Jerry’s memory hole

I always thought that New York Daily News headline, “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD,” on Oct. 29, 1975 was a newspaper copy editors’ pithy but accurate translation of then late President Gerald Ford’s longer message that he was against bailing the Big Apple out of its financial mess. It never occurred to me that Ford might actually have uttered those two fateful words until I read a New York Times article Dec. 28, 2006 which repeated Ford’s denials that he ever said to New York, DROP DEAD. My suspicions were further aroused by the – to me – cryptic kicker on Sam Roberts’ story: Of the DROP DEAD quote, Ford was reported to have said with “a weak smile,” that “it was totally untrue. We burned all those papers.”

Burned all WHAT papers?

The drafts of his speech that may or may not have contained the “drop dead” quote, or the newspaper itself?

Since the “drop dead” quote may – along with his pardon of former President Richard Nixon – have cost Ford his re-election in 1976, it is historically intriguing.

But I have my own reasons for being interested – and confused.

Ten years before Ford maybe told the inhabitants of Gotham to commit collective suicide, I was a $75-a-week clerk-intern working in Ford’s office in the U.S. Capitol. I was 20 years old, a sophomore at Kalamazoo College, where we were encouraged to find a spring term job that somehow meshed with our career plans. Since I wanted to become a history professor, I thought it would be beneficial for me to learn how government works. I was not to be disappointed.

The congressman from Grand Rapids had only recently been elected House Minority Leader, and he had suddenly been thrust on the national stage as a spokesman for congressional Republicans. Once a week, television cameramen would converge on the Capitol for the “Ev and Jerry Show,” an interview with Ford and then Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen. As minority leader, Ford was called upon to make speeches around the country, but being a busy man, he hired a former Detroit Free Press reporter, Jim Mudge, to be his press secretary and write speeches for him.

I remember Jim Mudge. He was the funniest man I ever met. He had a wonderful sense of humor and often had me in stitches. He was also very, very conservative. His conservatism was in line with the politics of the vast majority of people in the 5th congressional district in western Michigan, where Ford had been elected and re-elected without serious Democratic opposition. Jim Mudge’s thoughts may have represented the ideas of Ford’s constituents very well, but they were not in tune with what many people around the country felt, thought or believed about politics, including world politics, which arguably were not his boss’s forte.

What follows is based on my memory of events that involved me 48 years ago. But what happened around me in the U.S. Capitol seemed pretty important, darned fascinating, and I have pretty clear memories of them. I recall one instance when his conservative approach to world politics got Jim Mudge into trouble. And but for some nimble thinking on Jim’s part, Ford would have been in a bit of a PR jam.

One day, Jim banged out a speech and handed it to Ford on his way to speak on the East Coast. I recall that he was speaking to the Yale Law Club, an easy commute from the people he’d later advise to drop dead or maybe not. Whatever else Jim Mudge wrote in the speech I don’t remember. But there was one phrase – like DROP DEAD, just two words – that would land him and Ford in a pickle. It was soon after the U.S. invaded the Dominican Republic to put down an alleged Communist insurrection. It was also only a few years after the U.S. under President John Kennedy had tried and failed to topple Fidel Castro.

In the speech, Ford said the U.S. should invade Cuba and “eradicate Castro.” Just the kind of jingoism that would play well in my home town of Lowell, not far from Ford’s home town of East Grand Rapids. Not the language of a senior statesman, though.

My assignment was to take the speech, which Jim had typed on stencil paper, and run off mimeograph copies. In those days, photocopying was a laborious chore involving placing separate pieces of paper and pink flimsy against the original, and it took a lot of time. The old mimeograph machine was a faster way to churn out lots of copies. Anyway, Ford took the speech, jumped into his long black limousine and headed for New Haven, or wherever. I took a stack of mimeo copies of the speech up to the press gallery and handed them out to AP, UPI and other media outlets.

I went back to the office to do one of my other jobs – opening Ford’s mail, reading it and directing it to legislative aides. He’d been elected Minority Leader only a few months before, but was already receiving mail not just from Kent County, but from all over the country. Within a few days, I began to read some letters that were pretty hostile to that “eradicate Castro” speech. Apparently, the letter writers were reading local newspaper reports based on those copies of the speech I dropped off at the Capital press gallery.
Ford was taking heat for wanting to “eradicate Castro,” and Jim Mudge was feeling some pain. He had a solution, though. Straight out of “1984,” the George Orwell book about totalitarianism in which the protagonist revises history, dropping unwanted facts down a “memory hole.” Jim Mudge, the former Detroit Free Press writer, showed me – the future Free Press writer — how to create a memory hole.

Where is the original stencil? He asked me. I found the stencil, and he located the page where he’d written the “eradicate Castro” remark. From somewhere, he got a scalpel. Maybe he’d done this routine before. Stencils have a carbon backing that is perforated by the typewriter. My job, Mudge said, was to scrape the backing off the paragraph with the bad quote. Then I was to re-ink it, let the ink dry. Finally, I was to type over the fresh area a new sentence he’d composed that was bland as bland could be. No hint of the military knocking off Castro.

I was a 20-year-old college sophomore and I knew it was wrong. But what is a $75-a-week intern supposed to do? I did what I was told, and waited for a chance to tell about it. Because I knew it was dishonest, I have a very clear memory of the episode. I was to get rid of all copies with the “eradicate Castro” quote, Mudge told me. Anyone who wrote to criticize Ford for making that stupid, incendiary remark would be sent a copy of the memory hole version of the speech with the phony innocuous paragraph.
Who needs a time machine? With a scalpel, we re-wrote the past.

I have no idea whether Ford knew of this scheme. I assumed he did. But it is conceivable that he read the speech in his limo, realized it was dumb to call for the Marines to “eradicate Castro” and substituted his own benign words. In that case, the newspaper reports, based on the original speech, would have been incorrect, and Jim Mudge was simply, albeit surreptitiously, correcting the record. But I never heard anyone say that happened. It was all about eradicating history.

This is why I’m confused when the late and former president is quoted saying, “We burned all those papers.” In the “eradicate Castro” case, we destroyed the original, incriminating copies of the speech, but couldn’t do anything about the ones I handed out to the press corps. Jim Mudge might very well have wished to burn all those copies, but the presses had run, and no way was he going to burn all the newspapers, one by one.

Now I wonder about that other pair of words that may or may not have come from Ford’s mouth. DROP DEAD. Did he say that? Did a speech writer put those words in his mouth? It might be useful to look at the drafts of those speeches.

Unless somebody took a scalpel to them.

Contact me at joelthurtell(at)gmail.com

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