Some become famous over a lifetime, others in a moment that marks them forever. For honor or ignominy. Some earn a place in history by reaching the apex of their careers, others by stepping down from it. Does the name Jerry terHorst sound at all familiar? If so, your age might be showing. Or just a certain interest in newspapermen of conscience. There are some.
Jerry terHorst was the kind of newspaperman who didn't make the news himself it's a point of honor among good reporters yet on his death the other day at 87, his obituary made the wire services and stirred proud memories.
A son of immigrants who settled in Michigan, he spoke only Dutch till he was five, was averse to drama and given to hard work. His path would cross with that of another steady, reliable, undramatic type who always seemed around in a supporting role: a congressman from Michigan named Gerald Ford.
Born in Grand Rapids, Jerry terHorst dropped out of high school at 15 to work on his uncle's farm but wound up at the university studying agriculture. That's where he got involved with the student newspaper, which can be a fatal seductress. It's ruined a lot of us for anything but journalism.
After a stint with the Marines in the South Pacific during his war, Jerry terHorst came back home to start work with the good old Grand Rapids Press and get on the familiar treadmill to ever bigger papers in his case the Detroit News, where he wound up in its Washington bureau covering Congressman Ford. And becoming the congressman's friend. Both seemed destined to float around the edges of the big time.
It was only to be expected that when Richard Nixon and everything he touched began to crumble the government of the United States, for example Gerald Ford would become vice president, then president as honest faces became fewer and fewer in the White House. Naturally he would choose Jerry terHorst, his hometown newsman, as White House press secretary.
Our long national nightmare was over and Jerry terHorst's rise complete. The happy ending to his very American story could already be visualized: His portrait would go on the wall with all the other forgotten White House press secretaries and begin collecting dust.
It didn't turn out that way. Mr. terHorst conducted press briefings for just one month. They were open, friendly, candid briefings the complete reversal of the way the Nixon administration had operated. But then early one Sunday morning he got his test. The new president had decided the best way to salve the nation's wounds after Watergate was to commit a monumental act of both injustice and statecraft, which have a way of going together. It's a pattern at least as old as Machiavelli.
The president who a month before had proclaimed a new and better day chose to pardon, unconditionally, the old one whose fall had led to his taking the oath of office. Yes, the culprit-in-chief himself, Richard M. Nixon.
It's hard now to bring back the rage that rang through the country that broken sabbath. Americans were not yet accustomed to having a president flout the laws he was supposed to enforce, and then get off scot-free.
The names of those around Richard Nixon who would go prison for their crimes resound like a roster of the most powerful men in American politics at that Nixonian time:
John Mitchell, attorney general, who would do time for conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury. H. R. Haldeman, White House chief of staff, for conspiracy and obstruction of justice. John Ehrlichman, presidential assistant in charge of domestic affairs, for conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury. Charles Colson, White House counsel, for obstruction of justice....
But the ringleader of the conspiracy, the president who would bring his whole administration down with him, would be pardoned without ever being indicted, just as he had resigned before he could be impeached. Tricky Dick tended to keep one step ahead of the rest of us, and the law.
The presidential pardon shocked the country. It certainly shocked Jerry terHorst. He'd covered Gerald Ford since the president's first run for Congress in 1948, and followed his career ever since. He was writing Mr. Ford's biography, and had been his press secretary a whole, glorious, sweep-the-place-clean month. And then this. What was he to do?
Resign. Go back home where the air was cleaner. Take his conscience with him. He would sleep better o'night. But not before writing a letter of resignation that, like Jerry terHorst himself, would make history. In it, he gave voice to the instinctive American sense of justice that always seems to come roaring back no matter how much a president has abused it.
In that letter, the now former press secretary told his boss:
"I cannot in good conscience support your decision to pardon former President Nixon even before he has been charged with the commission of any crime. As your spokesman, I do not know how I could credibly defend that action 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. These are also men whose reputations and families have been grievously injured. Try as I can, 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 wellbeing."
The quality of justice is not strained, any more than the quality of mercy is. It must be rendered to all alike or it becomes something else. In this case, only a political instrument. That's not justice, it's something else plea-bargaining, prosecutorial discretion, call it what you like. But it's not justice.
Jerry terHorst was one White House press secretary more attached to honor than honors, and he showed it by deciding not to be White House press secretary any longer. He would not be one of those who, the higher they rise, the lower they sink. He chose to get off the treadmill to "success." Whether the next generation will remember his name or not, it needs to. So do we all, especially those of us who work in the same furrow.
Paul Greenberg Archives