Five days before the Michigan primary, on a sunny Saturday afternoon in May, the sprawling Fairlane shopping center, an indoor mall in Dearborn, is so thick with campaign workers of both parties that it’s hard to take a step without being accosted by zealous volunteers brandishing buttons and bumperstickers.
Today, the shopping center is being visited by a major campaign figure — once removed. A young Republican worker rushes up to a knot of people, breaking the news with breathless reverence: “Did you hear? The president’s son Jack is here! Just around the corner!” There’s a commotion around the corner, all right, and a strange, nervous chuckle is rising above the hubbub; sort of an emphatic ah-ha, followed by three slightly forced heh-heh-hehs.
Then around the corner comes the owner of The Laugh, surrounded by swooning teenage girls. Jack Ford’s three-piece suit — its color an exact match for his tousled sandy blond hair—hangs perfectly on his sleek, athletic, 24-year-old body. He loosens his tie and proceeds to sign the crinkled slips of paper thrust in front of him. He poses for dozens of Instamatic flash pictures and pumps every hand in sight.
“I’m Jack Ford and I’m here working to reelect my father. Can we count on your support?” That’s the stock line he recites to almost everybody. Everybody, that is, except the prettiest girls, who get a slightly bolder variation. The steely blue-green eyes linger a little longer on theirs and, at the beginning of the handshake, Jack will simply say, “Your hand feels a little cold.” On occasion he’ll turn to one of his Secret Service agents and remark wistfully, “I wish there was something we could do about that.” The effect is devastating, and instantaneous. One melted girl.
You get an immediate feeling that even if all these swooning young ladies were of voting age, they still wouldn’t be thinking about reelecting the president. “God, what a fox,” one squeals from across the mall. Very much within earshot, Jack flashes a self-conscious, gap-toothed grin and out comes . . . The Laugh.
Jack rolled out of his White House bed at 5:30 that morning. At 7:00 he boarded a commercial jet that landed at Detroit Metro Airport at 9:18. At 10:30 he was at television station WXYZ for an appearance on AM America. At noon he walked Kennedy Square, and at 1:00 WWJ radio interviewed him. The Dearborn Phone Bank had him at 2:30. He held a press conference at 3:15, and at 4:00 he arrived at the shopping center.
Three minutes after the autograph session, Jack, special press secretary Sheila Rabb Weidenfeld and a cluster of Secret Service agents took a small elevator to the shopping center tram stop. The tram would shoot them across the street and into the Hyatt Regency Hotel where Jack would have exactly 80 minutes of “personal time” — campaign jargon for that one small block of the day that is not filled with TV, radio and newspaper interviews, question-and-answer sessions with the public and pep talks to campaign volunteers.
I finally met Jack in the elevator. His campaign smile immediately sank, then went rigid. There was no grip in his handshake. His face was expressionless; the eyes as icy as the feeling you get watching yourself squirm in six pairs of Secret Service reflector shades.
Later, over dinner at his hotel, Jack remained distant. Talking issues, his studied tone sounded mostly like he was on automatic pilot. Understandably. The pace had been grueling ever since Ronald Reagan’s sudden resurrection in the Texas primary a month before. And besides, Jack would have rather been back in Washington, checking out the Eagles-Jackson Browne-Linda Ronstadt concert. But wait. Wasn’t that a benefit for . . .
“Jerry Brown.” Jack’s voice was matter-of-fact. “Yeah, that should be a good show. But there’ll be plenty of concerts this summer. Frampton is coming. He’s a pretty hot dude.”
We inched through another half-hour of small talk — about the Playboy interview in which Abbie Hoffman called his father “a fucking bimbo . . . [who posed for a picture] marmalading the wrong side of his English muffins” (“I kinda liked that interview,” Jack ventured), est and Scientology (“I lost a couple of friends to those organizations”), Hunter Thompson (“What kind of guy is he?”), Ron Nessen’s appearance on NBC Saturday Night (“I didn’t see it, but I don’t think it was too popular around the White House”) and about his notorious fling with Bianca Jagger last summer (silence). With the exception of a few brief glimmers of animation, Jack was wooden throughout. At the mention of being photographed for a magazine cover, he stiffened even further.
And finally I understood. Perhaps this wasn’t quite the White House coaching him to play it straight, after all. Maybe Jack was nervous.
He sighed and toyed with his cheeseburger. “Well, yeah, a little bit. I knew you guys would catch up with me sooner or later. I’ve been kinda waiting around, wondering when Rolling Stone would show up.
“When I finally heard you wanted to come out on the campaign, I got really unsure. All the delays you got from the White House. That was me going back and forth on the whole idea. Ultimately, Sheila convinced me it was a good thing to do. . . .”
Scared of what?
“Well, I wasn’t really scared.” More cheeseburger fiddling. “I was leery about whether it was an interview . . . uhm, in terms of Jack Ford or whether it was an interview where I could convey my father’s message a little bit better. I’m not looking for publicity. It isn’t my personality to be even campaigning like this, much less doing interviews. I just wanted to participate. I’ll never get a chance to do it again. Besides, none of my brothers or my sister were really up for it . . . the public campaigning. Susan’s not political. She thinks politics are boring. Mike is real intense—all he wants to do is graduate from divinity school and preach the gospel. Steven is only a little active. He spends most of his time on a ranch in California — Mission Viejo I think it is — and going to college at Cal Poly. So that leaves me.
“I’m not a politician and I never want to be. I still want to be able to . . . you know, slip into the masses.” Jack took a few quiet minutes to smoke, something he tries not to do in public, then got up and headed for his room. The agents, seated at various parts of the restaurant, smoothly left their tables to form a trail behind him.
One hour later, Jack was eating another dinner, a pasty, four-course Greek feast on a paper plate. If it was indeed doing war in his stomach with the cheeseburger and chocolate malt, his face sure didn’t show it. He looked intent, concerned with the matters he was discussing with a community representative dressed in a Greek toga. “I promise to bring the plight of Cyprus to my father’s attention,” Jack assured him.
Wyandotte, Michigan holds a Greek festival every year at this time, renting the biggest hall in town. All through the night, 400 Greek-Americans ate, drank and even considered the welfare of the mother country.
There is certainly no way to get the attention of 400 loud, boozing Greeks and few of them even knew the president’s son was there. Still, after several weeks of heavy canvassing, there were precious few events left for the candidates, much less their children. Jimmy Carter’s two eldest kids were scheduled to arrive in 45 minutes, to see the same toga-clad representative.
That’s still cutting it too close, the Secret Service figured. In one sweeping motion, Jack was hustled out the back door. I joined the entourage, as approved, carrying a shoulder bag with my tape recorder inside.
I remembered seeing a badge just as I hit the ground. Five local undercover agents, employed by the Wyandotte Police Department, handcuffed me and confiscated the shoulder bag. They were already dismantling the tape recorder when a Secret Serviceman stopped everything and explained that I was traveling with Jack. An undercover agent depressed the play button on the recorder, saw that it still worked and offered a handshake. “Sorry about that,” he said. “We had a report about someone who looked just like you.” Later, a Secret Serviceman said: “That’s like saying, ‘I didn’t think I would come in your mouth.'”
It was another hour by rent-a-car motorcade to the next stop, a Young Republican disco dance in Macomb County. Jack was met at the door by a boisterous glad-hander with a huge name tag that blared “Dave.”
“How ya doin’, Jack?” he boomed. “My name’s Dave.”
The live band, everyone told Jack, is really hot. He nodded. “They sure are.” And with a timid version of “Love Rollercoaster” bouncing in the background, Jack grabbed a beer and began to circulate. By unofficial count, he told seven girls their hands were cold.
Close to one in the morning, rumpled and exhausted, Jack returned to his hotel. The group of girls who spent all day hanging around the lobby had long since left. The hotel was empty, save for a few tipsy couples from a nearby high school prom. Unnoticed, Jack and his protection crew marched into an elevator.
On the fifth floor, the doors opened on an unsuspecting middle-aged black couple. A hand was shoved in their direction: “I’m Jack Ford. I’m here working to reelect my father.” The couple exchanged blank looks. “I know the candidate so well,” he ad-libbed earnestly. “He’s the most capable. I’m not just saying that because I want to stay in the White House. I would gladly change places with you.” The couple remained silent. Jack half-smiled, shrugged and moved past them. “Change places with me?” the husband muttered. “Shit, I didn’t see him offerin’ no contracts.”
When Jack Ford pleads for anonymity, he is probably to be believed. His ambition is to be a forester . . . keeping law and order in the wilds when he’s on duty, chugging beers and fishing when he’s off. His convictions for the kick-back life run high, even though it wasn’t so long ago that he charted his course for philosophy. “Philosophy was my first major in college,” he recalled. “But then my philosophy teacher convinced me that there were no jobs in philosophy, not unless I wanted to teach it. I didn’t really want to do that, so I switched to forestry. Later I found out there were no jobs there either.”
Living in Logan, Utah, and going to the Utah State University, Jack did manage to find some summer jobs. “I was employed one summer as a fire-fighting crew member. We went to fires in Idaho, Nevada and Utah. It was great.” During the next school year, Richard Nixon appointed Jack’s father vice-president. Suddenly, the curb outside his campus apartment was painted red. Whenever Jack was home, the Secret Service was parked outside. This did not make him happy. “That was probably when I started craving the time I spent alone, not without the agents but at least not so blatantly covered by them,” he said.
After Jack graduated from high school, he tried Jacksonville University for a year and a half “because I liked the idea of sunshine” and then transferred to forestry-minded Utah State. He spent his last summer in Logan working as a seasonal park ranger in Yellowstone National Park. “We only got a newspaper there once a week,” he recalled, “if we were lucky.”
It was during his stay at Yellowstone that Richard Nixon announced his resignation. Jack was out on horseback patrol. He had not read or heard any of the preliminary publicity. “I was ten miles off any main road,” is the way he explained it, “but the second I reached it, I was shoved into a car that drove me about three miles to this open field where a helicopter picked me up . . . and the next thing I knew, I was in Washington.”
As soon as his father became president, Jack was out of work. Because the federal government does all the hiring in the field of forestry, Jack Ford was immediately forbidden employment under nepotism laws. As long as his father is in office, the situation will remain the same. In the meantime, Jack is biding his time. He moved into the White House, he says, for the election year. “It’s a once in a lifetime experience, to be right in the middle of a presidential election. It’s an education I can’t pass up.” After November 2nd — “probably on the 3rd” — he’ll move back out again. His first choice is San Diego.
When I met up with Jack a second time in Los Angeles, two weeks later, he was amazingly relaxed. Aside from a tourist’s obsession with discussing the weather, he fit right in. Gone was the suit and tie. In their place, sandals, brown cords and a peasant shirt. He spotted me in the audience during a station break at KHJ-TV’s Tommy Hawkins morning talk show. He was disarmingly breezy. “Hey, how’s it goin’?”
Jack explained there would be more than enough time for another interview on the way to Santa Barbara in a Winnebago rented for the campaign. I suggested we start the conversation there, of course, and maybe finish up at his room in the White House.
“Don’t kid yourself,” Jack interrupted, “you’re not good-looking enough for that.” He fired his gap-toothed grin but spared me The Laugh. “Anything you want. It’s up to you.”
He took a seat next to Tommy Hawkins, a popular local TV host who allows viewers to call in questions to his guests.
“We’re visiting with Jack Ford,” Hawkins said, “the 24-year-old son of President Gerald Ford. We’ll go back here to line two. . . . Hello there.”
“Turn down your television.”
“Oh,” chirped a voice, “good morning, Tommy.”
“How are ya?”
“All right. I’d like to ask you about your views on homosexuality.”
A stunned pause.
“Uhhm . . . my views on that are something I haven’t given much thought to, quite frankly. I think I try to respect everyone’s point of view or difference of opinion. I don’t have any strong feelings either way, quite frankly. I’m not in a position to give it much thought, quite frank . . . to be quite honest.” Tommy threw Jack a life preserver.
“All right, thanks for the call.”
Quite frankly. . . . Already I’ve noticed that it’s Jack’s favorite verbal tic when he’s speaking for the record. He uses it as a bridge, a time filler, a qualifier and a tool of candor — sometimes all four in the same sentence. Only one problem: he doesn’t know he uses it so much . . . and nobody really brings it to his attention.
Jack’s cheery attitude, I figured, was partly due to President Ford’s surge of victories in Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee. Two weeks earlier, the picture had been bleak. At least today, even in Reagan’s home state, the Ford camp felt sure of a first-ballot victory at the convention in August.
Boarding the Winnebago in L.A., though, an agent suggested a more universal reason for all the smiles: it was Friday, the last day of campaigning before Memorial Day weekend. After the Santa Barbara appearances, the camper would head up the coast to Monterey, where Jack would spend the three days off “with a friend.”
KNXT-TV Evening News Interview with Bill Stout:
Stout: A number of the women around here, men too, have been wondering how can you possibly maintain any kind of privacy in your personal life with all the Secret Service around. How far do they follow you?
Ford: (The Laugh) They’re always close by.
Ford: Always. They certainly don’t sit down on the couch with me, so to speak, but they keep a pretty close eye and, quite frankly, there’s good reason for it. Despite the fact that I might not care to have them with me.
Stout: Doesn’t it cramp your style, to use an old-fashioned term.
Ford: In some cases it makes me feel a little less private. They’re very often close to earshot distance. But they operate in total confidentiality. However, someone who’s not as used to it and doesn’t have that confidence probably feels, quite frankly, more uncomfortable.
Stout: Miss X, for instance. Ever had a lady say, “It’s been nice, but I just as soon not do it again with all those men around.”
Ford: (The Laugh) Quite frankly, it’s probably to the contrary. If she doesn’t like me, there’s always three or four other guys that she can devote her attentions to.
Jack Ford “does not know” who picks the agents that cover his movements. He doesn’t really care either. “If there’s someone really bad, they get taken care of in short order . . . most of them aren’t much older than me anyway.”
Most of his Secret Servicemen are, in fact, in their late 20s or early 30s and — when they’re not conversing through palm-sized short-wave radios or trying to melt into a crowd — friendly. “They define their individual roles,” Jack figured. “I have a definite comradeship with some of them, but that’s simply a result of the time I spend with them. I would never really consider them friends in a true sense. They know when to draw the line between business and friendship.”
Nevertheless, the three men with him for his California stay are familiar faces he can pal around with. Once the Winnebago hits the coastal highway, a Doobie Brothers tape starts blasting and they all keep their eyes peeled for the California girls, yelping over the choicest carloads. Already, Jack is talking about cracking open that case of beer for the long ride to Monterey tonight.
After a while, I reminded Jack about the interview.
“Right. Just let me change.”
Twenty minutes later, he emerged from the vehicle’s refrigerator-sized bathroom in a green tennis shirt and dutifully plopped down across from me at a card table. With him staring straight at me and his arms folded, the mood was almost one of an arm-wrestling championship. “All right,” he said.
I mentioned Bianca Jagger’s much-publicized interview (and clutching photos) with him in Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine. After all the disapproving press and even his mother’s disclaimer, was he sorry he ever got involved?
“I’m not sorry about it.” Jack said tersely. “I didn’t get a lot out of it. It was probably the least stimulating interview I’ve ever done, quite frankly. I have a hard time reading Andy Warhol’s magazine. Really. It just doesn’t grab my interest. It’s probably a good idea to write everything down exactly the way it happened, but it doesn’t make for great reading. You don’t have to be a writer to do that kind of interview. I like to read. I like good writers. I like to read something creative, instead of a playback . . . type of thing.”
Did you get a lot of flak from the White House over that?
“I got flak from people. But you know, the people who are always quick to criticize, to say, ‘Aw, what a foopaux, are the lightweights. They’re quick to criticize everything, no matter what you do. You learn to know who they are. That’s the primary area of criticism. I had a lot of reservations myself, especially since the pictures were not interview pictures, but pictures among . . . acquaintances.”
There was a time last year when luring Jack Ford to your concert was a common practice for any band playing the Washington D.C. area. And it wasn’t uncommon to succeed. He went to concerts by or posed in backstage pictures with Earl Scruggs, George Harrison and the Rolling Stones. Harrison, Billy Preston, Tom Scott, as well as Bianca and Warhol, were White House guests. Harrison spent an afternoon with the president.
Later, Jack told an interviewer that he had smoked pot, strong words even in the Age of Candor. Then, just as quickly as he had stepped into the limelight, Jack was conspicuously inconspicuous. No more splashy shoulder-rubbing. No sensationalism. Whose idea was this lower profile, his or the White House’s?
Jack stared out the window of the Winnebago. He knew the question well. “You know, it was a decision that I made myself. I found myself getting into that trap of becoming a public figure myself. I mean, it was a great opportunity. I liked the idea of meeting some of these people and doing some of those things. But it was generating bottomless, baseless publicity. I just wasn’t interested in having that happen. I made a conscious decision that I was not going to do interviews. I was not going to do any appearances at anything.
“I continued going to concerts, but I always bought the tickets myself. Unannounced. Nobody knew. It worked out a lot better. I enjoyed myself a lot more. I’m sure there were people who had suggested I cool it, but nobody ever said it to me. Whatever I did, I did on my own.”
So he wasn’t sorry he admitted smoking pot? “Absolutely not,” Jack grinned. The Laugh. “They all quote me on that, all the magazines, but it’s never the whole picture. It’s never the Whole Story I was trying to paint. It’s always just ‘Jack Ford smoked pot.’ Period. Which was not the total reference. It goes back to this thing you’ve probably heard me say over and over again. Dad said, you know, if we’re gonna have that peace of mind after this whole crazy experience is over with, you’ve got to answer all the questions as truthfully as possible. I said what I said because my father encourages the truth. That’s the Whole Story. I was concerned that people have tried to take the marijuana thing and use it to undercut my father. When, in fact, I think it’s a tremendous plus for him that he would encourage honesty at consequence to himself.”
I stared right back at him. Do you still smoke?
“No.” The Laugh.
Why? Because your father is the president?
“Uhhhhm. . . .” Jack shifted his weight. “Uhhhhm . . . all factors considered, it didn’t seem to be . . . uhhhhm . . . a needed part of my life. It just made life a lot easier not to than to do it.
“I made an evaluated decision before smoking. I started seeing all my friends smoke pot in my sophomore year of high school [in Alexandria, Virginia] and at first it shook me up. Here I was, the A-1 Jock, All-American Image Kid. Eventually I decided the pro-marijuana people were more accurate than those against. It was purely intellectual.”
Well . . . I sprung it on him . . . LSD?
“No. I was as misadvised as anybody. I didn’t want to take any chances . . . there were always those two camps, the great hard-liners and the ones who thought drugs were all right. Either way, drugs never played a big role in my life.”
(One of his Secret Service agents — anonymously — agreed: “Jack is not the stoned hippie that a lot of people seem to think he is. I remember a rumor once that he was dealing cocaine . . . out of the White House or something. He’s a guy that really likes privacy. I get the feeling that as long as he can sneak off with friends — which he does a lot — he kind of likes being famous. But he’s pretty straight around us. Who knows what he does when he’s hanging out with friends . . . he probably smokes a joint or two. But he’s not a pothead. Basically, Jack Ford is a conservative kid that just started loosening up a few years ago.”)
Jack was anxious to move the subject from drugs . . . so what about his “gut reaction” to Jimmy Carter?
Jack seemed glad to relax. “I think he’s gotten into a situation where he’s probably a really good man, a really well-intending man . . . but when you get ahead, you start playing politics instead of maybe being the man that worked so well before. I think he’s found himself in this trap and it’s coming back to haunt him a little bit.”
Do you find, campaigning around the country, that America is still obsessed with Richard Nixon?
“There’s a lot of Richard Nixon antagonism. It’s very much on everybody’s mind. A lot of people feel like they got . . . uhm . . . taken advantage of and screwed over beyond their wildest dreams. A lot of people put a lot of time into his campaign and so forth, now they feel that he tread on them and abused them in a totally unfair manner. Quite frankly, I’m one of those people. I worked for Richard Nixon in ’72. I voted for Richard Nixon. I thought he was the best candidate. I tried to help him in any way possible. Now I feel terribly abused.”
Did you spend any time around him?
“I didn’t spend any time with him as a man. Not when he was president. I had met him and been around him at other times, at conventions. We had sort of casual encounters. . . .”
“Just on reception lines and so forth. Very superficial. Like everyone else I thought, ‘Wow, this is the president.’ I was as equally naive as anybody else.”
Naive in what way?
“I didn’t understand what the game of no-rules politics is all about. It wasn’t whether you were right or wrong; it was whether or not you got caught. Part of that naiveté had to do with my father . . . he was always one who never played that game. It was always whether you were right or wrong with him.”
Do you feel Richard Nixon used your father?
“He used my father quite a bit. My father is just one of those guys that looks a person in the eye and treats them the way he would like to be treated. Quite frankly, Richard Nixon didn’t treat my father the way my father treated him. He feels that if a guy can look him in the eye and say, ‘I am not a crook,’ he should take that man at his word. It was a man-to-man thing. Richard Nixon abused that trust and that confidence.”
Yet you say that pardoning Nixon was the wisest decision your father has ever made.
“Unquestionably. In terms of the good of the whole country. To get away from Richard Nixon, to get away from Watergate. Quite frankly, again, to try and build our future. We could dwell on Watergate and Richard Nixon the rest of our lives. No question, it was probably the lowest point in the history of our country. But, you know, we’ve got some tremendous problems in this country. Economic and moral problems. I don’t think dwelling on Richard Nixon is the answer to those problems. If he hadn’t been pardoned, his trial would still be going on. He’d be in every headline . . . it would have put Patty Hearst behind the comic pages. So it was a good lesson to all of us. I think everybody heard, when they were growing up, if you tell one lie you find yourself in another lie. Pretty soon they all come back to haunt you. How more basic can it be?”
How about your fling with Chris Evert. Was that built up by the press too?
“Without a doubt.” He’s relieved to say it. “It’s like two people who have a sort of common bond . . . two people of approximately the same age group who can share a mutual pressure, a mutual exposure in their life. We have a really strong bond between us in that respect. I enjoy our relationship at that level . . . much better than I do as a romance. But I guess it’s too good for the press to pass up.
“It’s a big question for me. Girls. How do I sneak ’em in? Who do I see? I always try to down-play it as much as possible. It’s the one area I’ve been fairly effective at keeping private. I’ve got some pretty steady ladies here and there. Nobody’s really picked up on them, which is good as far as I’m concerned.”
Do you sneak off and see them a lot?
And the agents come with you?
“The agents are nearby. You know, that’s one of the things I’ll do here in California. Today, as a matter of fact. I’m going off to see this nice lady who is very happy to have a good relationship with me and not have it be a public demonstration of some kind. She knows where our relationship stands. She’s a good lady for it.”
What type of girl is it that you like?
“Two arms . . . two legs. I don’t think I can even answer that. What type of girl do you like? Someone with a mind, a life of her own and someone who’s independent. Someone who doesn’t depend on Jack Ford for her thrills. Someone who’s understanding.”
Do you get upset over your father being portrayed as a klutz?
“Yeah, I do. Not so much lately, though. He’s always being photographed. He’s less vain than any other president in a long time. Hell, have you ever gone an entire week — even a day — without tripping or bumping your head on something? What if everything you did was photographed. People don’t seem to realize it.
“Why does my father have that reputation as being so clumsy? He’s an older man, yet I see him skiing and swimming with the power of someone half his age. So I’ve learned to just not let anything else bother me. I spend so much time around the administration, I just can’t let it become my entire life.
“But the fact is that we’ve always had these presidents that were so intense, you know. Their image was so important to them that they lost touch with the real world that way. This is something my father’s been able to preserve a little bit. Whether or not he can do it over a six-and-a-half-year period is another question, but so far he’s been able to do it. I think that’s good.”
Did you read the Playboy interview with Sara Jane Moore?
“I read the first part of it and skimmed the rest very briefly. I think it was in an airport terminal. I don’t like to read stuff like that. It kinda freaks me out. It’s like my great temptation to read Helter Skelter, even though I’m not really sure I want to. It almost touches a little too close to home. I don’t want to develop this paranoia, this fear of some kind. I want to try and stay away from that attitude. It can be really intimidating. Every time I go by a bookstand, I see Helter Skelter. I reach for it and I draw back and I reach for it and draw back. I just don’t want to have to think about any of those things the next time I’m pushing through a crowd.
“There are those people out there who feel a tremendous need to strike out. Whether it be father or another member of my family . . . whether it be me, you could easily get to that point where maybe the Nixons got to. They were almost afraid to go out and be with real people and not a self-contained, controlled situation.
“I can’t tell you how freaked I get when I go through a crowd and see how easy it is for one person, with one very simple, easy gesture, to snuff you on the spot. I just don’t think I should read an in-depth study of someone who wasn’t motivated in a true political sense. I can understand the political motivation more than the macabre need to randomly strike out with no real plan or principle. The president has to accept that possibility, of course, but I really get scared for my father sometimes. Even though, the worst thing that could happen to this country would be for a small group of people to intimidate and repress the president or any government official.
“When my father was first sworn in, there was a great debate among us whether or not any of the kids beyond my sister, who had gotten some very definite threats, would take Secret Service protection. Dick Kaiser — the head of protection detail — sort of sat us down and appealed to us. ‘Do you realize that you’re putting the president of the United States in a position where he might have to choose between family and country?’ It’s a heavy thought. And I was very vulnerable at the time I heard it. Less than 24 hours before, I had been in Yellowstone, just cruising around. Suddenly, I have a duty to my country. So I consented to the protection.
“In the beginning, you think you have a choice in the matter. In the end, you realize you never really did. Later on, I said, ‘Hey, that was a really effective pitch. You had me convinced. I’m sold. You came on pretty heavy.’ And I was told, ‘Oh, that was just the soft sell. If we hadn’t convinced you, we would have shown you some of the more incredible death threats and phone call reports.'”
Are you persuaded by advisers to adopt any other attitudes?
“No. It was my idea to campaign. I came back to Washington specifically to get involved. To see what it was like living in the White House, to see what it was like going through the heart of a campaign.
“I didn’t get along with some of the people who were originally at the campaign. My ideas and theirs were a little different. They said, ‘Great, we can have you down here opening letters and answering phone calls. You’ll be great. We need more volunteers like you.’ It just wasn’t my idea of how to get involved. We went on with that battle through June, July, August . . . about what I’d do. Finally I just of sort of threw my hands up and said, ‘I’ll do my own thing.’
“I’d made a few friends there and they booked me into some situations. So we circumvented the huge powers in my father’s campaign. And here I am. I had the whole plan worked out. I said, ‘Let’s not go the Ed Muskie route of locking up all the party pros and all the endorsements with no basis for it, no grassroots support.’ That’s where we suffered a great deal in the early campaign. We realized our mistake and got away from the endorsement route and that’s where our strength has come from lately. . . .”
How have you found life at the White House?
The answer was quick.” Living in the White House can be very intimidating. It’s an experience of a lifetime, but there’s also the feeling that you’re living in a museum. My room is all right. It’s not very big. I can usually relax there. But then there’s that feeling that you’ll round the corner, wearing just your shorts — and run into a group of tourists.”
Jack sighed and beat a fist lightly on the table. “I’m getting tired of hearing myself talk.” He got up, found a tape of Frampton Comes Alive! to replace the Doobie Brothers and returned to his chair. “Frampton . . . my main man. He brought the magic back to rock & roll.”
I asked him who’s impressed him the most, of all the celebrities he’s met since his father took office.
“In terms of entertainment people, I would probably say George Harrison. He was able to get away from the celebrity aspects and communicate a little bit as a person. His energy level is a little bit higher than mine, but he impressed me also with the people he had around him. There seemed to be a comraderie-ship that I haven’t seen in some other cases.
“The other person that impressed me, because he wasn’t at all consistent with his image, was Mick Jagger. He was incredibly sharp, incredibly astute, very tuned in and right on top of whatever was happening. If he hadn’t gone into music, he probably would have been successful at anything. He’s just so smart and so sharp. I didn’t get a chance to sit down and talk with him on a personal basis, but I came away with a very positive feeling about his creative abilities.”
Were you disappointed he never came to the White House?
“Well, I never invited him. I invited Bianca . . . I’ll tell ya. After the George Harrison-Bianca thing, it just became easier, not that I wouldn’t like these people to come to my home, but it wasn’t a case of them coming to my home. It was a case of them coming to the White House. It sort of destroyed the nature of it. It always ended up a big press play.”
Your mother said in print that you were being used by those people.
“Well, that was in reference to the guy who released the pictures of Bianca Jagger and me. I think Dirck Halstead or whoever took the pictures was at one point considering suing the guy who released the photos, because they were his and not the guy’s who released them.”
Hypothetically, if it was Reagan versus Carter in November . . . or even Reagan versus Brown . . . would you keep a hard-line Republican stance?
Long thought. “I don’t know. I know it’s a cop-out, but it’s really not one of those things I’ve thought about. I don’t really think it’s gonna happen. I feel very sure about the fact it’s not gonna happen, in fact. I’ll make that decision when I come to it.”
Who is your father thinking about for his running mate?
“Pete Wilson, the mayor of San Diego, is a good man. He’s another one who cuts across political affiliations. [Christopher] Kit Bond, the governor of Missouri, is a possibility. He’s a good, attractive candidate from a political sense. He generates good energy. Dan Evans, governor of Washington, could be the one. Maybe Howard Baker.”
What about Ronald Reagan?
“Well, he was once a candidate for vice-president.” The Laugh.
“No more. I really want to beat Ronald Reagan. Man, if California was a crossover state we could run a hell of an election, running just on ‘Let’s beat Ronald Reagan’ regardless if you’re with us or against us. There’d be a lot of people who’d vote for us. He scares me. Quite frankly, Reagan does scare me. The way he talks . . . he’s an incredible reactionary. This is the guy that said, ‘If the students want a blood bath, let them have it now.’ I really want to beat his ass.”
Have you read The Final Days?
All the President’s Men? “No. I haven’t seen the movie either.”
“I don’t think either of those books are the type of books that you pick up and put down, four or five times a day. . . .”
One of the agents let out a shout. “Hey Jack! There’s some girls that want to wave to you.” Jack got up and looked out the window. “Hello ladies,” he waved.
“AAAAAAA-WOOOOO.” The girls sped off.
“. . . Yeah, so, to get the full impact of those books you’ve got to read them. Really read them. I just don’t have the luxury right now.”
Have there been any cases of girls you once went with trying to sell their story?
“Yeah there have. As a matter of fact, there’s a girl that I didn’t even go out with who tried to do that. It was a girl that Dave Kennerly was going out with. He brought her by one day when I was getting ready to take my mother to see the American Folk Festival. David took a shot of his girlfriend on one of my arms and my mother on the other at the folk festival.
“Well, David obviously gave her one and she gave it right over to some press agent. . . she was trying to start a career, whatever. There was this whole story about my love for her and how she went to my mother and said, ‘Should Jack and I get married?’ and my mother said, ‘No, your career is more important. Wait.’ And, you know, I never took the girl out. But here was this picture with me. It got abused and used very badly. All things considered, though, I’ve been pretty lucky.”
On that note, the camper rumbled into Santa Barbara City College. Jack was scheduled to do an interview with the campus television station and later a question-and-answer forum with the students. He threw on a brown blazer, hopped out of the camper and started shaking hands.
“How did you get all the good publicity,” he cracked to one student. “I don’t see any great weather.” The sea breeze was blowing hard through Santa Barbara and with his hair flying in the wind, Jack Ford resembled his father for the first time.
In the television studio, he was interviewed by the dean. The show went well, considering most of the dean’s overphrased queries were twice as long as Jack’s answers. Afterward, he was led out to a lunch area podium before several hundred students. From the first moment he greeted them, it was obvious that Jack Ford was not facing his father’s most loyal supporters. “You fucked up, Jack?” someone yelled. He ignored it and explained briefly that he was not there to give speeches but to field questions. “Hopefully, I can convey your concerns to my father. . . .”
He answered the usual questions about The Nixon Pardon, Chris Evert and Ronald Reagan, using an unusually large amount of “quite frankly”s. As he finished, the same hoarse yeller screamed: “Bulllllllshhhhiiiitttt.”
Jack climbed back into the Winnebago, a little dejected. Regardless of the largely negative reception, Jack Ford was still a star. Several students peered inside the camper. Some even jogged alongside as he left. Managing a winning smile, Jack called out his standard salutation: “Take it easy!” The smile quickly faded. “You know,” he said, “the difference between a few years ago and now is that the antagonism is still there, but there isn’t any followup. They ask belligerent questions, but wouldn’t think about working their ass off for the cause. . . . How do you think I did?”
I told him he was using more than his quota of “quite frankly”s.
“Everytime I cure myself of one phrase, I subconsciously find another one.” He groaned. “That much, huh? Quite frankly, I’m concerned.” Smiling once again, Jack settled down to listen to Peter Frampton. After a few minutes, he sighed. “This is such an emotional drain. I can’t wait to get down to doing something more logical!”
I asked him a question, perhaps The Question, that I didn’t get a chance to bring up before: do you really, deep in your heart, want your father to be reelected?
Jack turned his stare out the window again. He likes watching the beach whiz by. “Deep in my heart? I don’t even have to go that deep. No.” He thought about what he’d just said. “It’s an incredible paradox, you know. I get up in the morning and say to myself, ‘God, does it really make sense to do this, even if I’m not convinced that I want him to be president.’ You know, I had an excellent life long before this happened. Maybe that’s not the case for some First Family members. I had a really good life. I wasn’t disappointed. Life looked good to me. In fact, it looked better to me then than it does now.
“I’ve never been addicted to the pomp and the regality. See, I can even remember the good old days when dad was vice-president. The Good Old Days. A friend of mine and I hitchhiked down to visit my parents in Palm Springs. We drove up to the gate of the place they were staying, and we were in this pickup truck with two chicks. Dirty . . . and sweaty. They made my father come down and identify me. That was before Secret Service protection. I felt very loose and very free then. . . .”
Next stop — University of California at Santa Barbara, where another q&a session and a meeting with the school newspaper had been scheduled. After that, an AM radio interview, a visit to the local newspaper and back-slapping appearance at the Santa Barbara reelection committee. I began to notice some patterns. Older women ask after Mrs. Ford (“She’s fine”), the men wonder, with man-to-man confidentiality, how Chrissie Evert’s doing (“She’s fine”) and their kids want to know Jack’s favorite groups (“Frampton, Nils Lofgren and Joy of Cooking”).
At the end of the day, a day where Jack Ford hasn’t stopped answering questions for more than 20 minutes, he looked completely exhausted. Surrounded by volunteers in the parking lot of the committee headquarters, Jack confessed, “I haven’t eaten all day. We’re just gonna grab a bite up the road and I’m going to relax for the evening.”
“You do that,” advised a motherly worker.
“Take care!” Jack shouted as he climbed into the camper. The fired-up volunteers rushed back in to attack the phones.
I climbed in after Jack to say goodbye. The handshake was firm this time. Jack, his Monterey Weekend blazing in his eyes, had already gotten his second wind. “We’re gonna crack open some beers, kick back and tool up north.” It’s almost become a chant for him.
I climbed out and the Winnebago pulled into the street. Jack leaned out his window. “Take care!”
An agent scolded him. “Don’t give him that ‘take care’ crap.”
The van was turning the corner and Jack had to lean out even further. “Don’t forget,” he yelled, “I’m Jack Ford and I’m here working to reelect my father. Can we count on your support? . . .”
The Winnebago had disappeared, but I could still hear it. The Laugh.