Friday, April 2, 2010

Integrity of a Journalist

More than 35 years ago, a man named Jerald terHorst became White House press secretary when an old friend of his, Gerald Ford, became president following the resignation of Richard Nixon.

At that time — August of 1974 — Ford was, as I wrote last year on the 35th anniversary of Nixon's resignation, like a breath of fresh air for a nation that was eager for it, and terHorst was a visible part of the change that had taken place. In fact, his open and endearing nature probably had a lot to do with the fact that Ford's approval rating, after about a week in office, stood at 71%, according to Gallup.

But it didn't last long. About four weeks after taking office, Ford pardoned Nixon. The nation felt betrayed, and so did terHorst, who resigned in protest. He said it was wrong to pardon a president when no pardons had been issued either to the White House staffers who had done his criminal bidding or to those who had resisted — as a matter of conscience — being drafted to fight in Vietnam.

There was a personal angle to it as well. TerHorst resented being kept out of the loop when the decision was made. He felt it undermined his plausibility as press secretary — as indeed it did.

His resignation was widely praised as an act of courage, of conscience, of integrity.

Following his brief stint in Washington, terHorst returned to the Detroit News, which had given him a leave of absence to take the job of press secretary, and he worked as a columnist. Later, he was public affairs director for the Ford Motor Co.

He died Wednesday at the age of 87.

I was a teenager when the drama played out, but I felt then — and I still feel today — that it was a golden era for American journalism.

That golden era began in the early 1970s, when the New York Times published the "Pentagon papers" that detailed the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, included the Washington Post's investigation into the Watergate scandal that ultimately led to Nixon's resignation and then was mostly capped by terHorst's decision to resign rather than remain in an administration that he believed had misled the American people.

TerHorst showed the kind of integrity that is missing from many areas of American culture today.

He shall be missed.

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