- - Friday, January 20, 2012

By Ron Nessen
Wesleyan University Press, $27.95, 244 pages

From 1974 to 1977, Ron Nessen, a former NBC newsman, served as White House press secretary to President Ford, who had taken office at a time of great turmoil and uncertainty both at home and abroad. The Republican Party was still reeling from Watergate. Public disillusion with politics and politicians had hit an all-time high. The new administration was faced with the dual curse of a sinking economy and raging inflation.

Sandwiched within those few years was the collapse of South Vietnam, with the North, emboldened by the resignation of President Nixon and the unwillingness of Congress to come to the aid of the South, mounting a full-scale conventional invasion. And so, the war Nixon had successfully brought to a close was lost by a congressional failure of nerve.

The war, the way it was lost and our abandonment of many of the South Vietnamese who had stood with us (Ford gave his best efforts to rectifying this wrong) had a profound effect on Mr. Nessen, who as an NBC correspondent was wounded in Vietnam by a misdirected grenade and nearly bled to death.

“I was changed forever by what I saw and experienced in Vietnam. … I will never forget it. I will never get over it,” he writes. That experience no doubt accounts in part for a resigned sense of loss that runs through this book. As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told the author, ” ‘Vietnam would find more ways of breaking one’s heart than anyone could have conceived.’ “

In his account of his years as a war correspondent, Mr. Nessen captures - and often personifies - the hard-living, anything-goes, there’s-no-tomorrow way of life of men and women who cover wars. His depictions of life in a war zone are highly effective, as are his descriptions of life in a besieged and Watergate-haunted White House, where a pickup staff - consisting primarily of Nixon holdovers, people borrowed from federal departments and agencies, and old Ford friends and associates from Capitol Hill - tried desperately to pull together a working administration with coherent policies and goals.

Among the Nixon appointees and holdovers (of whom this writer was a very minor one) were Mr. Kissinger, Alexander Haig, Donald H. Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, each of whom taught Mr. Nessen valuable lessons in management. Haig “gave me an insight that stuck with me for the rest of my time in the White House. He said the three most important people … were the president, the chief of staff and the press secretary. … He pointed to his head and said they were three ‘computers’ who needed to know everything that was going on, had to absorb it, had to make sense of it.”

Of Mr. Rumsfeld, he writes, “I had learned a lot from Haig. Now I was about to learn a lot from Rumsfeld … in a set of ‘Rumsfeld’s rules,’ which I tried to follow.” The rule Mr. Nessen found most important: ” ‘For every problem there is a solution, which is easy, obvious, and wrong.’ “

And there was Mr. Rumsfeld’s trusted assistant, Mr. Cheney. “Decades later, I didn’t recognize the Cheney caricatured by the news media. … The Cheney I knew always had a lopsided grin on his face. He was relaxed around reporters, trading jokes and gossip with them. He was close friends with a number of journalists.”

But whatever the strengths of individual staffers, three years weren’t enough time to pull together a coherent administration, especially with what seemed an ongoing cycle of crises, from WIN (whip inflation now) buttons to the swine-flu scare. There was the run against Ronald Reagan for the nomination, the disastrous Soviet-domination-of-Poland debate with Jimmy Carter, the election and the ultimate triumph of hope over experience.

In this strongly written, evocative and at times very personal memoir (one chapter is titled “State of the World, State of the Union, State of My Marriage”) Ron Nessen takes us on an intensely remembered journey through a unique period of American history, when it seemed the center might not hold, until a conservative congressman from Michigan took it upon himself to restore our sense of balance as a people and our dignity as a nation.

That Gerald Ford lost the election to Mr. Carter is less important than that in the brief time allotted to him, he restored a significant measure of national pride and direction. Ron Nessen is to be commended as a man of talent and ability who played a role in making that restoration possible.

• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

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