Wednesday, August 8

In Search of Leslie King

Cute kid, right? That's Leslie Lynch King, Jr. Despite the ambiguous first name and the dress, that's a boy! Back when this picture was taken in 1916, that was the way 3-year-old boys were dressed for formal photographs.

Leslie was born on July 14, 1913 in Omaha, but he was raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan. By all accounts he led one of those perfect Midwestern boyhoods. He was an Eagle Scout and a star athlete, captain of his high school football team. He went to the University of Michigan and was an All-American football player. He played center on the U of M's national championship teams in 1932 and 1933. He was offered a contract to play pro football, but turned it down to go to law school. And he was so good looking that for a time he was a male model. The All-American boy!

He had more serious ambitions. After serving on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific during World War II, he set his sights on a political career. He ran for Congress in 1948, defeated an incumbent and began a stellar career that led him to more than eight years as House Minority Leader. He was a prominent Congressional Republican until he became Vice President in 1973 and President of the United States on August 9, 1974—33 years ago tomorrow.


PRESIDENT LESLIE LYNCH KING, JR.? probably know him better as Jerry Ford—Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr.

Little Leslie's parents split two weeks after he was born: there are reports that King Senior was abusive, that he was violent, that he had threatened his wife (the former Dorothy Ayer Gardner) and their baby boy. She left, moved in with a sister in Illinois for a time, got a divorce and moved with her little son to live with her parents in Grand Rapids.

There she met Gerald Rudolff Ford and married him—about the time this picture was taken.

The Ford family ran a successful paint and varnish business in Grand Rapids, and by all accounts Gerald Rudolff Ford was a perfect father and had a perfect family. Before too long young Leslie King was no more: replaced by Gerald Rudolff Ford, Jr.—although he was never formally adopted; he didn't make the name change official until 1935; and he always spelled his new middle name the more traditional way, "Rudolph." Young Jerry had three half brothers: Thomas Gardner Ford (1918–1995), Richard Addison Ford (born 1924), and James Francis Ford (1927–2001). Jerry, Jr. didn't know he had been born Leslie, Jr. until his mother told him when he was 17. He had a brief meeting with his biological father that same year, but nothing came of it. He never established much of a relationship with his birth father, or with his three other half-siblings, children of King's later marriage.

Which brings us to August 8, 1974. I had been head producer for WWJ-TV (Channel 4) in Detroit for just a few weeks, responsible for the 6:00 and 11:00 p.m. newscasts. I was home that Thursday morning when I got a call from my boss, Lou Prato, ordering me to the station ASAP. When I got there he told me that it was official: disgraced President Richard Nixon would resign that night—and Jerry Ford was going to become the 38th President of the United States the next morning. Since I had just come to Detroit after five years working for WOOD AM-FM-TV in Grand Rapids, Lou said he was sending me, reporter Bob Vito (you may know him from CNN) and a two-man film crew to Grand Rapids to cover the Michigan angle. A chartered plane was waiting for us at Detroit City Airport.

Grumbling that Lou didn't even give us a chance to pack a bag, the four of us hopped on a single-engine Piper and headed west, arriving in Grand Rapids about 5:00 p.m.

It's important to remember that those were the days when local TV stations still shot news on film—that live coverage was almost unheard of for a local station—and that satellite coverage was rarer still. There was no chance to get anything on the air for 11:00 that night, so we concentrated on covering the story for the Noon and 6:00 the next day—the day Jerry Ford would be sworn in as President. Remember, too, that those were the days before morning newscasts. WWJ had only what other NBC affiliates had in the morning: the Today Show cut-ins.

So the four of us went crazy, tear-assing all around Grand Rapids looking for Ford family, friends and side-bars. I think we watched the Nixon resignation speech in a bar in Jerry's old neighborhood. We got high school classmates and teachers. I remember our coup was catching all three Ford brothers together at about 2:00 a.m. Great guys: down to earth, smart. The paint and varnish business had been very good to Tom, Dick and Jim Ford, and they were obviously proud of their brother, but he was still "just Jerry" to them.

OK. Next—get the film back on the plane at 6:00 make the Noon news. So we zonked out in a motel. Don't know where or how, but I managed to come up with a toothbrush and some deodorant. The crew slept longer, but I got about 90 minutes of sleep, then it was off to the airport to put the film in the hands of the charter pilot. The plan was for him to fly it to Detroit and drop it off for the Noon show, then turn around while we stayed in GR to film reaction to Jerry Ford's swear-in as President. Then we were to hop on the plane, get back to Detroit about 3:00 p.m. and put together our final package for the dinner-hour news.

The plan went perfectly.

Tired, sweaty, bedraggled, we staggered into the WWJ newsroom and got what we expected, high praise from all around.

I also got a surprise: Lou Prato told me that there was no one else to producer the 6:00, that I'd have to do it. He promised to pitch in, and he did. Together we produced a terrific local newscast that drew heavily on Jerry's hometown background, his days as a star football player at Michigan, and his legacy as a Congressman.

Hearty handshakes all around.

When it was all over, Lou came up to me and said, "You did a great job. The 11:00 should be easy. I'm going home."

And he did. So I produced the 11:00.

When I finally got home it was around 1:00 a.m. Saturday morning—I was still hot and sweaty and tired—I had put probably 250 miles on a rental car—eaten nothing but cheap hamburgers and fries—swilled about three dozen Cokes—and squeezed in ninety minutes of sleep in the previous 36 hours.

Not a record, not by a long shot. Certainly not hazardous duty like war coverage. Actually, it was fun. I thought would make a good story for my grandchildren: What Grandpa did the night Jerry Ford became President.

I've never been married, never had kids, and I don't think there's much chance of me bouncing grandkids on my knee—so I'm telling you the story of the night I went tear-assing around Jerry Ford's hometown.

Got a second for just one more Jerry Ford anecdote? I wrote (in Man and Mentor on April 12th) about my first boss, Dick Cheverton, and his battle with cancer. "Chev" had, of course, covered and known Jerry Ford for years. The two men liked and respected each other. So it was no surprise that Congressman Ford would hand Chev his last (and biggest) assignment.

Remember Richard Nixon's visit to China? To the "People's Republic of China?" To "RED CHINA????????" After years of distrust and a decades-long break in all relations, diplomatic and trade, Nixon used China's deteriorating relationship with the U.S.S.R. to try what was dubbed "Ping Pong Diplomacy" (the U.S. table tennis team was invited to visit China in 1971). In '72 Nixon himself went for meetings with Chairman Mao Zedong. It was the high point of the Nixon presidency. And for the first time in decades Western journalists—newspapers and the networks—were allowed into China.

Not long after, the House Minority and Majority leaders (Jerry Ford of Michigan and Hale Boggs of Louisiana) made a trip of their own to China. Each was told he could bring a TV crew from his home district. Congressman Ford invited Chev to send a crew—and Chev grabbed the assignment for himself. Chev and a reporter from New Orleans and their photographers became the first non-network TV journalists in China since the 1940s!

For Chev, it was tough going. He was on crutches, still healing after breaking his hip (could that have been a foreshadowing of the cancer to come?). But Chev wasn't about to let a little broken hip stand in the way of the big story. So he and Chief Photographer Tom O'Rourke dogged the Congressional delegation every step of the way—producing memorable coverage.

O'Rourke even got the attention of communist leader Zhou Enlai. Chev and Tom were covering a banquet on their final night in Peking. Tom had his old Auricon Pro 16mm movie camera on a should brace—his sound amplifier strapped around his neck, along with a 35mm camera—a light clipped to the camera and a battery belt on his waist (along with a spare)—and a backpack with batteries, extra film magazines and the like. The whole getup must have weighed eighty pounds.

During a ceremonial dinner Zhou Enlai noticed O'Rourke filming the event and offered a toast to the burly photographer from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Tom said it translated to something like this: "Modern technology is wonderful. It is sad, though, that so much of it still comes down to manual labor."

I wonder if WOOD still has any of that old China footage. It was remarkable, historic and eye-opening.

The next things we knew, in late 1973, good 'ol Jerry Ford became Vice President Gerald Ford. Spiro Agnew was forced to resign as part of a deal that allowed him to plead nolo contendere (no contest) to criminal charges of tax evasion and money laundering. Seems he had accepted bribes during his tenure as governor of Maryland.

I was still at WOOD at that time. Chev was in the hospital. I remember well the new VP's first visit back to his hometown. We were determined to make Chev proud. We were the dominant news station in the market, the only one with an hour-long dinner-hour newscast, and the largest staff in town: seven full-time reporters and seven full-time photographers. Huge for the middle markets in those days.

And go figure: Vice President Ford had seven events on his schedule, from breakfast with his brothers to a tour of the old family home, lunch with invited big-wigs. You know the drill. Seven stops, then back to Washington.

But there was a 90-minute gap in his schedule. An hour-and-a-half unaccounted for. Oh, yeah? We'll just see about that! Our entire staff spent days trying to find out what Jerry Ford was up to.

We never did find out where he was going—but after he left we found out where he'd been. He went to the hospital and spent the time with Dick Cheverton. A nurse later told me that the Secret Service was stationed outside the open door, so no one knew exactly what was said inside.

"But," she told me, "They laughed a lot."