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OBITUARIES : Robert T. Hartmann, 1917 - 2008

Presidential aide wrote key speech for Ford

April 16, 2008|Jon Thurber | Times Staff Writer

Robert T. Hartmann, a close aide to Gerald R. Ford who drafted many of the president's speeches, including his first address to the nation after President Nixon left office that proclaimed "My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over," has died. He was 91.

Hartmann, who spent more than two decades as a journalist for the Los Angeles Times, died April 11 of cardiac arrest at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C., according to his family.

Although Hartmann also wrote the "I'm a Ford, not a Lincoln" speech for Ford's acceptance of the Republican Party's 1976 presidential nomination, the "national nightmare" speech would be his legacy.

In his book "Palace Politics" (1980), Hartmann recalled that Ford was dubious about using the line and wondered, "Isn't that a little hard on Dick?" Hartmann threatened to quit if the phrase was cut.

"Junk all the rest of the speech if you want to, but not that. That is going to be the headline in every paper, the lead in every story. . . . This has been a national nightmare and it's got to be stopped. You're the only one who can" stop it, Hartmann said he told Ford.

Born April 8, 1917, in Rapid City, S.D., Hartmann was the son of a doctor. He grew up in Beverly Hills and upstate New York before graduating from Stanford University in 1938.

He was soon a Times reporter but joined the Navy in 1941 and served until the end of World War II. He was on the staff of two admirals, Chester W. Nimitz and William F. Halsey.

After the war, Hartmann rejoined The Times and became an editorial writer in 1948. He was chief of the paper's Washington bureau in 1954. Among the stories he covered was Nixon's "Kitchen Debate" in Moscow with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

Briefly, Hartmann headed the paper's Mediterranean and Middle East coverage from Rome, then left for a job with the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization in Washington.

Rep. Melvin R. Laird (R-Wis.) hired Hartmann to edit reports by the House Republican Conference. Hartmann eventually wound up as minority sergeant at arms for the House of Representatives from 1969-73.

He then became chief of staff to Ford, who was appointed vice president after the resignation of Spiro T. Agnew on tax evasion charges.

When Ford was sworn in as president on Aug. 9, 1974, Hartmann was his first staff appointment. He was named counselor to the president and given Cabinet rank.

In that position, Hartmann supervised the White House research, correspondence and writing staff, and personally drafted and edited most of Ford's speeches and statements. He also took part in White House policy meetings.

In his memoirs, Hartmann noted that the easygoing Ford got along with almost everyone -- except Ronald Reagan, then governor of California.

"Ford thought Reagan was a phony, and Reagan thought Ford was a lightweight, and neither one felt the other was fit to be president," Hartmann wrote.

Hartmann also was critical of the many Nixon aides who stayed on in the White House after Ford took office. He noted that although Ford's decision to pardon Nixon didn't help Ford politically, he might have fared better if he had rid the White House of Nixon's loyalists and put in his own team.

Ford lost the reelection in 1976 to little-known former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter.

Hartmann is survived by his wife of 65 years, the former Roberta Sankey; a daughter; a son; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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jon.thurber@latimes.com

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