Saturday, April 14, 2012

Gerald Ford Presidential Museum

Ford museum presents fresh view of president
The Gerald Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan

Surrounded by water, flowers, statues and green lawn, the Gerald Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich., gave me the feeling this was a friendly place. Outside, Carla and I took time to enjoy the Betty Ford Garden, with its 257-foot-long reflecting pool and fountain that recycles 77,000 gallons of water with a jet shooting water 40 feet high.  

Our first stop was to see a 20-minute movie of important events in President Ford’s life, which reintroduced us to one of the least discussed and perhaps one of the least appreciated leaders in recent history.

At the top of the staircase on the second floor, we entered a display room where we were surrounded by three large screens playing scenes of important events of the early ’70s. Movie and music posters, headlines from newspapers and life-sized models dancing to "The Twist" bordered the screens.

It wasn’t the Beatles or "Saturday Night Fever" posters that grabbed me. What really brought the period back was the broad-striped, double-knit jacket, much like the one I wore in the ’70s.  After my tour, I thought that just as I had changed my taste in jackets, perhaps I should reconsider Ford’s stature as a president.

The main tour starts with the crisis of confidence in the presidency as multiple screens and headlines retell the story of President Richard Nixon’s resignation and Ford’s rise to the presidency.  In the next rooms, I felt as though I were walking though a very personal autobiography that started with Ford’s tiny baptism shoes.

It soon became apparent that this is a man who started with little but by dint of hard work, intelligence and integrity became a major player in U.S. politics.  He was born Leslie Lynch King Jr. on July 14, 1913, in Omaha, Neb., to a father whom Ford’s mother soon divorced because of his abuse. She moved to Grand Rapids and married a man who formally adopted Ford.  It wasn’t until he was 16 that Ford again met his father, who dropped by where he was working to say hello and give him $20 - little compensation for the child support he had never paid.

Gerald Ford had a tough start in life

Ford’s preparation for the presidency struck me as ideal: He was a football hero at the University of Michigan, worked his way through Yale law school, spent two years aboard an aircraft carrier in the Pacific in World War II and spent 25 years in the U.S. Congress, many of them as a leader of his party.

As I went through the displays, I could see his strengths lay in cleaning up other presidents’ messes, such as Vietnam and the Nixon scandals, and doing the groundwork so other presidents could look good, such as the fall of the former Soviet Union and peace - at least temporarily - in the Middle East.

Why didn’t he win another term as president? One plaque pointed out he was better at governing than he was at campaigning.  Another plaque said, "With Gerald Ford’s inauguration, the White House became a more relaxed, open place. Hence forth, the Marine Corps band was instructed to play the University of Michigan fight song rather than the more stately ‘Hail to the Chief.’  "The White House itself was referred to as the ‘residence’ rather than the ‘executive mansion,’ and the Oval Office was immediately swept clean of all electronic listening devices."

In a replica of the president’s Cabinet Room, a video presented background on three of his major decisions, and visitors were given a chance to vote electronically as to what they would have done or what they felt the impact of the decisions were.

Two unexpected display items were Squeaky Fromme’s .45-caliber pistol, with a pencil-written note apologizing for trying to kill him as a person but not for trying to kill him as president, and a rostrum from which the visitor can read the TelePrompTer script of one of Ford’s campaign speeches.

Ford kept naysayers in his Cabinet and on his staff who played devil’s advocate on major decisions - something we could have used more of with presidents who came after him in office. In retrospect, I feel he was better than I had originally thought because he brought decency and inclusiveness, as opposed to the pervasive distrust and alienation we see in current politics.

Betty Ford was more outspoken than the five first ladies who had immediately preceded her. Several walls note her contributions, and one room displays dresses she wore for different state dinners.

Open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., there is a small fee for adults but none for children under 15.  For further information, see

Ford served aboard an aircraft carrier in the Pacific during World War II