Between the events in “All the President’s Men” and “Frost/Nixon” there’s a little-known yet gripping tale worthy of making a motion picture trilogy out of the Watergate cover-up.
The screenplay could be based on a book that was published in 2006. In 31 Days: Gerald Ford, the Nixon Pardon and a Government in Crisis, Barry Werth credibly documented the turbulent presidential transition period. One of Werth’s key sources was Benton Becker, Ford’s personal attorney and adviser.
Without Becker’s recollections and papers, essential parts of the story of how and why President Ford ultimately decided that it would be best for the country — and worth losing the 1976 election for — would be missing.
At 3 p.m. Saturday in the Hall of Philosophy, as part of the Chautauqua Women’s Club’s Contemporary Issues Forum, Becker will bring to life the turmoil in the White House during the pivotal summer of 1974 and the events and actions that precipitated Ford’s unpopular decision. After the hourlong presentation, film clips about the pardon will be shown in the Hall of Christ and an open discussion will be held.
As a partner in the Washington, D.C., law firm of Cramer, Haber, & Becker, Becker served as counsel to Ford during the vice presidential confirmation hearings. He took a leave of absence in August 1974 to assist Ford during his transition to president. On behalf of Ford, he negotiated the pardon of Nixon and the disposition of Nixon’s presidential records. Years later, Becker donated about 1,600 pages of materials to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum.
Duquesne University law school dean and constitutional law scholar Ken Gormley — who in July spoke on the Amphitheater stage with former U.S. attorney general Alberto Gonzales about the ethics of privacy — will moderate both parts of the program, titled “President Ford’s Pardon of Richard M. Nixon: A 40-Year Retrospective.”
As part of his research on Archibald Cox and Watergate, Gormley interviewed Ford about the Nixon pardon prior to Ford’s death in 2006. Cox was the first of two Watergate special prosecutors and had disagreed with Ford’s decision.
“I invited Archibald Cox and President Ford to Duquesne in 1999 for a program on Ford’s pardon of Nixon,” Gormley said. “That’s when I discovered Benton Becker. Ford told me about him.” Gormley said that this event, which was filmed and broadcast on C-SPAN, is one of the film clips that will be shown on Saturday.
According to Becker, Gormley persuaded him to come to Pittsburgh for a Watergate symposium, which was hosted by the American Inns of Court in May 2007.
“He’s a very persuasive man,” Becker said. “Chautauqua will be my second trip for Ken.”
Gormley said that, after meeting Becker, he changed his views on Ford.
“I walked away with a much greater appreciation of Ford and the people surrounding him,” he said.
Gormley is the author of two award-winning books, both of which were Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle selections: Archibald Cox: Conscience of a Nation, and the New York Times best-seller The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr. Currently, he is editing a book about U.S. presidents and the Constitution.
For Saturday, Gormley said he will be providing some background and then turning the program over to Becker to talk about Ford sending him off to California and his meeting with Nixon and his advisers.
“The agreement Becker negotiated laid the foundation for the Presidential Records Act of 1978,” Gormley said. “This part of history would be lost if there weren’t programs like this. This is a piece of history that’s just remarkable. Ford’s pardon of Nixon was a very unpopular decision at the time, yet Ford believed strongly in it. The Supreme Court had ruled in 1915 that the acceptance of a presidential pardon is an admission of guilt.”
Becker said that he and Ford got to know each other in the late 1960s during the investigation of a prominent congressman for mismanaging the budget of the committee he chaired. As House Minority Leader, Ford was on the three-member committee conducting the investigation. Becker, who at the time was a trial attorney in the fraud section of the Justice Department’s criminal division, appeared before the committee.
“After I left the Department for private practice in 1970, I notified everyone within a 500-mile radius, including Ford,” Becker said.
Initially, he provided Ford with legal analyses of legislation. He then moved on to matters of a more personal nature.
Becker said that after Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in October 1973, it was the first time the newly ratified 25th Amendment, which covers presidential succession and procedures for filling vice presidential vacancies, was being implemented. Nixon nominated Ford, who asked Becker to represent him during the proceedings.
After Ford became vice president, Becker said they had an agreement: Becker would visit Ford at least once a week.
“Jerry Ford was very much a team player, but there were instructions given by the Nixon that I thought he ought not to get involved in,” Becker said. “At the same time, Woodward and Bernstein and the attorney general were moving forward, and there was the so-called ‘cancer tape’. This vice president, nominated by President Nixon, said in an April 1974 cabinet meeting, ‘Mr. President, I can no longer support you.’ That took guts. Ford was a very fine man.”
According to Becker, the remainder of his tenure as counsel to Gerald Ford “reads like an Allen Drury mystery.”
On Saturday afternoon, Becker will share more of his personal account of Ford’s transition to the presidency, the negotiations with Nixon, Ford’s pardon of Nixon and the disposition of Nixon’s presidential materials and Watergate-related evidence.
“Ford’s open-door policy remained after the pardon, and I gave him the blunt advice that people don’t give to presidents,” Becker said.
Gormley said that “when you have the situation we have today, it’s really nice to see someone making the decision he thought was best for the country.
“That’s the kind of man Ford was,” Gormley said. “I long for the era when there were more public servants of that ilk.”