Agnew to quit. He tells Gerald Ford, the congressman from Grand Rapids, that he's going to name him vice president of the United States, pending Senate confirmation. The whole thing is announced at this bizarre televised White House ball on October 12, 1973. It's all very fancy, sort of giddy and otherworldly -- like Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Nixon grinning and way too manic. My hair stands on end watching him.
At some point during the preparations for all this, Ford tells Nixon that the next day is the Red Flannel Underwear Parade in Cedar Springs, Michigan. In all his years in public office, Ford has never missed the Red Flannel Underwear Parade. Nixon tells Ford to stay for the ball but take Air Force One out to Grand Rapids first thing in the morning.
Now, this part I don't quite understand. I guess Ford doesn't have his own press office or isn't hooked up yet with the White House Press Office, whatever. But somehow he takes off in Air Force One, and for a matter of a few hours nobody in the White House press office knows exactly where he is or why he has left town.
I'm halfway to Grand Rapids the next morning in the car with the telephone, and I get this completely hysterical phone call -- a conference call. On one end is Barlow Herget, the weekend assistant city editor at the Free Press in downtown Detroit, who is uncertain of my competence in the best of circumstances. Also on the phone is Remer Tyson, the newspaper's revered chief political correspondent, with whom I have hardly ever spoken. And then on the far end is Clark Hoyt, chief of the Knight Newspapers Washington Bureau, a person so revered and august that he not only does not speak to people like me ever, but when he comes through the Detroit newsroom on tours, he can't even see us. And in fact, he doesn't speak directly to me this day either, even though we're on the phone together. He speaks only to Tyson.
By now Hoyt has learned that Ford has fled Washington aboard Air Force One, has already landed in Grand Rapids and is, at this very moment, speeding north from the city in some kind of motorcade, possibly military. And Hoyt's the only guy in Washington who knows all this. The rest of the media just know Ford has disappeared under suspicious circumstances. We have the scoop.
"Remer," Hoyt says, "tell your guy on the desk there in Detroit to tell this fellow out in the car that he is to proceed north from Grand Rapids toward a city called Cedar Springs, where he is to apprehend the vice presidential motorcade."
"Barlow," Remer says, "tell Schutze to apprehend the vice presidential motorcade."
"Schutze," Barlow says, "apprehend the motorcade."
I'm scared to death. I say, "Barlow, what do you mean apprehend?"
In a very embarrassed whisper, Barlow says, "Jeez, Schutze, just shut up and do what I tell you."
I can hear Clark Hoyt mutter, "Oh, brother."
So I speed north. The damn phone rings again. And here's the background on this next call. Nixon had been caught in a scandal involving a shakedown of the milk industry for campaign contributions. A milk lobbyist -- and I want to say it was Jake Jacobsen of Austin -- had written a book about it. In that book, the author said that Jerry Ford had been treated by a Washington psycho-therapist named Arnold Hutschnecker, who also had treated Nixon. Eventually that turned out to be not true, but the book had just come out, and people didn't know yet it was false.
Clark Hoyt was up for the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for his stories revealing that Missouri Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton, George McGovern's original veep candidate in 1972, had seen a shrink for depression. Under the mores of the time, that meant that Eagleton was a wacked-out sissy-pants. He had to withdraw from the race, which is how Agnew got the job.
So now Hoyt thinks he might not only be the only guy in the country to have a lead on where Ford had escaped. He might also have a story that, once again, Nixon has picked a lube job for vice president. Maybe this is why Ford has stolen Air Force One and escaped! He's nuts!
So they all come on the phone at me again. I'm driving the fastest I have ever driven an automobile up this empty freeway on a Saturday morning, scared to death I'm going to find the armed military escape convoy and have to apprehend it, and the phone rings. Jabberjabberjabber. They tell me nothing about the book or the milk scandal or Nixon seeing a shrink or anything of the backgound -- not a word. That's all too important for me to understand.
But I hear Clark Hoyt say, "Remer, tell the fellow in the car to ask Ford exactly in these words, 'Have you ever seen or been treated by or had any conversation whatsoever for any reason with a Washington pyscho-therapist named Arnold Hutschnecker?'"
Tyson says, "Barlow, tell Schutze to ask him that."
Barlow says, "Schutze..."
I say, "Yeah, I got it!" Then I whisper, "Barlow, what about the apprehending?"
Barlow whispers, "Son of a bitch, Schutze, can you just shut up and do what I tell you for one time in your life?"
I get to Cedar Springs. The entry to the town has been barricaded. I shall not be stopped from the execution of my duty. I get out, throw the unmanned barricade aside, jump back in, speed ahead, make a couple turns, spurt out of an alley and find myself right in the middle of the Red Flannel Underwear Parade, between two floats.
But I don't know it's a parade yet. I just see people all over town, big crowds ganging the sidewalks and the lawns, all of them dressed in bizarre form-fitting red uniforms. And for a split second, I am just chilled to the bone, just on the verge of deciding that the uprising has finally begun. And I'm the only reporter with the story!
Then I see the big banner: "CEDAR SPRINGS, RED FLANNEL UNDERWEAR CAPITAL OF AMERICA." And I notice that people are waving at me and smiling. And then I notice that a decidedly unsmiling state trooper is waving at me with that unambiguous expression that means, "Get out of the parade now, or I will shoot you."
I explain my predicament to the trooper. He tells me I have missed Ford. He says if I'm lucky, Ford may still be waiting for his car up the road in a chapel of some kind that has been set up as a staging area for the parade. I go fast.
Ford is at the altar end of the chapel with a gaggle of Western Michigan press and local politicians. These are people who have known him all his life. Everybody is speaking in hushed reverential tones. I see tears in men's eyes. It's all, "Jerry, you're gonna be great," and "Jerry, the country really needs you now."
I'm standing in the aisle at the front of the chapel, looking crazed -- like Dustin Hoffman in the church scene at the end of The Graduate. Ford looks up and says, "Can I help you?"
I say: "Have you now or never or at any time beforehand consulted or in any way consorted with Arnold Hutschnecker, a psycho therapist in Washington, D.C.?"
Then this big groan goes up from the crowd around him. People say stuff like, "Oh, now it starts," "This garbage, already," "Can't believe this crap," "Jerry, tell him to kiss your ass." To me: "Why don't you get the hell out of here, pal?"
Ford puts up his hand for silence. Big smile.
"No, that's O.K.," he says. "Let me answer the gentleman's question. The answer is no. I have never seen this or any other physician or therapist about my mental condition. I think what you're going to find out about me is that I am boringly sane."
I scratch it all down. Got my quote. No idea what else to do. I turn to go. Ford says, "Just a second. Could you wait just a second?"
I turn back to face him.
"Can you tell me why you ask?"
Long silence. My ears are burning. I'm sure I have turned purple. I mentally curse Barlow Herget and Remer Tyson and Clark Hoyt, the bastards, for putting me in this position.
"Sir, I don't...I'm afraid I don't know."
"You don't know why you asked me the question?"
More snickers and a guffaw, but not from Ford, who is very cordial.
"Sir, I asked it because they told me to. The Free Press. Where I work. Uh, I think it comes from Clark Hoyt. In the Washington bureau."
"Oh, yes, I know Clark. Say hello to him for me, will you?"
"I will try, sir."
The final conference call with the bosses. I read them my quote. I say to Barlow, "Do they want me to write up my notes?"
From the far, far end of the conference call I hear this faint kind of laconic sigh from Hoyt: "Oh, no, no. No, that will not be at all necessary."
"Um, Clark," I say, "Mr. Ford wanted me to say hello to you."
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Remer says, "Good work, Schutze."
Barlow says, "How you coming on 'Michigan Jaws?'" --Jim Schutze