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Newsday, 30 April 2006

31 DAYS: The Crisis That Gave Us the Government We Have Today, by Barry Werth. Doubleday, 398 pp. 

For several years now, publishers have followed a convenient formula with works of popular history. They use the subtitle as a zone of low-cost hype, there dubbing the book's topic as "the [blank] that changed [America, the world, etc.]." You know, Ketchup: The Condiment That Changed Society -- that sort of thing. As marketing gimmick, this has become tiresome, but the cliche also has a cumulative effect of mental vulgarization. It turns historical memory into something like a trade show. The events, institutions and personalities of the past become, in effect, the names of successful brands.

Unfortunately, 31 Days, Barry Werth's smart and artful account of the White House during the month following Richard Nixon's resignation, has not quite escaped Doubleday's insulting estimate of the public's taste and intelligence. A subtitle insists that this transitional period was "The Crisis That Gave Us the Government We Have Today."
For you, dear reader, are presumably much too stupid to appreciate a piece of historical writing this well-turned; a book that constantly evokes a political climate different from today's, and that few people under the age of 40 will be able to remember, let alone imagine. No, that would be too subtle. The important thing about the past is that it was like the present, only with wider lapels.
I gripe at such length because the book deserves better -- and because Werth's own finesse in bringing the past to life seems like a rebuke to all cretinizing cliche.

The narrative is presented as a kind of daybook, starting on the morning of Aug. 9, 1974, with Nixon awakening early to have breakfast ("poached eggs and corned beef hash, served to him, alone, in the Lincoln sitting room") and prepare his resignation speech on a legal pad. The following month was not "the crisis that gave us the government we have today." If anything, it was the aftermath of a crisis, in the original medical sense of that word: the phase during which a patient either dies or recovers. One problem facing the incoming administration is the persistent rumor -- untrue, it seems, but fed by leaks from top military figures -- that Nixon had been prepared to use force of arms to shut down Congress.

Werth traces, day by day, the process through which Gerald Ford tried to restore -- or perhaps, more accurately, to re-create from scratch -- something like a feeling of normality in a country that, having been through Vietnam and the oil embargo, had just seen its top political institutions in legal combat with one another. It was the transfer of power from a corrupt, desperate and half-mad president to a man who had never sought the office. Indeed, whatever aura of legitimacy Ford could project drew largely from the palpable limits to his ambition.

Much of the story turns on the tensions within the transition staff, which is full of names made familiar either during the Nixon administration (the most prominent being Alexander Haig and Henry Kissinger) or by more recent events (then-young figures such as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Perle). And the narrative culminates in the announcement by Ford of a blanket pardon to the former president.

Of course, the decision was immediately denounced as the result of some deal struck before the resignation (which it was not) though Ford reckoned it an acknowledgment of wrongdoing that would soon bring to an end the bitterness over Watergate (which it also was not). "With a pen stroke," Werth writes, "Gerald Ford spent away almost all that he had gained simply by not being Richard Nixon - the bipartisan goodwill, the trust and affection of a divided nation that didn't know him but was willing to extend him the benefit of the doubt."

More resonant than that failure, though, are the reminders of a tenor of political discourse still possible then - what could be called "consensus centrism," the belief in a nonideological core of common-sense politics. The nightly TV news commentaries of David Brinkley and Eric Sevareid gave it a mellifluous voice.

As a worldview, it was already on the verge of extinction. But it was reflected in the political instincts of Ford, who paid so little attention to Ronald Reagan that one of the president's memos makes a phonetic guess at the spelling of his name. Two weeks into his administration, Ford appealed for support "so we can march towards the center in achieving good results for the country as a whole." (One of the "good results" he wanted was national health insurance.)

Canny enough a politician as congressman, Ford never grasped the uses of the Oval Office as bully pulpit. An opportunity was wasted, but the lesson was not. Cheney and Rumsfeld were there, watching and learning. They saw that centrism does not work. Eventually they found a bully.