downtownexpress.com
Volume 19 Issue 33 | Dec. 29, 2006 - Jan. 4, 2007

Downtown Notebook

A few brushes with Gerald and Betty Ford

By Jerry Tallmer

Many people think that the greatest short story ever written by an American is Irwin Shaw’s “The 80-Yard Run.” Greatest  or not — my own vote goes to Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” — it is in any event one of those terrific stories you never forget, especially if you were a young guy yourself when you first read it, around the age of Christian Darling when, as a substitute second-squad halfback, he’d made that clean, pure, 80-yard run in football practice one beautiful day back in college, with his girl, Louise, waiting for him with an embrace at the far end of the field.

Christian Darling never made it as a first-stringer; he was too light, too slow, going up against all those big beefy bastards on the line. Still, when I went to college, a guy in my class and dorm, Teddy Arico, who couldn’t have weighed much more than I did, though in a tighter, shorter package, was the star scatback of the Big Green football team of those years, no matter how beefy the opposition.

The thing about Christian Darling is that, some years after he got out of school and he and Louise had married and moved to New York, he proved too light and too slow in other, more crucial ways -- mentally, politically, culturally, adaptably. Unadaptably, that is. “Let’s go down to 14th St. and hear this guy Odets, he writes plays with a baseball bat,” says Louise’s smart-ass boy friend (I paraphrase from leaky memory). Christian doesn’t know what they’re talking about — well, he does, but he doesn’t want to know. You go, he tells his wife and her boy friend. I’ll be here when you get back.

I don’t know why, this morning, having heard the news about Gerald Ford on the radio, I after a while began thinking of Christian Darling, but on second thought I do know why. If Gerald Ford was, back at Michigan, precisely one of those big beefy bastards on the line — first-string center, wasn’t he — and thus the fictional  Darling’s nonfictional enemy, he nevertheless shared with Darling a lightness of mental weight and slowness of thought.

I once interviewed him, in his Congressional office down in Washington, not so very long before events thrust him into the presidency of the United States. Whatever the subject of my questions — Vietnam, Watergate, Mr. Ford’s balancing act, the daily life of a multi-term, Midwestern Congressman — it was like drawing nails out of wood. He was pleasant enough, in a brusque way, polite enough, but solid granite from ear to ear. Unforthcoming. I don’t think there was all that much to come forth. He walked around, did not sit down, and, yes, he was very large and lumbering.

And then, some months, maybe a year later, the hearts of the nation were lifted — my heart not least — by that same staunch unmodulated voice saying: “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.”  Hallelujah! Decency, a clean broom, in the White House. Let us all take a deep breath … and then, exactly one month later, the balloon bursts, the wind goes out of it and us, all of us: a full, free, and fair pardon to the ex-president who told us he was not a crook even as he and his gang were crooking all the civil liberties they could think of.

But before that, I was sent back down to Washington to interview Betty Bloomer Ford, onetime Martha Graham dancer, now First Lady to be, she and he not yet moved out of their suburban Washington house with Secret Service vans and cars pulled up to block the driveway and any other access.

She was as forthcoming as her husband was not, or had not been with me. Toying nervously with the Venetian blinds, she talked of her aches and pains; of her loneliness when Mr. Ford was away, far from town, on political business, as he always seemed to be; of her youth and girlhood and dancing days, and of her marriage. She spoke of everything except the marriage that had preceded that marriage, which I learned of only when I read about it in some other newspaper. She was, in short, though not the Louise of the Irwin Shaw story — not in a million years — still quite the opposite of the big blunt football player to whom she would be married until the day he died.

Life is strange. When Frances and I got married, at the Jockey Club of the Ritz Carlton Hotel on Central Park South — the “old” Ritz Carlton, not the new one where the St. Moritz used to be — somebody said: “Look over there — that’s Mr. and Mrs. Gerald Ford at that table against the wall.” We looked, and sure enough, it was. Frances the dancer went dashing over to invite them to our wedding. Two or three Secret Service men drew their guns, just in case. The Fords thanked Frances, but said they were going to the theater. They wished us well. I don’t think Betty Ford recognized or recalled me at all. He certainly did not.

Well, now he is gone. So is the Jockey Club. So, of course, is Richard Nixon. But Christian Darling is going to be speeding, zigzagging, broken-field spinning downfield in that one glorious, tackle-free 80-yard burst, forever.

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