Happy Presidents’ Day, everyone! To mark the occasion of the day in which we celebrate this nation’s past presidents, we have an excerpt from a book that’s entirely dedicated to documenting drunken shenanigans in the White House. You’re welcome!
The aforementioned book — Party Like A President: True Tales of Inebriation, Lechery, and Mischief from the Oval Office — was written by Brian Abrams, the same lovely fellow who wrote the Kindle single, AND NOW…An Oral History of “Late Night With David Letterman,” which we featured an unpublished anecdote from last year that you should read if you haven’t already.
Without further adieu, here’s an excerpt from Brian’s new book about the time Gerald Ford got wasted and stuck his foot into a wheel of cheese.
Throughout his twenty-five years in the U.S. House of Representatives, nine months as vice president, and 896 days in the White House, Gerald R. Ford was as accommodating as they come.
Generally perceived as an unassuming and down-to-earth president, Ford toasted his own English muffins and picked up after his golden retriever on the South Lawn in his morning bathrobe. The man’s man from Grand Rapids was a happy-go-lucky American who, when compared to his vindictive and temperamental predecessor, Richard M. Nixon, also passed for clinically sane.
Ford asked that the nation refer to 1600 Penn as “the residence” rather than its more traditional and intimidating handle, “the Executive Mansion.” One week into office, he danced to a cover band rendition of Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” at a White House dinner thrown for King Hussein of Jordan. Honestly, how could you not love this guy?
“He was a friend to everyone who met him,” Kansas senator Bob Dole said of his 1976 running mate. “He had no enemies.”
In addition to warming the hearts of policymakers on both sides of the aisle, the thirty-eighth president maintained an almost filial connection to his White House press corps. His modesty and kindness inspired loyalty from several members of the news media, especially those who knew him before a disgraced Nixon left office, and Ford’s so-called accidental presidency went into effect. Prior to assuming the top spot, he had less than one year under his belt as Tricky Dick’s veep—and was appointed to the position of vice president, mind you, not elected. (Plenty of Beltway personalities were more than qualified to serve in December 1973, but, presumably after a nail-biting round of cootie catcher, Nixon selected the unobtrusive Ford to fill the shoes of his previous number two, Spiro Agnew, who had resigned in the wake of a bribery scandal.)
Point being, Ford was never voted into high office, yet his relatable image and bipartisan alliances reestablished confidence in the federal government after Watergate. Good times were well-documented along the way. “He was the only fun president that I ever met,” New York Times Washington correspondent John Herbers said. “He was more intimate than any of the others.”
He was also a supplemental insurance company’s worst nightmare. One morning, upon his arrival at Salzburg Airport in Austria, the former University of Michigan football star famously tumbled down the stairs of Air Force One. Another time, on a golf course in Palm Springs, California, Ford drove an electric cart into the side of a shack. (“I’m just one big clumsy sonofabitch,” he told Secret Service agent Dennis Chomicki.) The media ate it up.
Press secretary Ron Nessen explained how, during Ford’s vacation ski trips, TV crews would station themselves on the more challenging slopes and turns in gleeful anticipation of his next pratfall. By now, Chevy Chase’s Saturday Night Live impersonation of a clumsy Ford has arguably eclipsed the former president in public imagination.
One slapstick stunt, however, remained off the record for decades. In 1974, the president spent his first Christmas break in Vail, Colorado, where for the better part of two weeks he congregated with family and esteemed locals. On Sunday, December 30, members of the press corps invited the world leader to a holiday reunion at their rented condo, a no-frills cocktail hour for the chief and the correspondents who had trailed him since Agnew stepped down.
Upon his arrival at No. 3J at the Village Center apartments, Ford “made a bee-line for the kitchen,” according to reporter Thomas DeFrank’s memoir Write It When I’m Gone, “asking, ‘Who needs a drink?’”
With martini in hand, the president puffed his tobacco pipe among friends and melted into the couch for a half hour. (He and his wife, the world-famous alcoholic Betty, were scheduled for a dinner with the owner of a ski equipment company.) Ford was so comfortable and off his guard, DeFrank observed, that the president set his “loafer dead in the center of a two-pound wheel of brie on the coffee table . . . As he stood up, the cheese stuck to the bottom of his shoe for a heart-stopping instant—before quietly plopping back onto the plate. He never knew.”
Party Like a President is available for purchase on Amazon and in bookstores nationwide.