A scoopful from the newly dead
You’ve got to hand it to Mortuary Bob. Nobody interviews the newly dead like he does. He doesn’t always interview his subjects after they die. Sometimes, like the late Bill Casey, they’re merely in a coma. John Belushi was somewhere between La-La Land and oblivion. Mortuary Bob Woodward’s shovel is always showing up in unexpected places, and sometimes the mud on his boots leaves marks on the carpet. Nevertheless, he has grown sleek and rich dispensing nuggets — little muddy clods, actually — from the great beyond.
He can coax usually inarticulate subjects to speak in whole sentences, arranged in neat paragraphs, and these folks always say things to make just the precise point to support Mortuary Bob’s ideas on policy and politics.
On Dec. 28, with Gerald Ford’s body having barely assumed room temperature, Mortuary Bob scrounged the tapes and notes from a two-year-old interview in The Washington Post in which Mr. Ford delivered remarks that — would you believe? — sound as if seized from the morning’s headlines about how bad George W. Bush’s war is going in Iraq. Mr. Ford, in Mortuary Bob’s telling of it, makes exactly the arguments that Cindy Sheehan, John Murtha and the usual giggle of Democratic critics make of the Republican president. What a wee world, where coincidences occur with convenient precision and regularity.
Donald Rumsfeld, the newly deposed defense chief, and Dick Cheney, the sharpshooting vice president, made “a big mistake” in going to war in Iraq. “They put an emphasis on weapons of mass destruction,” the late former president is said to have said. “And now, I’ve never said publicly I thought they made a mistake, but I felt very strongly it was an error in how they should justify what they were going to do.”
Mortuary Bob says Mr. Ford didn’t at all like the idea of trying to spread democracy, of trying to drag reluctant Muslims into a more recent century, a notion which — here comes another one of those happy coincidences — neither Mr. Bob nor his friends like, either. “I just don’t think we should go hellfire damnation around the globe freeing people,” said the president who in a single night in 1976 freed Poland from So- viet embrace in the final debate with Jimmy Carter, “unless it is directly related to our own national security.”
Mortuary Bob boasts that he kept Mr. Ford, then 91 and looking forward to his nap if he could ever get this lugubrious young man out of the house, answering questions for not one, two or even three hours, but for four hours. If that were not cruel enough, Mortuary Bob says there was even a follow-up interview the following year, for which he offers no details. You can understand why Jerry Ford gave up the ghost. What the patient and long-suffering Mr. Ford didn’t reckon with is that you can’t necessarily avoid Mortuary Bob, his shovel and his tape recorder, simply by taking the night train to the spirit world. No graveyard is safe when Mortuary Bob is on the prowl. But nobody gets exclusive interviews with the newly dead quite like he does, and none of his graveyard subjects has ever claimed to have been misquoted.
Nevertheless, there’s a footnote to Mortuary Bob’s latest scoop(ful) from the region of rigor mortis. Tom De- Frank, the chief Washington correspondent for the New York Daily News and a Ford friend of many years standing, interviewed the 38th president only last May and Mr. Ford said he had told President Bush just this year that he did, too, support the war in Iraq. His quibble was that he thought Mr. Bush should have made bringing down Saddam the reason for going to war.
“Saddam Hussein was an evil person and there was justification to get rid of him,” Mr. Ford told the Daily News. “But we shouldn’t have put the basis on weapons of mass destruction. That was a bad mistake. Where does [Bush] get his advice?”
Mr. Ford, like a lot of his old constituents, didn’t like the domestic surveillance program, either, but unlike a lot of Mortuary Bob’s fans who have a warm and fuzzy view of the nation’s enemies, understands that the world is a dangerous and complicated place. “It may be a necessary evil,” Mr. Ford said of the surveillance program. “I don’t think it’s a terrible transgression, but I would never do it.”
On reflection, Mr. Ford may have more to say on this. When he does, Mortuary Bob will be there.
Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.