Friday, April 2, 2010

Jerald terHorst

I keep lots of memorabilia. I will, on occasion, open a storage bin with a label, "assorted paraphernalia," and take a pleasant trip along the backdrop of my life. I'll pick up an item that summons the memory attached to it; stare at a photo that recalls a day and summons the events surrounding it; and read notes I received as I've travelled around the track.

The irony is that sometimes I don't know where the bins are that have all these keepsakes. Most of the time that's fine. I enjoy stumbling across a box in the basement and spending a few hours unearthing its contents. But sometimes there's actually an item I'd like to find, and the chances of locating it without dedicating a weekend or two to the task are minimal.

Today I thought of something I have somewhere that I'd like to locate at some point. I read in the Boston Globe today that Jerald terHorst has passed away. I think there are people in every generation who have done small things that are not registered in the archives, but are significant. Jerald terHorst did something in the Fall of 1974 that I think was very significant.

I was in graduate school in Buffalo, New York at the time. The previous summer Richard Nixon had resigned and Gerald Ford had become the president of the United States. In September President Ford, a politician I liked on balance, did something I considered reprehensible. He pardoned Richard Nixon before he could be prosecuted for the charges of obstructing justice and lying to Congress during the Watergate matter.

By pardoning Nixon, Ford thought he would be healing a nation that had become divided by the crisis. His error, I believe, is that the pardon aborted a natural process and artificially provided closure. Any cut that requires suturing must first be cleaned, lest the stitches secure an infection that inevitably will surface.

The pardon denied the people of this democracy an opportunity to discover the truth. Consequently there are people today who are sincerely unaware of any transgressions perpetrated, and others who are delighted that there is ignorance so they might promulgate an inaccurate narrative that fits their agenda.

Jerald terHorst was President Ford's press secretary. Press secretaries are supposed to be the link between the chief executive and the press who in turn are supposed to transmit information to the public. Press secretaries are vital and their credibility is essential for a democracy to work as it is designed to work. Yet, prior to terHorst press secretaries had been, particularly during Watergate and the Nixon administration, nothing more than spin doctors. People who took reality and skewed it to present an image that was inconsistent with reality. Nixon's press secretary Ronald Ziegler was notorious in this regard and, though few know it, Diane Sawyer was an assistant to Ziegler during this time.

Gerald Ford was supposed to be a breath of fresh air after Watergate, and in many ways he was. His selection of terHorst was consistent with the objective of being credible and shooting straight with the public. But when Ford pardoned Nixon, many who had hoped for the end of a coverup, were disappointed.

When Ford pardoned Nixon, Jerald terHorst did something which few should forget. He resigned. He wrote to the president and said that this was unfair. Individuals who had committed lesser crimes were being prosecuted and sent to jail. "Try as I can" wrote ter Horst "it is impossible to conclude that the former president is more deserving of mercy than persons of lesser station in life whose offenses have had far less effect on our national well-being."

We all come to a fork in the road at least once in our lives. One route takes us to what will be attractive and perhaps lucrative, but the other fork, we know, is really the right one to take. Jerald terHorst had the opportunity to be famous every day, be a representative of the most powerful person in our world, a very alluring opportunity. But he couldn't continue, credibly, defending an act that he knew--or at least felt--was not in the interests of our evolving democracy.

I thought terHorst's decision to resign was right and courageous and important. So I wrote to Jerald terHorst and I told him how important I thought it was for him to do what he did.

Somewhere in my house is a letter he sent back to me, thanking me for sending my note. I remember that he signed it personally and actually addressed somethings I'd written. I saved it. It's somewhere around here.

Jerald terHorst is unlikely to be in history books that our grandchildren will read. But he should be.

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