Insiders re-examine Nixon-Ford era; Making It Perfectly Clear, by Herbert G. Klein. New York: Doubleday. 14.95; Palace Politics: An Inside Account of the Ford Years, by Robert T. Hartmann. New York: McGraw-Hill. $15.95
Even as the Nixon-Ford era and the specter of Watergate slip from the spotlight and the glare shifts to the problems of another President (Jimmy Carter) and his struggle to hold on to power at the top, a few more books roll off the presses to help us understand the complexities of government in crisis.
Klein and Hartmann would seem to have much in common. Both are veteran newsmen who packed up their typewriters and marched off to Washington to try to shore up the careers of Republican presidents they admired. Both gave their all -- Klein as communications head to Richard Nixon; Hartmann as chief of staff to Gerald Ford. Both felt the heat of White House kitchens. And both left their posts tired and disappointed, if not embittered over circumstances that tumbled their respective bosses from power.
Their books also have parallels. Both offer inside stories but few new facts from the Nixon-Ford years. And although each author in his own way is still fiercely loyal to his commander in chief, neither is reluctant to spell out personal weaknesses, political failings.
The styles differ, as the men do. Klein is low-key, thoughtful, always the gentleman even when he is being tough. A bit of resentment seeps through for the way he was buffeted about by the Haldeman-Ehrlichman-Colson inner circle. But his tone throughout is one of sadness over the whole Watergate debacle. Hartmann is more aggressive, sometimes abrasive. He comes on, at times, like a street fighter throwing punches helter-skelter at the "bad guys" -- among them Henry Kissinger, Alexander Haig Jr., Ron Nessen, and Donald Rumsfeld.
It was not the Nixon pardon but the leftover "praetorians" who really set up Ford for defeat at the hands of Carter in 1976, Hartmann insists. They "dug in to defend their positions, their prerogatives, and their power. To them, the inexperienced new President [Ford] was primarily a hostage, and his circle of inexperienced new aides were natural enemies to be quickly disarmed."
Hartmann would have swept the White House clean of the ghosts of Nixon past.
Klein makes no effort to explain away the causes of Watergate ro to absolve his longtime friend and mento, Nixon, from ultimate blame. But one can almost hear him sigh when he lays much of what happened on the burdens of having to seek re-election.
"Had Nixon left office after one term," Klein insists, "he would have been regarded as a great President because he accomplished great things in foreign policy at a time when this was the most important part of the President's agenda."
Both books contain interesting tidbits about the past two GOP presidents, yet these seem relatively unimportant, with one exception: Hartmann's revelation of the deep mutual dislike that existed between Ford and Ronald Reagan. This might reinforce the belief of many that the so-called Reagan-Ford "dream ticket," rumored at this year's GOP convention in Detroit, was little more than wishful thinking.
Perhaps the greatest contribution of either book is Klein's thoughtful analysis of White House press relations, why they failed miserably during the latter Nixon years and what might be done by future presidents to enlist news media respect, if not support.
The nation's first press attache to hold the title of "director of communications," Klein feels honor-bound to confess his embarrassment over his early-in-office pronouncement to the press that: "Truth will be the hallmark of the Nixon administration."
And he is quick to chide the Nixon White House for its misguided obsession that the media should be regarded as a chief executive's natural enemy.
"History would indicate that intense tension between the media and the President is inevitable," Klein allows. "The newsman has goals he must serve with integrity, and he must have an ever-inquiring mind. The President has different goals he must serve with integrity and creativity and perseverance, if he is to succeed as an inspiring leader."
However, the Nixon aide stresses that "for the President of the United States , politics and the media are deeply interrelated and a major part of everyday life. A President who loses the ability to communicate effectively with the American people loses the political strength to govern effectively."
It is important for the American public, if not the world, to remember, in retrospect, that Watergate was an aberration and that the large majority of those who served the President during that period never lost their integrity or high ideals. Those who knew and worked with Herb Klein are quick to number him in these ranks.