Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Day Trippin' to the Ford Museum

“The “highlight” – if you want to call it that – of 1970s history in our country was the resignation of Richard Nixon.  I will never forget standing in the living room of my first apartment, two friends in chairs on either side of my black and white portable television (my college graduation gift to myself), watching the footage of Nixon’s farewell. To this day, I get a lump in my throat. U.S. Presidents should know better than to push the Constitution to the breaking point.

Jerry Ford inherited Nixon’s mess. Many were livid when he pardoned Nixon. Some of us felt he did the right thing. Most of my time in college was taken up on the national scene with Watergate and Vietnam. It was time for the country to move forward and cease being mired down in this morass of dysfunction.

We were fortunate enough to have Hugh Sloan visit us this spring at the History Center to talk about his experiences working for the Republican Party during Nixon’s re-election campaign. Sloan offered us an insider’s perspective on Watergate and has spent his life talking about this point in our history—not for personal financial gain—but to instill in all of us the need to question authority when it appears to be moving beyond its limits. What he had to say was profound.

Ford was also one who, had he known earlier on, would have been appalled at Nixon’s actions and those of his cronies. Ford was one of the “good guys”—a believer in that which is best about America and what our forefathers envisioned for this country.

Last weekend, my husband and I ventured up to Michigan to visit family in East Lansing and then over to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. As we were leaving Lansing, Aunt Sally inquired about my interest in Ford. Uncle Jim had worked in the Kennedy, Johnson and Carter administrations and she was wondering what this Democrat found so appealing about Ford. I told her he was the only Republican candidate for president for whom I’d ever voted. And I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

The Ford Museum in Grand Rapids is among the finest presidential museum I’ve seen and a tremendous look at the Watergate era and the 1970s. It’s well worth the day trip to Grand Rapids. There are many interactive elements that my husband finally had to pull himself away from or we would have spent the entire day there. The museum is that interesting.

“To Heal a Nation” is a book you can buy that contains the words of almost all of the panels within the museum. But the photos and graphics of newspaper front pages that are part of the actual exhibits are really what you need to see. There are gifts to the Fords, some of Mrs. Ford’s clothing (a veritable polyester paradise since it WAS the 1970s) and memorabilia from Ford’s athletic and Naval careers.

Gerald Ford was born in my home state of Nebraska. His mother left her abusive marriage and moved to Grand Rapids, marrying Gerald Ford, who adopted her son Leslie Lynch King and gave him the family name. In the Ford household there were three absolute rules: “Tell the truth, work hard, and come to dinner on time.”

Ford learned a number of life lessons as a youth from his time in school and athletics to scouting to the night his birth father showed up at the diner where the young Ford was washing dishes. King had started a new life and wasn’t afraid to brag about it to his son, even though he was now what we’d call a deadbeat dad. From these experiences, Ford learned, “There are two kinds of education you get in this world. One you get from others, and another you give yourself.”

Part of his education was likely his marriage to Elizabeth Bloomer. Betty Ford is one of my favorite first ladies. She wasn’t afraid to “tell it like it is”. From her breast cancer to her views on the ERA, Betty did not believe “that being First Lady should prevent me from expressing my views…Why should my husband’s job or yours prevent us from being ourselves? Being ladylike does not require silence.” She’s my kind of woman!

You’ll have to visit the museum to get the overall picture of Ford’s presidency, a short, non-elected administration that actually accomplished quite a bit despite what we thought at the time. Much happened in those few short years including the conclusion of the Vietnam War, when hundreds were evacuated from the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon. The staircase those people used is at the museum. Watching all of those people climb a staircase to a helicopter waiting on the embassy roof is another memory I doubt I’ll ever lose. Ford described it as “the saddest hour of my time in the White House.”

If you were a fan of Saturday Night Live back then, you likely remember Chevy Chase’s imitation of Ford as a bumbling doofus. But here are some quotes from Ford we’d do well to heed today.

“Throughout my political life…I was truthful to others. I expected others to be truthful with me.”

“I am indebted to no man and to only one woman—my dear wife….”

“A great nation cannot escape its responsibilities. Responsibilities abandoned today will return as more acute crises tomorrow.”

“History will judge this conference (Helsinki), not by what we say here today but by what we do tomorrow—not by the promises we make but by the promises we keep.”

Gerald Ford died at the age of 93 on December 26, 2006. He and his wife are buried on the grounds of the museum. A security guard told us that when Ford’s body lay in state at the museum, one of the Ford children was standing by the door at all times. The hand of everyone who had come to pay homage to the former President was shaken as they entered the museum.

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