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From Ike To Jerry Ford

This column was written by Martin Plissner, former executive political director of CBS News.

Over the past half-century, anyone collecting footage for a highlights reel of the presidents of the United States, would have to go first to the archives of CBS News. Before getting to the gems to be found there from Gerald R. Ford, who died Tuesday at age 93, let's take a longer stroll down memory lane — starting in 1952.

That was the year Dwight Eisenhower arrived at the Republican convention trailing Robert Taft by a relatively few votes, and it was up to the party's credentials committee to decide between rival Ike and Taft delegations from Texas. Taft supporters controlled the committee and, behind closed doors, were in the process of dumping the Eisenhower delegates. At this point Walter Cronkite began a series of verbatim reports on the rather smelly goings-on. CBS had the committee room bugged (I'm not making this up), and the quotes were juicy. That began the unraveling of Taft's lock on the nomination and Eisenhower's march to the White House.

Eight years later it was CBS president Frank Stanton (who died Monday) who put together the deal that made the Nixon-Kennedy debates possible. CBS produced the first one, in which Nixon fatally rejected Don Hewitt's advice to wear makeup.

At the moment John F. Kennedy's presidency ended, every network was on the air, but it's the CBS News clip (with Walter Cronkite's moist eye-blink) that invariably appears in any re-airing of the event.

Lyndon Johnson had had to deal with not one but two "Cronkite moments." One was Walter's on-air "mired in stalemate" summation on Vietnam in early 1968. The other was his more private argument to Bobby Kennedy that it was his duty to run against Johnson.

Johnson also had his Stanton moments. A close friend of LBJ, Stanton thought he'd make a fine Secretary of State. When Johnson offered him Commerce instead, Stanton once told me, he turned him down. Another Stanton-LBJ moment came after Morley Safer's classic account of a U.S. Marine torching a village hut with his cigarette lighter. "Frank, are you trying to f--- me?" were the opening words (in David Halberstam's account) of a call from the White House. "Last night your boys shat on the American flag."

Few of the CBS moments with Presidents, to be sure, are as celebrated as Dan Rather's with Richard Nixon ("Are you running for something?" "No Sir. Are you") and his famous shouting match with President George H.W. Bush.

By contrast, Jerry Ford's moments on that highlights reel have far less electricity, but they were all dandies.

The first was just a tell, since it happened not before cameras but in a conference room at The New York Times. Ford had just appointed one of those "blue ribbon" panels to look into a growing anthology of stories in the media about CIA capers ranging from nutty to depraved. Asked if the panel members (who included Nelson Rockefeller and Ronald Reagan) would have much credibility with critics of the agency, Ford said he had a problem. He could not have just anybody looking into some of the things he knew about. "Like what?" said Times editor Abe Rosenthal? "Like assassinations." said Ford.

Ford quickly realized, he'd misspoke and begged the Times to put his oops moment off the record. Those were different days, and a different New York Times, and that era's Sulzberger let Ford off the hook. But not everyone in the room was on the same page with the publisher. A short while later, with some additional reporting of his own, CBS News' Daniel Schorr was able to report, "President Ford has reportedly told associates that if investigations go too far, they could uncover several foreign assassinations of foreign officials involving the CIA."

That triggered a year-long Senate investigation focused on the CIA's "executive action capability," which ultimately concluded the agency might not have actually assassinated anyone, but as Schorr summed up on the Evening News, "it wasn't for want of trying."

At the 1976 Republican convention in Kansas City, Ford arrived with a slim lead in delegates over Ronald Reagan, who'd fought the sitting president all the way to the last convention that actually decided the nominee. The Mississippi delegation had 30 votes bound by an informal unit rule. The delegation had been picked by the party's state leader, Clarke Reed, originally a Reagan supporter, with what seemed like a comfortable majority for Reagan. That comfort margin had shrunk by the time the delegation arrived in Kansas City, at which point Reed himself had decided the country needed Ford.

Haley Barbour, now Mississippi's governor, was the party's executive director and was still a Reaganite. After the convention opened, with Mississippi the only story in town, I heard from Barbour — who couldn't find a place near the hall for the Mississippi delegates to hold a meeting. Bob Chandler, who was the CBS perimeter producer, had a trailer available, and that's where the Mississippi delegates met. They split about evenly between Ford and Reagan, and so the unit rule was dropped. For Ford, however, the 15 votes he got as a result were all he needed to be sure of the nominations.

But the CBS trailer had not been entirely empty when the delegates met. In a back room, two network pages (sons, as it happened, of correspondents Roger Mudd and Bill Moyers) had been having lunch. Once the delegates had left, they happily met Mike Wallace, on camera, in front of the trailer and reported that, in effect, the contest was over.

Finally, we come to the "co-presidency" of Gerald Ford. Once again the highlights were on CBS. There was no contest for president at the Republican convention of 1980, and (aside form a spurious one at that year's Democratic convention) there has not been another contest to this day. But there was genuine uncertainty about the vice president (something you no longer see much of) right up until the third day of the convention. The obvious choice, for a lot of reasons we all know) was George H. W. Bush, but there was one little problem. The Reagans didn't like him much. On the opening day of the convention, the Reagan campaign put out a list of six names, including Bush, that were under consideration. None of them was the man who was scheduled to appear in the CBS anchor booth on the night of Reagan's nomination.

By then there had been rumors on the floor about a "dream ticket" of Ronald Reagan and Jerry Ford — which, until that afternoon, most of us had found hard to take seriously. Why in the world would a man who'd been No. 1 want to be No. 2? Walter soon found out.

In perhaps his finest interview, Cronkite speedily pried Ford's availability for the number two post out of him. It started with the former president shrugging off the rumors. As Cronkite probed, however, Ford displayed detailed expertise on the constitutional issues involved in such a ticket (he and Reagan were both domiciled in California). Mrs. Ford was then drawn into a discussion of how she would decorate the country's new vice presidential mansion (there was none when Ford had formerly held the post). She had obviously given it some thought already.

Worse still for the architects of a Reagan-Ford ticket was a phrase in a memo I'd sent Walter summarizing the deal being negotiated between the Reagan campaign's Ed Meese and Bill Casey and, representing Ford, Alan Greenspan and Henry Kissinger. "What seems to be under consideration," I wrote, "was a sort of co-presidency."

Under it, Ford (with a little help, presumably, from Kissinger) would have special responsibility for defense and foreign policy. When Cronkite ran that "sort of co-presidency" past the former president, Ford readily took the bait and went on to draw the parameters of such a role. An appalled Reagan called Ford, pressed him for an immediate acceptance without conditions and, apparently to his relief, was turned down.

More recently, the highlight moments with presidents have been fewer. But hey, the millennium is young.