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THE SITUATION ROOM

Gerald Ford Remembered; Bob Dole Discusses Gerald Ford; Saddam Hussein Has Issued What Can Only Be Described As Farewell Letter; Ron Nessen Interview

Aired December 27, 2006 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information are arriving all the time.
SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Standing by, CNN reporters across the United States and around the world to bring you today's top stories.

HENRY: Happening now, Gerald Ford remembered for leading the nation through dark political times. President Bush praised his predecessor as a man of character and integrity. This hour, the death of America's oldest living president and the final tributes being planned right now.

MALVEAUX: Ford's presidency was the product of the Watergate scandal and it was marked by his pardon of Richard Nixon. We'll examine the Ford legacy and its reach into the halls of power today. We'll be joined by Ford's former running mate, Bob Dole.

HENRY: Also, a farewell letter from Saddam Hussein as the ousted Iraqi leader prepares for his hanging. Is he rallying or further dividing his homeland in the final days before his death? Wolf Blitzer is off today, I'm Ed Henry.

MALVEAUX: And I'm Suzanne Malveaux and you are in THE SITUATION ROOM.

From the White House to Capitol Hill and across the nation, flags are flying at half-staff right now.

HENRY: It's one of many honors and tributes for 38th president of the United States, Gerald Ford. He died at his Rancho Mirage, California home yesterday at the age of 93. Details just now are taking shape for the state funeral of the former congressman and vice president who was thrust into the nation's highest office by the Watergate scandal and Richard Nixon's resignation.

MALVEAUX: CNN's Dan Simon is in Palm Desert, California, standing by for a news conference on funeral plans. Dan, what's the latest?

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well Ed and Suzanne, while we wait for that news conference, we do have a basic framework in terms of how things are expected to proceed over the next few days. First of all, there will be a public viewing and a service here in the Palm Desert community so people who live here will have the opportunity to pay their respects to the former president. That will occur at their Episcopalian Church. From here, Mr. Ford's body will be flown to Washington, D.C., where he will lie in state. That is expected to take place sometime on Friday or Saturday. There will also be a service at the National Cathedral and ultimately Mr. Ford will be buried at his museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Mr. Ford died at 6:45 p.m. local time at his home in Rancho Mirage, California. He was surrounded by his family, including his wife, Betty. This was a very challenging year for the former president. We don't know how he died, but in terms of his health issues, he had a couple of bouts of pneumonia in 2006. Also had a couple of heart procedures and we're still waiting to find out in terms of what caused Mr. Ford to perish.

Meanwhile, there have been expressions of sympathy all over the country, including in Michigan and also in Vail, Colorado, where Mr. Ford spent his summers. Again, we are awaiting a press conference and will bring that to you as soon as it happens. Back to you.

MALVEAUX: And Dan, of course, as follow up here, this is something the family decides ultimately, but there is protocol that is set, step by step, once those decisions have been made.

SIMON: Well, that is correct, Suzanne. And those protocols were established many months ago. We understand that folks here in the Palm Desert Community have been planning for this event and, again, they're going to be coordinating those details with the family and, again, that press conference should shed some light on how things will proceed over the next few days -- Suzanne?

HENRY: Thanks, Dan Simon in Rancho Mirage. We'll be back to you throughout the show. President Bush today set the tone for many of the tributes being paid to Gerald Ford. Mr. Bush focused on Ford's character and his attempts to bring the nation together after Watergate tore it apart. Our White House correspondent Elaine Quijano is with the president in Crawford, Texas. Elaine, what's the story?

ELAINE QUIJANO, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well Ed, President Bush today did not mention Watergate by name, but he did refer to the climate of division that existed post Watergate. He said that during that period, the American people saw that President Ford was a man who led with common sense and kind instincts.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

QUIJANO (voice-over): President Bush remembered former President Gerald Ford as a great man who helped lead the nation through a period of division and turmoil after Richard Nixon's resignation in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: For a nation that needed healing and for an office that needed a calm and steady hand, Gerald Ford came along when we needed him most. QUIJANO: Speaking from his ranch in Crawford, Texas, the president offered his condolences to former first lady Betty Ford and the Ford family.

GEORGE W. BUSH: President Ford was a great man who devoted the best years of his life in serving the United States. He was a true gentleman who reflected the best in America's character.

QUIJANO: It was just before 11:00 p.m. Eastern Tuesday when President Bush's chief of staff, Josh Bolton, called him with the news. President Bush then tried unsuccessfully to contact Betty Ford. About an hour later in an arranged call, the president expressed to her his personal condolences.

The ties between George W. Bush's White House and the Ford administration run deep. Vice President Dick Cheney once served as President Ford's chief of staff. And in a written statement, Cheney said he was proud to have done so.

Of Ford's leadership during the troubled post-Watergate era, Cheney said quote, "America needed strength, wisdom, and good judgment, and those qualities came to us in the person of Gerald R. Ford."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

QUIJANO: And President Bush has ordered flags on government buildings to be flown at half-staff for 30 days in honor of President Ford, and though the funeral arrangements have not yet been announced by the Ford family, White House spokesman Scott Stanzel says President Bush does plan to attend. Ed?

MALVEAUX: And Elaine, it's very interesting to note Ford proteges, of course, who are part of the Bush administration: the Vice President Cheney, former secretary of defense Rumsfeld, former secretary of state James Baker, all of them perhaps also attending the funeral arrangements as well. But clearly a connection between the Bush administration and Ford.

QUIJANO: Certainly. And that is something that, as I said, does run very deeply. We should mention that the vice president, by the way, was notified around 11:35, we learned, from his office today, 11:35 Eastern time last night.

Apparently, an aide to the vice president was told first by the Ford family and then shortly around 11:35 or thereafter is when the vice president himself learned of this. But you're absolutely right, very close, deep ties between this Bush White House, certainly, and the Ford family -- Suzanne?

HENRY: Thank you, Elaine Quijano in Crawford, Texas.

Top Democrats and Democrats are striking a note of bipartisanship in sharing their memories of Gerald Ford and their condolences for his family. With that part of the story, our Brian Todd is tracking it. Brian? BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Ed, Gerald Ford was among America's oldest living former presidents. Now that title falls to George Herbert Walker Bush. The 41st president spoke out a short while ago about the passing of a member of that elite men who have served in the Oval Office.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE H.W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're all familiar with his healing the wounds of the United States after Watergate, but he was typical Gerald Ford. It never went to his head that he was president and a truly remarkable man. And we send Betty and the kids and the rest of their family, our family's love.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD: The other living former presidents also are remembering Gerald Ford as a unifying political force. Jimmy Carter, who defeated Ford in the 1976 presidential election, calls Ford, quote, "a man of highest integrity whose lifelong dedication to helping others touched the lives of countless people."

Former President Bill Clinton and Senator Hillary Clinton issued a statement saying "Gerald Ford brought Americans together during a difficult chapter in our history with strength, integrity and humility."

On the brink of a power shift on Capitol Hill, Democratic and Republican leaders are of one mind about Gerald Ford, who also served in the GOP leadership of the House. Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is praising Ford's, quote, "fair and reliable leadership."

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid paid tribute to Ford's "grace and bipartisanship." Outgoing House Speaker Dennis Hastert calls Ford, quote, "a unifier, a statesman and an everyman." And Republican Senator John McCain says Ford was a man of "great moral character."

Lawmakers at the center of a divided Capitol remembering a man who promoted healing in an even more trying political era. Ed, Suzanne?

HENRY: Thank you, Brian Todd, for that report.

Coming up, Saddam Hussein's farewell letter before he goes to the gallows. We'll tell you what the ousted Iraqi leader is saying about his death sentence and the future of nation he once ruled.

MALVEAUX: And up next, he ran with and lost with Gerald Ford in his 1976 presidential campaign and he went on to try to capture the White House himself. Former senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole will be our guest.

HENRY: And actor and comedian Chevy Chase had a powerful influence over the way Americans viewed Ford when he was president. Did his stumbling portrayal make Ford an embarrassment or more endearing? You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HENRY: It was 1976. Gerald Ford was making his first attempt at being elected to the White House after inheriting the presidency from Richard Nixon, then pardoning him.

MALVEAUX: At Ford's side in that turbulent election year, running mate Bob Dole. Bob Dole thank you so much. This is the first time you're speaking since we have heard this bad news here in THE SITUATION ROOM. When did you last see Ford?

BOB DOLE, FORMER FORD RUNNING MATE: I had an opportunity to visit President Ford at the Mayo Clinic in August. I was there to help dedicate a veterans memorial and he was in the Mayo Clinic and I stopped by and spent about 30 minutes visiting with him. And he was very, very fragile condition then.

And at that time, he wasn't able to speak. He was able to -- I think he knew I was there, but we kind of conversed through his son, Michael. Mike was there, and he kind of helped us along.

MALVEAUX: And you were his running mate. Tell us about that special relationship.

DOLE: We were friends too, that's first. We've been friends since 1961 when I came to Congress. He was already there. And when he became Republican leader in '65, it was three votes in Kansas that put him over the top, which he never forgot.

But we sort of had a Rose Garden strategy in '76. He stayed in the Rose Garden and sent me into the briar patch and I was supposed to go out and mix it up and I guess I did. But he put on a tremendous effort the last two or three weeks of the campaign and we were 30 points behind at one time and, you know, ended up very close, very, very close.

But I think the strength of Ford partly was he never sought the presidency. He wasn't elected vice president. He wasn't elected president. He had no obligation to any group or any individual.

And he had -- you know, he had a free hand, and that was an asset. Plus, he understood, he knew how to count, and he knew Republicans were in the minority and he knew to get anything done he need to reach across the aisle. And he had a lot of friends on the other side.

HENRY: And now, you see the Capitol so divided these days.

DOLE: Yes.

HENRY: You were a creature of the Senate, he was a creature of the House. Was that part of the bond you shared -- that sort of reaching across the aisle we don't see now? Can you reflect a bit on how things have changed over these last 25-30 years? DOLE: It seems to me, without being critical because I'm not there now, but it seems to me it has changed a bit. It's more personal now. I mean, politics has always been a rough and tumble game, and of course he was a party leader. He carried the flag for the Republicans, and Democrats didn't always agree with Gerald Ford, the Republican leader or Gerald Ford, the president.

But he understood, you know, the limits, how far you can go. And he understood when it was time to reach out, whether it's Speaker Albert or Speaker McCormack or Speaker O'Neill, that's going way back before you probably were both born. But in any event ...

HENRY: What do you think also, when you talk about the rough and tumble of politics, let's talk about the pardon of Richard Nixon. People now are saying, boy it was a heroic move. Back then, it was much more unpopular. Talk about that time.

DOLE: He dropped 40 points in popularity, I think, almost 40 points on the pardon of Nixon. You talk act tough choices. And it surely cost him election in '76, that and the economy was in the tank, too. That didn't help much either.

But I think the pardon was the right thing to do from the standpoint of the country's interest. But from the political self- interest it was probably the wrong thing to do. So, it demonstrated to me that President Ford would put the country first, which is very important.

MALVEAUX: Obviously, the two of you were very close and politics aside, give us a sense of what he was like as a man, as a friend, and what it was like for you to hear the news today.

DOLE: Well, he's like somebody you'd like to have as a neighbor. Just a regular person, a regular guy, know what you saw is what you got. I mean, you got Gerry Ford, and he was born in Omaha, Nebraska, grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, beat an incumbent Congressman, got into politics at an early age, was a great football player, graduate upper third of his class at Yale Law School.

But beyond all of that, he was just a nice guy. You could sit down on the House floor, and I've done it dozen of times when he was the leader and I was just a little something in the House, and sat down and talked to him about your family or about anything. And he always had time. You always had access if you wanted to see him.

I think the same is true when he went to the White House. It sort of changed, sort of an open-door policy at the White House. Democrat or Republican, if you knew Gerry Ford, you probably had access.

HENRY: Senator, can you also talk, when you talk about family, about his relationship with Betty Ford. I recall when ...

DOLE: Well, they were a team, no question about it. And as I look back on it, you know, I don't remember all the details, but, you know, that was always first in his life, his family. And the four children, Betty, and she's been by his side through thick and through thin, and they've helped each other along the way. But just a nice guy. You know, kind of people you really like -- there are a lot of people like that in America, don't misunderstand me, but he came along, the right man, the right place, and the right time when the country was in turmoil and helped heal the nation, which is remarkable.

HENRY: How did he bury the hatchet with Ronald Reagan? When you were in the rough and tumble of the '76 campaign, that rough primary challenge, and then by 1980, he and Reagan were talking about potentially ...

DOLE: How about a ticket. I was there in Detroit. That was pretty exciting stuff. But didn't happen. But probably shouldn't have happened in retrospect. A lot of talk about it.

And in '76, I think there may have been a little disappointment that maybe, you know, feeling on some of the Ford people that Reagan could have done more, but I met with President, Governor Reagan or ex- Governor Reagan in '76, I was sort of the liaison, and he was supportive, but, you know, they had a tough contest. It wasn't decided until, what, midnight the night before the convention was supposed to start in Kansas City?

So, it all worked out, I think, quite well. And after being defeated by President Carter, he and Carter became fast friends and did a lot of worthwhile things. And it really should make American people feel good about politics and maybe some politicians.

MALVEAUX: Tell us something that we don't know about President Ford, a special story or a moment that you shared.

DOLE: It happened in Russell, Kansas, one of the metropolitan areas in America. And that was our first stop on the campaign trail, and we'd had a big speech at the courthouse where I was the featured speaker.

Then we went by my mother's to have fried chicken and she locked the door and couldn't find the key. We seldom locked our doors in those days in Russell, Kansas, but for some reason she did that day.

And here was the President of the United States standing on the stoop waiting for my mother to find the key, and of course she was a nervous wreck. I think her picture was in the "New York Times" the next day, as I recall.

But, you know, he just -- he didn't grumble. He said, well, we'll look for it together. And that's -- that was Gerald Ford to me, Gerry Ford. It wasn't Mr. President. It was Mr. President, but in the House, it was Gerry Ford.

HENRY: And if he were here today, what would you tell him about what you think his legacy will be?

DOLE: I think it's a profile in decency and courage and integrity.

HENRY: And what in particular -- we know about the pardon, but what other aspects of his presidency, beyond the pardon, do you think exhibit that?

DOLE: Well, I think the so-called Helsinki Accords, when he traveled to Helsinki, Finland, and it was all about human rights and all about recognizing sovereign nations. He was criticized for that at the time, but I think it turned out to be a very responsible act on his part.

But I think transcending all that is this ability he had, the personality he had to sort of go from place to place and without, you know, rubbing people the wrong way.

He's a good man. And I think if you want a definition of Gerald Ford in three words, it's a good man.

MALVEAUX: Is this a tough day for you, Mr. Senator, today?

DOLE: Pardon?

MALVEAUX: Is this a tough day?

DOLE: Tough day. I mean, everybody knew it was going to be happening, but I think, you know, you never want it to happen. And I'm to be -- proud to be one of the honorary pallbearers at his funeral.

HENRY: And you will be.

DOLE: Yes.

HENRY: And what goes through your mind -- you've obviously -- President Reagan has passing away just in the last couple years, now President Ford. What do you think about these people that you slugged it out with...

DOLE: ... that's that generation which I'm part of, you know, the generation that is disappearing. And he was one of the last World War II presidents, President Carter, President Bush and that was it, and President Reagan. But one of the last four.

But, you know, he left his prints. He left -- I think history's going to judge Gerald Ford and give him very high marks.

HENRY: Thank you very much, Senator Dole, for a very interesting conversation.

MALVEAUX: Thank you for being here in the SITUATION ROOM.

And still ahead, making peace with his maker or simply defiant to the end? With his execution pending, Saddam Hussein has his say one more time.

HENRY: And later, remembering former President Gerald Ford: in the eyes of those who knew him best, his former White House aides.

You're in the SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: All his appeals are exhausted. He is to be put to death within one month. Now Saddam Hussein has issued what can only be described as his farewell letter.

CNN's Ryan Chilcote joins us from Baghdad with the latest -- Ryan.

RYAN CHILCOTE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, that farewell letter was posted on a Web site associated with Saddam's Baath Party, the party that Saddam led when he was in power. It was posted yesterday, but it was written, according to Saddam's defense attorney, back in November shortly after he led that the Iraqi High Tribunal had sentenced him to death.

In the letter, Saddam says he is ready to sacrifice himself for the Iraqi people, saying, quote, "It's to God to decide if he wants me to join the pious and martyrs in heaven or to postpone this as he sees fit. He is our creator and we all ultimately return to him."

In that same letter, Saddam encouraged, urged Iraqis to unite against invaders, against the invaders, as he put it.

As for the execution, we're expecting it any time now. According to Iraqi law, it has to happen by January 26th. However, many people think it could happen much sooner, perhaps as early as this week. At least, that's what the Iraqi prime minister has said earlier he would like to see. He said he'd like to see Saddam hanged by the end of this year -- Suzanne and Ed.

HENRY: Thanks.

Ryan Chilcote in Baghdad.

Another major story we're keeping an eye on.

Coming up next, Cheney and Rumsfeld. Today they don't speak for the Bush administration. They remember their former White House boss, the late President Gerald Ford.

Also ahead, we'll speak to the man who did much of the talking for then President Ford, former White House press secretary Ron Nessen.

You're in the SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: You're in the SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information are arriving all the time.

HENRY: Happening now, tributes and memories of a president who served in turbulent political times, Gerald R. Ford. Flags on government buildings are flying at half-staff in honor of the 38th president, who died yesterday. Plans for a state funeral now are in the making.

MALVEAUX: Also this hour: It's official. Former Democratic Senator and vice presidential nominee John Edwards will declare tomorrow that he is, indeed, running for president. He will make the announcement in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans.

HENRY: And a new development in Iraq involving two Iranians the U.S. military is holding there. CNN has learned there's evidence that the Iranians were involved in bringing deadly IED technology into the country. We will have a live report from the Pentagon in our next hour.

Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Ed Henry.

MALVEAUX: I'm Suzanne Malveaux. And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Amid an outpouring of praise for Gerald Ford, reminders that he was a president in a painful and challenging political era -- a recent poll asked Americans which president in the last three decades will go down in history as outstanding or above average, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter top the list. Gerald Ford came in fifth, between the first President Bush, and the current President Bush, who came in last.

When Bush 41 formed his administration, he reached back into the Ford era to fill some of the most important jobs.

Our senior analyst, Jeff Greenfield, has more on Ford's living legacy.

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SENIOR ANALYST: Ed, Suzanne, good afternoon.

Most of the focus on Gerald Ford's presidency is bound to be on Watergate. It's what brought him to the presidency. But there are significant political legacies to Ford's public career.

For instance:

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GREENFIELD (voice-over): When Richard Nixon chose House Minority Leader Ford to replace Vice President Agnew, who had resigned in the wake of a bribery scandal, he thought it was a masterstroke, that it would gain him approval in the Congress. In fact, the choice doomed Nixon. Had the polarizing Agnew remained a heartbeat away, it is highly unlikely the Democratic Congress would have pushed Nixon out and put Agnew in the Oval Office.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RONALD REAGAN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If I am not the nominee...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREENFIELD: Here's another. When Ronald Reagan challenged Ford for the Republican nomination in '76, Ford barely survived. No incumbent president in modern times came that close to losing his party's nod.

Ford was forced to dump Vice President Rockefeller, the symbol of the Eastern liberal, elite Republican, and replace him on the ticket with Senator Bob Dole. And while Reagan's half-hearted backing of Ford may have Ford politically, the increasingly conservative base of the GOP never held this against Reagan when he won the White House four years later.

Some of the political fallout from the Ford years continues to this day in very significant ways. Ford's chief of staff, the youngest ever, was Dick Cheney. Ford's defense secretary was Donald Rumsfeld. Both saw the Congress respond to President Nixon's use, or misuse, of executive authority by sharply curbing presidential power.

The Congress cut off funding for South Vietnam. Its hearings into CIA abuses put sharp limits on intelligence agencies. Cheney, in particular, saw this as a dangerous incursion into presidential power. And, as vice president, he, along with Rumsfeld, in his second tenure as defense chief, pushed executive power to the limit.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE H.W. BUSH: No policy bias.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREENFIELD: Ford's CIA director was George Bush, the first one. He responded to conservative complaints about CIA intelligence gaffes by appointing the so-called Team B, which produced grave warnings about Soviet power, warnings whose accuracy has been much debated.

But the controversy produced a strong belief, particularly among so-called neoconservatives, that the CIA was risk-averse, unwilling to properly spot danger.

This was one reason why Rumsfeld and Cheney were so involved in the run-up to the Iraq war in intelligence matters. Their critics charge that this led to an eagerness to accept the idea that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GREENFIELD: In later life, Ford and his old adversary Jimmy Carter joined forces to promote a series of political and civic reforms.

It was just one more example of why Gerald Ford was held in such unusual affection on both sides of the political aisle -- Suzanne, Ed.

HENRY: Yes, Jeff, a living legacy indeed.

Now we want to bring in a man who knew Gerald Ford well, the political challenges he faced then, and how history may remember him.

MALVEAUX: Ron Nessen served as White House press secretary in the Ford administration, and he joins us now.

HENRY: Welcome, Mr. Nessen.

RON NESSEN, FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Thank you.

(CROSSTALK)

HENRY: We wanted to ask you, first of all, what's going through your mind right now? When was the last time you spoke to President Ford?

NESSEN: I saw President Ford about a year ago. We always had a staff reunion dinner once a year. Former White House staff people would get together with the president.

For many years, he came to Washington for the dinner. And, then, as he aged and his health began to decline, we went out to Palm Springs for the dinner. And, last year, he and Betty appeared by videotape, but -- or this year, they did. Last year was the last -- at the last -- at the dinner was the last time I saw President Ford.

MALVEAUX: And, Ron, what is your fondest memory of President Ford?

NESSEN: Well, I think the thing about President Ford was, he never wanted to be president, never expected to be president, wanted to serve one more term in the House, and then retire to spend more time with Betty and their children.

And, so, his personality was not distorted, as some politicians' personals are, by lusting after the president for 15, 20 years, where every word, every action is shaped by: How's this going to look when I run for president?

He never had any of that. He was just a natural person. He was, you know, like the guy next door. And I think, if you want one revealing example of that, when President Nixon resigned, it took the Nixons a few days to move their stuff out of the White House.

Then it took another few days for them to paint the living quarters in the White House. So, for the first 10 days that he was president of the United States, President Ford lived in a little rambler on a street called Crown View Drive in a suburb of Washington called Alexandria, Virginia.

And I have always thought that that was so symbolic. He was the guy next door. In this case, he was literally the guy next door. He was the president next door. And I think that's what he brought to the presidency, the common-man approach. HENRY: I wanted to talk, Ron, a little bit about his sense of humor as well. Obviously, we know Chevy Chase basically made a career as a comedian -- at least kicked off his career -- by making fun of Gerald Ford.

You ended up hosting "Saturday Night Live" once on NBC. A lot of people remember how memorable, indeed, that was.

I want to play a quick clip from that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

CHEVY CHASE, ACTOR: Ron -- Ron, I can take a joke only so far. I won't have this high office ridiculed. I won't be stumbling around and fooling around...

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

CHASE: ... making a basic fool of myself for some comedy night -- night comedy.

(LAUGHTER)

CHASE: I don't need to prove that I can fall down like Chevy Chase or be an athlete. Everybody knows I'm an athlete.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HENRY: Now, obviously, it must have been somewhat difficult, because he was actually a good athlete. And while there were some moments where he slipped, he got that image.

How did he take it privately? Did he have a sense of humor about it? How did he deal with it?

NESSEN: Well, he had a very good sense of humor about it, not only private, but publicly. Remember, he had three teenaged children living in the White House. So, he was very familiar with "Saturday Night Live." That was the very first season of "Saturday Night Live," was 1975.

So, he was well aware of it. And then Chevy Chase came down to Washington as the entertainer that year at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner. So, he did his whole Jerry Ford bit with Jerry Ford sitting about two feet away from him.

Then, Ford got up. And he had a former Hollywood joke-writer on his payroll as a speechwriter. And they had prepared Ford to put down Chevy Chase by self-deprecating humor. That's the only kind of humor. So, he made fun of himself. And he just broke up the crowd at the correspondents dinner that year. Well, he invited Chevy Chase to come to the White House next day. Chevy Chase loved to play tennis, and so did Jerry Ford. So, they played tennis together on the White House tennis court. Then, a few years after he left the White House, there was a program at the Jerry Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan, called "Humor and the Presidency." And Chevy Chase was invited to participate in this conference.

So, yes, he could laugh at himself. He could make fun of himself. And -- and I think that was another sign of this common-man approach that he brought to the presidency.

HENRY: Ron Nessen, former press secretary to President Gerald Ford, we appreciate you joining us on what must be a difficult day. Thank you.

NESSEN: Thank you.

HENRY: And coming up: more on comedian Chevy Chase and President Ford. Some say Chase wouldn't be a household name if not for President Ford. Our Bill Schneider examines the often tense, often funny relationship between the two men, what you just heard about.

MALVEAUX: And we will also bring you a memorable moment of our Wolf Blitzer's interview with President Ford from the 2000 Republican National Convention. They spoke only hours before President Ford checked himself into the hospital.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Former President Gerald Ford is being remembered as a healer and a man of complete integrity. He served in the White House only two-and-a-half years, but the impact of his presidency is etched on the American consciousness.

Joining us for...

HENRY: Today -- for today's "Strategy Session" are Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and her Republican counterpart, Bay Buchanan, president of American Cause.

And I find it interesting that, even back in the 1976 campaign, you guys were on opposite sides back then.

(LAUGHTER)

HENRY: Why don't you reflect a little bit first, Bay? You were working for Ronald Reagan, tough primary campaign against Gerald Ford.

BAY BUCHANAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It sure was.

And it's interesting. Gerald Ford really played a critical role in the Reagan revolution. He was the president only two-and-a-half -- less than two-and-a-half years, I guess. But he was unelected, and he was a moderate. Ronald Reagan would not have run against him, I do not believe, if he had been elected.

But, since he was unelected, he felt it was only fair that the primary voters in the Republican Party had an opportunity to elect somebody that they would choose. And he ran against him. And, while he didn't win, he really, during that election, really planted the seeds for what became the Reagan revolution.

I don't know that Reagan could have been as successful as he was in '80 without that '76 run. And it wouldn't have happened without Gerald Ford.

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I was on the opposite side of the fence, as you can imagine. I was in high school down in Louisiana. Jimmy Carter, Southerner -- I was so excited to get involved in my first campaign. I wasn't 18, although I knew about Gerald Ford. I knew that he signed -- that he supported civil rights legislation. Still, I wanted to see a Southerner in the White House.

MALVEAUX: And I think it's really interesting, the Detroit -- that -- the Republican National Convention back in 1980.

What would have happened, really, if you go back and realize that perhaps it was a Reagan-Ford ticket? There was a lot of negotiation, discussion going on.

BUCHANAN: Oh, there sure was.

MALVEAUX: And perhaps we would have never seen the Bushes in office.

Well...

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN: No question.

MALVEAUX: No question?

BUCHANAN: There's no question.

Those of us that had worked for Reagan in '76. And then we -- I stayed with him, of course, right into '80. The conservatives felt that, when it was -- they were negotiating with Ford, actually, it was Henry Kissinger who was on the side, and they were doing a lot of negotiating.

They were basically saying, you know, we would like charge of the Defense Department and maybe the foreign policy. And Reagan, you can have this.

And, so, there was -- and that's what upset Ronald Reagan, is that there was some kind of negotiating as to who was going to take charge. And he says, look, if I win, I'm going to be president.

He picked up that phone that night and called Bush, George Bush. George Bush was in his pajamas, we were told. And he had no expectation. There was no press in the base of that hotel expecting it. We didn't expect -- the people who worked for Reagan did not expect it to be George Bush.

But, because of all of that, that's what started -- allowed George Bush to make their way into the White House.

BRAZILE: Of course, I didn't know Gerald Ford like Bay.

But William Coleman Jr. was the first African-American appointed in a Republican Cabinet. And Secretary Coleman often takes me to lunch. He treats, of course. And he tells me a lot about that era, especially a time where Republicans were moderate, when they supported civil rights legislation.

And he often talks about how Gerald Ford was just a very decent person who stood up during the 1960s. He was against the poll tax, which led to the Voting Rights Act. He also supported affirmative action.

In 1999, he wrote an op-ed in "The New York Times," and he recalled his childhood when he was a football player for the Wolverines. And one of the players could not go down to Georgia, and Gerald Ford protested.

So, Secretary Ford (sic) will be one of the pallbearers. But he said today he lost a good friend.

BUCHANAN: You know what's amazing is this man, Gerald Ford, was an incredible athlete.

He might have been the greatest athlete ever to become president. I mean, he not only played in university football as a star player; he was asked to go into professional football, and instead went to Yale, also showing that he was a very smart man.

But he came across, and he had many occasions in the White House where he was kind of bumbling, and he did things. You know, he hit his head coming out of the airplane, and everybody -- oh, the cameras got a hold of him. And people in the country started thinking he was a bit of bumbling fellow. He was a terrific athlete and, also, clearly a very smart man, having...

BRAZILE: Well, he was also a man in the House.

And one of the things that struck me today...

BUCHANAN: Sure.

BRAZILE: ... was the number of press releases that came from, of course, speaker-elect Pelosi, as well as Mr. Reid.

But, also, John Dingell, one of the longest serving members of the House, said that he will miss his friendship. And they served together in the Congress. Dale Kildee, many other Democrats are releasing statements. It once again showed that this was a president who knew how to work with Democrats and who also knew how to cross the political divide.

HENRY: That's right, a rare moment of bipartisanship right now in a very polarized Washington, indeed.

Thank you, Bay Buchanan...

BUCHANAN: Certainly.

HENRY: ... as well as Donna Brazile.

BRAZILE: Thank you.

HENRY: Thank you.

MALVEAUX: And up next: Wolf Blitzer's one-on-one with President Ford -- a special look back at their conversation at the 2000 Republican Convention.

HENRY: And Chevy Chase made American laugh, at Gerald Ford's expense. Our Bill Schneider has a live report on their complicated relationship.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Carol Costello joins us now from New York with a closer look at other stories making news -- Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Suzanne.

Hello to all of you.

Somalia's government predicts its forces will take Mogadishu back from radical Islamists without a fight. Thousands of Somali and Ethiopian troops today drove the Islamist fighters out of Balad. It's the last major town before the capital city, which has been a rebel stronghold. A government spokesman says Islamist forces are crumbling fast. The internal fighting has been going on for the past week.

To Pope Benedict XVI, a letter from the president of Iran -- it was delivered to the pontiff by Iran's former minister. The Vatican won't reveal what President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's letter says, but Iran's state-run news agency says it centers on Saturday's U.N. Security Council vote approving sanctions against Tehran. The council imposed the sanctions because Iran refuses to stop enriching uranium, a key step toward nuclear capability.

A new wrinkle in the case of the poisoned Russian ex-spy. Prosecutors in Moscow now say they are investigating the possible role of a former owner of the Yukos oil company in the death of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko. They did not explain the basis for the allegations against Leonid Nevzlin. A spokesman for Nevzlin dismisses the prosecutor's claims as ridiculous.

That's a look at the headlines right now -- back to you, Ed.

HENRY: Thank you very much, Carol.

When Republicans first made George W. Bush their presidential nominee in 2000, Gerald Ford was there. And so was our own Wolf Blitzer.

MALVEAUX: Wolf interviewed former President Ford at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. And they discussed the man who would be the 43rd commander in chief.

Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GERALD FORD, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Both Betty and I are really overcome, Wolf, because we have such wonderful memories of our term in the White House, short as it was. But the opportunity to do things constructively at home and abroad, well, coming here tonight brings back all those great, great memories.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Tell us what you think about this Republican candidate?

FORD: Which -- well, I'm all for George W. I was from the very beginning. And, of course, Dick Cheney is an old-time friend of mine. He worked for me as my chief of staff when I was president. He did a superb job in the Defense Department during the Persian Gulf War. He ran and served in the Congress.

He's got an outstanding career in public service. I think he will add tremendously to the Bush election campaign, and will be a first-class vice president when they win.

BLITZER: Are you surprised by the criticism that has been leveled against Dick Cheney since he got the phone call from the -- from the governor of Texas?

FORD: I'm very bothered by it, Wolf, because both Gore and Cheney served in the Congress together for six years. They had identical voting records on gun control. They had almost identical voting records on abortion. And you would think that Cheney was a bad guy and Gore was a good person, when their voting recording were very similar.

BLITZER: Today, President Clinton was very outspoken in criticizing the Republican presidential candidate. Is that appropriate during this convention?

FORD: I never campaigned that way. When Jimmy Carter and I had a head-to-head contest for the presidency, we never got personal. I think it's unfortunate and wrong for President Clinton to get into this kind of a sharpshooting attack.

BLITZER: How did you like last night, the first night, General Powell and Mrs. Laura Bush?

FORD: They were a terrific team on the television. Of course, I think Colin Powell is going to be, I hope, a good secretary of defense, secretary of state. And, Laura, what a fine first lady.

BLITZER: What about his remarks urging Republicans to be more inclusive towards African-Americans, other minorities, and to maybe rethink the position of many of these Republicans on affirmative action?

FORD: Well, I think the party, as a whole, should follow Colin Powell's advice. That's the theme I have been preaching all the time in my 28 1/2 years in the House, and 2 1/2 years in the White House. We have to be the party to cover all minorities -- black, ethnic and so forth.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HENRY: That was our own Wolf Blitzer interviewing former President Gerald Ford, the late Gerald Ford, at the 2000 Republican Convention in Philadelphia. Certainly, he looked good there. He was clearly still following politics very closely.

MALVEAUX: Knew all the details.

And, of course, still to come: the lady behind the president. Our I-team looks at Betty Ford and her contribution to society.

HENRY: And the hunt for bin Laden. Is he in a safe haven somewhere between Afghanistan and Pakistan? Our Brian Todd will have a full report.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Let's take a look at some Associated Press photos of former President Ford, pictures likely to be in your newspaper tomorrow.

Here's President Ford visiting with musician Billy Preston and Beatle George Harrison at the White house. The president's son Jack arranged that visit.

Here, Mr. Ford lets former Soviet leader Brezhnev try on his fur coat prior to a summit.

And, in 1981, President Ford, Reagan -- and Nixon joined President Reagan in the Blue Room of the White house for a toast.

And, in this 1977 photo, the president and Mrs. Ford share a moment while packing their things at the White house.

And that's this hour's "Hot Shots," pictures often worth 1,000 words. HENRY: Now, following his swearing-in ceremony -- ceremony in August 1974, Gerald Ford said, in his inaugural address, "I am indebted to no man and only to one woman, my dear wife."

Former first lady Betty Ford's contributions are celebrated in detail online.

For more, let's bring in our Internet reporter, Jacki Schechner.

JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Ed, of course, Betty Ford well known for co-founding the Betty Ford Center, a drug and alcohol recovery treatment center in California. She set this up in 1982, after her own bout with chemical dependency.

On that Web site today is a statement from Betty Ford regarding the loss of her husband, saying, his life was filled with love of God, family, and country -- that same statement posted online at a Gerald Ford memorial Web site that has just been set up in the last 24 hours.

And, through this Web site, you can get links about Betty Ford's life. It talks about her past, how she was a fashion coordinator, a dancer, how she met and married Gerald Ford back in 1948. Of course, he became president in 1974. And, a month later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She long became an outspoken advocate of women's issues, especially women's health issues. She wrote an autobiography in 1978, and then another book in the late '80s detailing her recovery.

There's all sorts of videos and information online. CNN.com/situationroomblog, we will have all of the links for you there -- guys.

MALVEAUX: Thanks, Jacki.

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