IN CONTRAST TO Richard Nixon, Secret Service agents found Gerald Ford—code-named Passkey—to be a decent man who valued their service. But agents were amazed at how cheap Ford was. After he left the White House, “He would want his newspaper in the morning at hotels, and he’d walk to the counter,” says an agent on his detail. “Lo and behold, he would not have any money on him. If his staff wasn’t with him, he would ask agents for money.”
The agent remembers Ford checking in at the chic Pierre hotel in New York. A bellboy loaded his cart with the Fords’ bags and took them into their room.
“After the bellboy was through, he came out holding this one-dollar bill in front of him, swearing in Spanish,” the former agent says.
At Rancho Mirage, where Ford lived after leaving the White House, “You’d go to a golf course, and it’s an exclusive country club, and the normal tip for a caddy is twenty-five dollars to fifty dollars,” another agent says. “Ford tipped a dollar, if at all.”
On September 5, 1975, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, twenty-six, drew a Colt .45 automatic pistol and squeezed the trigger as President Ford shook hands with a smiling crowd outside the Senator Hotel in Sacramento, California. Bystanders said Ford was shaking hands with everyone and smiling when suddenly he turned ashen and froze as he saw a gun being raised only a few feet away.
“I saw a hand coming up behind several others in the front row, and obviously there was a pistol in that hand,” Ford said later.
Secret Service Agent Larry Buendorf had already noticed the woman moving along with the president. As Fromme pulled the trigger, Buendorf jumped in front of Ford to shield him. He then grabbed the gun and wrestled her to the ground. It was later determined that she had cocked the hammer of the gun. Fortunately, there was no bullet in the firing chamber. There were four in the gun’s magazine. Fromme later claimed she had deliberately ejected the cartridge from the weapon’s chamber, and she showed agents the cartridge at her home.
Fromme was a disciple of Charles M. Manson, who had been convicted of the ritualistic murders of actress Sharon Tate and six others. Two months before the assassination attempt, Fromme had issued a statement saying she had received letters from Manson blaming Nixon for his imprisonment.
Just seventeen days after this incident, Ford was leaving the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco when Sara Jane Moore, a forty-five-year-old political activist, fired a .38 revolver at him from forty feet away. At the report of the shot, Ford looked stunned. Color drained from his face, and his knees appeared to buckle.
Oliver Sipple, a disabled former U.S. Marine and Vietnam veteran, was standing next to the assailant. He pushed up her arm as the gun discharged. Although Ford doubled over, the bullet flew several feet over the president’s head. It ricocheted off the side of the hotel and slightly wounded a cab driver in the crowd.
Secret Service agents Ron Pontius and Jack Merchant quickly pushed Moore to the sidewalk and arrested her. As bystanders screamed, the agents pushed the uninjured Ford into his limousine and onto the floor, covering his body with theirs.
For more than three hours, Moore had waited for Ford outside the hotel. Wearing baggy pants and a blue raincoat, she had stood with her hands in her pockets the entire time. Agents will sometimes ask people to remove their hands from their pockets, but this time, as people milled around her, agents did not notice her.
Moore is the only presidential assailant who was listed as a possible threat in the Secret Service data bank before the assassination attempt. Two days before the attempt, Moore had called the San Francisco police and said she had a gun and was considering a “test” of the presidential security system. The next morning, police interviewed her and confiscated her gun.
The police reported her to the Secret Service, and the night before Ford’s visit, Secret Service agents interviewed her. They concluded she did not pose a threat that would justify surveillance during Ford’s visit. By definition, evaluating anyone’s intentions is an inexact science. Indeed, the next morning, she purchased another weapon.
Agents ask themselves, “Did that interview trigger it?” a Secret Service agent says. “By giving them a feeling of importance, we may prompt them to think, ‘I better follow through.’ The rational person would say, ‘Holy s—. I almost got arrested.’”
The following month, another incident convinced Ford he was jinxed. His motorcade was returning to the airport on October 14, 1975, after he gave a speech at a GOP fund-raiser in Hartford, Connecticut. Motorcycle policemen were supposed to block side streets, the teams leapfrogging each other from block to block. By the time the motorcade passed a narrow street, the police officers had left. James Salamites, nineteen, barreled through the intersection on a green light in a Buick sedan and crashed into the president’s limousine.
Andrew Hutch, the Secret Service driver, swerved sharply left. The maneuver blunted the impact of the collision, but Ford was still knocked to the floor. When Ford’s car halted with a dented right front fender, Secret Service agents with guns drawn surrounded the Buick and hauled out its shaken driver.
“I looked at the other car, and looking at me is President Ford. I recognized him right away. I just couldn’t believe it,” Salamites recalls.
At first, agents were sure the crash was an attempt on Ford’s life. But after Salamites was questioned for a few hours, he was released, and Hartford police said he was not to blame for the accident.
The press portrayed Ford as a dullard and a klutz, but agents say he was neither. A University of Michigan football player who was voted most valuable player, Ford was an expert skier who taunted agents who could not keep up with him. Finally, the Secret Service assigned a world-class skier to his detail. The agent would ski backward and wave as the president tried to catch up with him.
“Ford was a very athletic guy” says Dennis Chomicki, who was on his detail. “He used to swim every day, he was a good golfer, and he was an outstanding skier.”
But one day after he left office, Ford was driving an electric golf cart in Palm Springs, California, when he accidentally crashed into an electric panel hanging on the wall of a shack for golf carts.
“The whole panel came off its fasteners and fell down on top of the carts,” Chomicki says. “He was mad as hell, and he looked at me and said, ‘You know, after all those years, they were all right. All the reporters used to say I was awkward. Well, they’re right. I’m just one big clumsy sonofabitch.’ And he walked away.”
Unlike many other presidents, Ford never engaged in any dalliances. Until The Miami Herald revealed Gary Hart’s fling with Donna Rice in May 1987, the media had not exposed extramarital affairs of presidents and presidential candidates. Indeed, throughout American history, the press had been aware of presidential affairs and covered up for occupants of the White House. Yet the hypocrisy and lack of judgment exhibited by a politician engaging in extramarital relations is a clue to character that the electorate needs to consider.
Ironically, the press’s record was broken only because The Miami Herald’s political editor Tom Fiedler wrote a column defending Hart, the Democratic Party’s leading contender, against unsubstantiated rumors of being a womanizer. A woman who refused to identify herself called Fiedler to say she disagreed with his column. In fact, she said a friend of hers who was a part-time model in Miami was flying to Washington that Friday evening to spend the weekend with Hart. The caller described the woman as quite attractive and blond.
Fiedler, reporter Jim McGee, and investigations editor Jim Savage looked at airline schedules and picked out the most likely nonstop flight to Washington that Friday evening, May 1. McGee took the flight and spotted several women who matched the description. One was carrying a distinctive shiny purse. When they touched down in Washington, she disappeared into the crowd.
After taking a cab to Hart’s townhouse, McGee saw the same young woman with the shiny purse walking arm in arm with Hart out the front door of his Washington home. Joined by Savage and Fiedler on Saturday, McGee watched their comings and goings at the town-house for the next twenty-four hours. When Hart came outside and seemed to have spotted them, they confronted him and asked about the beautiful young woman sitting inside his home.
Hart denied that anyone was staying with him.
“I have no personal relationship with the individual you are following,” Hart said. He described the woman as “a friend of a friend of mine” who had come to Washington to visit her friends.
That night, after the story had been filed with Rice still unidentified, Savage, Fiedler, and McGee met with a Washington friend of Hart’s who had introduced the candidate to Rice. Savage pointed out that the effort to identify the woman would create a media feeding frenzy, and it would be in Hart’s interest to name her. The story ran in The Miami Herald on Sunday, May 3. That morning, a spokesman for Hart told the Associated Press that the unidentified woman was Donna Rice.
On the same Sunday, The New York Times ran a story quoting Hart as denying the allegations of affairs. He challenged the reporters to “follow me around … it will be boring.” Hart continued to deny he had been having an affair with Rice, but CBS ran an amateur video of them together aboard the luxury yacht Monkey Business in Bimini. CBS noted that Rice, who was not identified, later disembarked from the yacht to compete in a “Hot Bod” contest at a local bar. The National Enquirer followed with a photo of Rice sitting on Hart’s knee on the boat. Hart was forced to withdraw as a presidential contender, a victim of his own arrogance and deceit.
In fact, there was more to the story. According to a former Secret Service agent who was on Hart’s detail, well before his encounter with Rice, Hart routinely cavorted with stunning models and actresses in Los Angeles, courtesy of one of his political advisers, actor Warren Beatty.
“Warren Beatty gave him a key to his house on Mulholland Drive,” the agent says. “It was near Jack Nicholson’s house.” Beatty would arrange to have twenty-year-old women—“tens,” as the agent described them—meet Hart at Beatty’s house.
“Hart would say, ‘We’re expecting a guest,’” the former agent says. “When it was warm, they would wear bikinis and jump in the hot tub in the back. Once in the tub, their tops would often come off. Then they would go into the house. The ‘guests’ stayed well into the night and often left just before sunrise. Beatty was a bachelor, but Hart was a senator running for president and was married.”
Sometimes, the agent says, “There were two or three girls with him at a time. We would say, ‘There goes a ten. There’s a nine. Did you see that? Can you believe that?’ Hart did not care. He was like a kid in a candy store.”
Asked for comment, Gayle Samek, his spokesperson, said, “Senator Hart tends to focus on the present rather than the past, so there’s no comment.”