This post is about my visit to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, MI. But most of what I was inspired to write about was not about the museum. Instead, I was inspired to write about the man. According to the native Cayuse people, every persons life is a story. The Ford Presidential Museum does a good job telling the story of Gerald Ford. And the story that is Gerald Ford begins with a rough start.
Sixteen days after giving birth to her first child, 20-year-old Dorothy King fled her short 10 month abusive marriage. The incident that caused her to flee was her husband taking a butcher knife and threatening to kill her and her newborn son. She took her baby and sought refuge at her sisters home near Chicago. She then moved back to her parents home in Grand Rapids, MI where she and her young son, Leslie Lynch King, Jr would live for the next 3 years.
Dorothy eventually got a divorce and remarried. She would go on to have three more sons with her new husband and live a long and peaceful life in Grand Rapids. But her first son, the baby boy who she fled Nebraska with, would become a significant man. At age 24, the boy would change his name to that of his step father, Gerald R. Ford. He would go on to become the 38th President of the United States.
A Different Presidential Museum
This was just one of many historical tidbits that I learned during my visit to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. This was the 7th Presidential Library & Museum that I’ve visited and I considered it one of the best. I was in college during Ford’s presidential term, so I was very familiar with the history and most of what I saw at the museum. But, the tone and focus of the museum is unique from most of the others that I’ve visited.
Many of the Presidential Libraries & Museums focus on the history at the time, personal artifacts, and accomplishments of the President. Truman’s is all about post WWII and the challenges with Russia and Korea. Eisenhower’s focuses much on Ike’s tenure during WWII. FDR’s is all about the Great Depression and WWII. Johnson’s showcases his rise in politics and his significant legislative accomplishments.
The Ford Museum devotes a good deal of space to the history of Watergate, Nixon’s second term, and the economic challenges of the mid 1970’s. It has on display some interesting artifacts. But the overarching theme of the Museum is about Ford the man and his character.
Visuals of Ford (childhood, young adult, congressman, and then President) dominate the walls. The imagery is very effective in telling the story that Ford was a good, sincere, and honorable man who maintained his small town mid-western values.
Ford the Man
There are plaques and pictures about his Boy Scout days and becoming an eagle scout. Another section shows hIs time as an athlete at the University of Michigan, his time as a Navy officer during WWII, and then becoming a US Congressman at age 35.
Ford served in Congress for 25 years. His tenure and accomplishments were modest. He did serve on the Warren Commission. But he never put forth or wrote any legislation in his 25 years. Instead, he viewed himself as a negotiator and reconciler.
Much like Truman, Ford never sought the Vice Presidency or the Presidency. He was about to retire from Congress when Spiro Agnew resigned. Nixon needed someone who could help shepherd his agenda through a divided Congress and Ford, who was the Republican Minority Leader, was the perfect choice. Ford was well liked and had many friends on the both sides of the aisle.
Becoming Vice President
Ford was nominated to serve as VP just as the Watergate scandal was unfolding. He was the first person to fill the Vice Presidency under the terms of the 25 Amendment.
He served as VP for a just a year. Staying true to his character, he remained loyal to Nixon until the infamous tapes of recorded conversations were uncovered. A week after the tapes were released, Nixon resigned and Ford was sworn is as President. He was the only person to serve as President and Vice President without having been voted in by the people.
Ford was very aware of this when he humbly said the following words during his swearing-in ceremony – “I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your president by your ballots, and so I ask you to confirm me as your president with your prayers.” He also said – “I have not sought this enormous responsibility, but I will not shirk it.”
The Watergate Drama
I remember watching the Watergate hearings on TV during the summer on 1973. They were on almost every day. Senators Sam Ervin and Howard Baker headed the committee that gathered evidence and testimony which lead to the indictments of over 40 people.
It was high drama. New revelations came out each week and then almost daily. The Nation was fixated upon it. What did the President know and when did he know it? Each day we waited for a new shoe to drop, the next resignation, the next indictment. When those infamous tapes came out, it was confirmed beyond a doubt – our President was a crook.
Nixon was the lead villain is this tragic drama. And like in any drama, it was expected that the villain would get what was due him. To have Justice served on him for his crimes. Many thirsted to see it happen.
But Gerald Ford took away the climax in the drama when he pardoned Nixon. The drama ended and the bad guy got to ride off into the sunset. It wasn’t suppose to happen this way. Many felt that a bargain had been made. Ford’s motives, judgement, competence, and character were questioned. Had he been involved in Watergate? Had a bargain been made with Nixon? Ford was highly criticized for the pardon.
Ford Redeemed the Nation
As I stood in the museum and reflected back (now with a better understanding of the man), I could see the motives in Ford’s action. Nixon was deeply involved in a political scandal. He had lied, obstructed justice, and tried to cover it up. He deserved to be booted from office. And he did the right thing by resigning.
As our new President, Gerald Ford needed the country to move past the Watergate scandal. The pardon was less about letting Nixon go unpunished and more about the county moving forward. Ford wanted us to move on, to put the Watergate scandal behind us. He wanted us to let go of our need to exact justice and vengeance upon the villain. Ford wanted us to heal, to restore the faith and confidence in our government. He wanted to take something that had gone bad and make it good again.
It took much courage to issue that pardon. But, it worked. We quickly forgot about Nixon and the blemish, embarrassment, and stain that was Watergate. Ford had redeemed us.
Ford paid a high price for that redemption. He lost the 1976 election and for many, his legacy was tainted. He was the man who pardoned that crook Nixon.
But after my visit to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, I know that the story that is Gerald Ford is all about a man who did what was right and good, regardless of the personal consequences. It’s a story about a good, righteous, and humble man who redeemed a nation.
Henry Kissinger recognized this when he said these words in his eulogy at Ford’s funeral in 2006 –
“According to an ancient tradition, God preserves humanity despite its many transgressions because at any one period there exist 10 just individuals who, without being aware of their role, redeem mankind.
Gerald Ford was such a man. Propelled into the presidency by a sequence of unpredictable events, he had an impact so profound it’s rightly to be considered providential.
Unassuming and without guile, Gerald Ford undertook to restore the confidence of Americans in their political institutions and purposes. Never having aspired to national office, he was not consumed by driving ambition. In his understated way, he did his duty as a leader, not as a performer playing to the gallery.”
PS: Please feel to share your comments on Gerald Ford, the Museum, and the Watergate events. But, please hold any comments, opinions, or analogies to present day politics.