Ford aide resigned on principle
When an aging public figure passes on, his obituary often focuses on a single event in his life, for good or evil. And so it is that Jerald F. terHorst, who died last Wednesday at 87, was remembered as the White House press secretary who resigned on principle.
Jerry terHorst performed that very rare deed in Washington politics on Sunday morning, September 8, 1974, after barely a month in the job, about an hour before President Gerald R. Ford Jr. jolted the political world by pardoning resigned President Richard M. Nixon of all Watergate crimes.
The press secretary as a reporter in Michigan and Washington had earlier covered Ford throughout his political career, and had become a close friend. Now he walked into the Oval Office and broke the news personally, handing the president a three-paragraph letter that spelled out his reasons for resigning.
He wrote that as his spokesman he could not "credibly defend" the pardon decision "in the absence of a like decision to grant absolute pardon to the young men who evaded Vietnam military service as a matter of conscience, and the absence of pardons for former aides and associates of Mr. Nixon who have been charged with crimes — and imprisoned — stemming from the same Watergate situation."
He wrote that he could not conclude that Nixon was "more deserving of mercy than persons of lesser station in life whose offenses have had far less effect on our national wellbeing." As a former Marine who had served in the Pacific in World War II, terHorst's reference to Vietnam draft-evaders on grounds of conscientious objection was particularly surprising.
In a book on the Ford presidency later, terHorst wrote that the president replied: "Well, Jerry, I'm sorry you feel that way." He told his departing press secretary it was not an easy decision to make, and that it could create great controversy, but that he was "not concerned about the election in 1976 or the politics of it." Indeed, the pardon was later cited as a major cause of Ford's narrow defeat by Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976.
The two old friends shook hands and terHorst withheld news of his resignation until after Ford had announced his own decision. Thereafter he returned to his previous job as reporter and then as a syndicated columnist. A New York Times editorial noted: "By his action, Mr. terHorst not only provided a reminder that an official's conscience is more important than a top government job; he also did much in his brief tenure to restore an atmosphere of professionalism and mutual respect to the White House press room."
The unassuming terHorst was in fact a breath of fresh air after the experience of Nixon press secretary Ronald Ziegler, a press-hating perpetrator of self-serving propaganda who was often out of his administration's loop. TerHorst's long and close earlier association with Ford made him much more than a hired mouthpiece. His behavior was in sharp contrast with later George W. Bush secretary Scott McClellan, who haplessly dished out misinformation handed him and then on departure wrote a self-serving kiss-and-tell book.
But it was Jerry terHorst's taking a stand on principle, even when it could and did feed the wide criticism of his old friend and boss, that made his brief one-month tenure in the White House's key information post more than an asterisk in the list of its occupants, and of holders of high government jobs generally.
Another memorable resignation on principle or policy of that significance since then — and only after a presidential decision had been taken and the action carried out — was that of Carter's secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, in 1980 over mounting the ill-fated attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran.
Hundreds of other ranking government officials who have disagreed with presidential decisions have chosen to stay and remain silent on grounds they could affect a change of policy from within. Think Robert McNamara at the Pentagon and his doubts about the Vietnam War, aired only 37 years later in a best-selling retrospective. Think rather of Jerry TerHorst, who acted on principle when it counted.