When the Center Held: Gerald Ford and the Rescue of the American Presidency
by Donald Rumsfeld
Free Press, 2018
Donald Rumsfeld has one enormous advantage in writing a book about President Gerald Ford and one enormous disadvantage, and every reader of his new book When the Center Held: Gerald Ford and the Rescue of the American Presidency will have to weigh those two things in order to assess how much value they'll place on his book.
The advantage is obvious: Rumsfeld was Ford's Secretary of Defense and an intimate advisor, both in the early chaotic days of Ford's unelected presidency and in the ensuing years, during which the pressing issues of the country and the world certainly didn't wait for a new administration to get its bearings. Rumsfeld was a garrulous counselor but also an attentive listener, and he was a compulsive note-taker; by any measure, his account of the Ford administration must be invaluable.
The disadvantage is equally obvious: Rumsfeld wasn't finished with public life when Ford left office. Decades later he was Secretary of Defense for President George W. Bush and a chief architect of the “war on terror” in Iraq and Afghanistan. While it's true that the presence of Donald Trump in the Oval Office has temporarily concentrated all the country's political outrage on the here-and-now (even President Bush quipped that Trump sorta makes him look good by comparison), history has a long arc and a tenacious memory; members of the 9-11 administration have a stain against their names.
In many ways, this kind of polarization would make Rumsfeld the perfect historian of the Ford administration, since something very similar applies to Ford himself. On the one hand, his plain, honest demeanor was exactly what the country needed in the wake of the Watergate scandal that forced President Nixon to resign (Ford's long-time Congressional colleague “Tip” O'Neill compared him to Abraham Lincoln in this regard). But on the other hand, he immediately offered Nixon a full and unconditional pardon (the same “Tip” O'Neill asked, “Jesus, don't you think it's kind of early?”). The subtitle of Rumsfeld's book makes it clear that he still holds the opinion that Ford did the right thing by sparing the country the further ordeal of a disgraced President on trial, even though most Americans at the time wanted exactly that, belying Ford's simple contention “We are not a vengeful people.”
The choice of how to assess Rumsfeld's book is rendered easier – as easy as it will ever get, for those with active memories of Watergate – by two things: first, it's not a history, its author characterizing it instead as a highly detailed tribute, and second, it's an extremely engaging narrative from start to finish. Rumsfeld credits a great many helpers in his Acknowledgments, but the final product not only reads smoothly but also reads with Rumsfeld's voice, which can range from frequently telling the President to “quit horsing around” to the kind of tail-chasing murk-speak that Rumsfeld mastered to an almost unearthly degree – there are passages in this book that would defy the most skilled Soviet-era cryptologists.
But the balance is a very interesting book, based in large part on the thousands of memoranda Rumsfeld took in real time as the Ford administration was unfolding. Readers see Ford and his team dealing with far more than the infamous pardon – from assassination attempts to Vietnam to the Russians to the nitty-gritty of mounting an election campaign while dealing with such outsized personalities as Ronald Reagan. Rumsfeld seems to have been everywhere at all times, and as a result his book brims with colorful character studies, from Henry Kissinger to Leonid Brezhnev to, in unfailingly glowing terms, Ford's wife Betty (the subject of an upcoming full-length biography of her own, by Lisa McCubbin).
And there are glimmers throughout of the kind of comprehensive, lengthy biography Ford has yet to receive. “One of the more significant disadvantages of his instant presidency,” Rumsfeld writes, “was that he was never afforded an opportunity to map out his own distinct vision for America's role.” But even so, Rumsfeld fills his book with the larger conceptual questions for which he was known in two different White House administrations, for instance on the subject of détente: “Why was the US still engaging with dictatorships that trampled human freedoms? Why was America dealing with the Soviet Union and aligning with Saudi Arabia, even though both nations discriminated against minorities?”
When the Center Held is designed to be a celebration, and it is certainly that. Students of the American presidency can't miss reading it regardless of what they think about its author or about hagiography on general principles, and actual fans of the Ford administration – if any such beings still walk among us – likewise can't miss such a personal, detailed look inside one of the least-studied most-important presidencies of the modern era.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.