- The Washington Times - Monday, July 3, 2006

Barry Werth’s “31 Days” has at least as much excitement to it as the Indy 500. A reader can’t help but grip the edge of his seat as the story unfolds of the crashing fall of President Richard Nixon and the rise of Vice President Gerald Ford. We venture inside every corner of the White House during the tumult of Richard Nixon?s unexpected resignation and the swearing in of a new president.

Mr. Werth may be a little-known author, but “31 Days” is a first-class book. Mr. Werth captures completely how the government survived in the hours and days following the first and only resignation of an American president in office. This is a fast-moving narrative, replete with personality conflicts and big stakes on a grand scale.

Mr. Werth shows Nixon alone in the Lincoln Room, taking his usual private breakfast — the most inward, solitary and reclusive of American presidents. Later that morning Nixon wrote on a sheet of thick White House paper that he was resigning as president of the United States, and then signed it.

We watch Nixon on his flight back to Southern California in the eyes of an uncertain nation shrouded in gloom. In short order Nixon demands of the White House all of his tapes, records and papers. President Ford doesn’t want them but feels they may be needed in a time of legal uncertainties.

There were men of high quality in the Nixon administration and incredibly honorable men. Men like Bryce Harlow and Mel Laird. There were also outstanding men such as Leonard Garment, Bob Haldeman and John Erlichman. And there were others less known and many who would see their own political careers end in the weeks to come.

When Mr. Werth takes a step back, we read of Nixon and Mr. Ford working together in their early days in the House of Representatives, a mutual trust that continued to the day they exchanged the presidency. And there are human touches. When we first encounter Gerald Ford as the new and real president, we learn quickly that he arrived in the Oval Office after taking a swim at home, then ate an English muffin for breakfast.

We meet Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, among those close to the new president. The chronology of those 31 days still whirls around us. Mr. Werth draws a sober likeness between Nixon’s era and today, with the recent calls for Mr. Rumsfeld to resign.

When President Ford first met with his Cabinet, he made it clear that his own tough actions as president “bore no relations to my own political future.” To the Cabinet members he said, “My door will always be open, but when you come in you’d better have something to say, or it’ll be a long time before you’re invited back.”

It was Mr. Ford alone who made the sobering decision to grant Nixon a presidential pardon. “In accepting this pardon,” Nixon said, “I hope that President Ford’s compassion will contribute to lifting the burden of Watergate from our country. No words can describe the depths of my regret and pain at the anguish of my mistakes. I now understand my own mistakes and misjudgments.”

Mr. Ford paid a real price for that pardon. Many people were opposed to it. But many others supported the new president, whose intention was to save the nation a prolonged trial of Nixon. Barry Goldwater asked Mr. Ford, “What did you pardon him for?” Mr. Werth gives the answer.

Mr. Ford faced boos and chants of “Jail for Ford,” but he was determined to be a significant president. In the process, he failed to win the support he needed of his party and his country in order to be re-elected.

When he replaced Nixon, Mr. Ford was also responsible for selecting a new vice president. He chose carefully between George H.W. Bush and Nelson Rockefeller, and in the end the honor went to Rockefeller, who was quickly confirmed. Mr. Ford made clear from the beginning that his first concern was for the good of the United States. With the Nixon pardon, he made what may have been the most difficult decision of any president since Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves.

In every sense, “31 Days” is an excellent work. It is highly recommended.

Ambassador Robert M. Smalley served in Lesotho during the Reagan administration.

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