Published posthumously in 2013, “Gerald R. Ford: An Honorable Life” is James Cannon’s second biography of the president he worked for as Domestic Policy Advisor. Cannon was previously a journalist and war correspondent, a political adviser to Governor Nelson Rockefeller and chief of staff for Senator Howard Baker. Cannon died in 2011 at the age of 93.
This 461-page biography seems to be the book Cannon originally intended to write in the early 1990s when he authored “Time and Chance: Gerald Ford’s Appointment with History.” While working on that book, the story of Ford’s early life captured the author’s focus and it would be two decades before Cannon returned to the task of more closely covering Ford’s presidency and retirement years.
It is quickly clear that this biography does not just supplement Cannon’s earlier book on Ford – it supplants it entirely, rendering the original work obsolete. The two books have much in common but “An Honorable Life” provides the reader more context, more color on certain historical events and much greater coverage of Ford’s presidency (accounting for about half of this book). But an eighteen-page Epilogue is all that is offered of Ford’s retirement years and the author’s final assessment of his character and legacy.
Readers of Cannon’s earlier book will recognize the author’s chief strengths: his coherent writing style, his significant insight into Ford’s political assets (and liabilities), and his ability to efficiently summarize complicated topics such as Watergate and Vietnam. But this newer biography also benefits greatly from Ford’s willingness to share his time and thoughts with the author.
This book also provides the reader with incremental insight into important supporting characters such as Betty Ford, Judge John Sirica and Nelson Rockefeller and, with the benefit of time and additional historical perspective, provides a more thorough and nuanced view of Watergate.
But like his earlier Ford biography, “An Honorable Life” is a relatively bland, matter-of-fact treatment of its subject. Ford’s life may not naturally lend itself to an engaging narrative or to breathtaking moments but Cannon’s style is never colorful or captivating. And although the author makes an effort to maintain balance toward his subject, there is never any doubt about Cannon’s reverence for Ford or his place in history.
Because this is essentially a political biography there are very few revelations regarding Ford’s personal life. Betty receives more coverage than in Cannon’s earlier work but Ford’s children are almost entirely ignored. Far more unfortunate, however, is that despite the author’s familiarity with Ford, the book is never able to paint a complete portrait of its subject and he remains a monochromatic, two-dimensional figure: honorable and ethical but also strangely distant and unknowable.
Overall, “Gerald R. Ford: An Honorable Life” proves to be much like Ford himself: competent, straightforward and unexciting. Readers in search of a thrilling narrative, a penetrating analysis of Ford’s character or an engaging account of his personal life will be disappointed. But anyone seeking a well-informed review of Gerald Ford’s childhood and public career will walk away satisfied if not quite enchanted.
Overall rating: 3½ stars