Little Marathon Pundit and I were on vacation earlier this month and our travels brought us to Wisconsin and Michigan. On our final day of that trip we visited the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, just six days prior to the 105th anniversary of the birth of the 38th president.
Of the presidents of my lifetime, Gerald Ford is the obvious choice for the “Most Likely to be Forgotten Award.” That’s partly understandable. His 29 months in office was the shortest term of any president who didn’t die in office. And Ford was the closest thing to a “regular guy” to live in the White House. The media loved Ford for that–delighting on him toasting his own English muffins in the White House kitchen. They loved Ford–yes, he was a Republican–until he pardoned his predecessor, Richard M. Nixon, one month after being sworn in to office.
Immediately Ford became a buffoon and a dope. He now was the media’s enemy and ordinary instances were blown out of proportion. He stumbled and fell from the steps of Air Force One. Have you ever had a misstep on a set of stairs? He sliced a few golf balls into crowds–those onlookers would not have been there if he was still House Minority Leader. Ford was an accomplished skier, but do you know what? Skiers fall. And so did he. Chevy Chase’s impersonations of him on Saturday Night Live portrayed him as dimwitted and yes, a man who could barely remain on his feet.
But Ford was arguably the greatest presidential athlete. He was an All-American football center for the University of Michigan. He was offered contracts by the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions. Until very late into his long life Ford regularly swam laps, Ford had an outdoor pool built on the White House grounds to replace the indoor one that Nixon converted into a press room so he could remain in shape.
Ford “the dummy” graduated in the top third of his class at Yale law school.
In short, because of the Nixon pardon, Ford was bombarded by, not fake news, but a fake perception from the media.
The museum of course looks back at Ford’s improbable rise from being abandoned by his father two weeks after his birth to becoming an Eagle Scout and a star athlete. After college and law school Ford returned to his hometown of Grand Rapids to practice law. After Pearl Harbor Ford joined the Navy. Shortly after marrying Betty Bloomer in 1948, Ford won his first election as congressman of Michigan’s 5th district. By the mid-1960s Ford was the House minority leader.
The film about Ford’s life, “A Time To Heal,” plays there.
As the Watergate scandal raged. Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, pleaded no contest to tax evasion and resigned. Nixon, under the provisions of the recently enacted 25th Amendment to the Constitution, nominated Ford as Agnew’s replacement, which Congress approved. Thus Ford became the first vice president–and the only president–not elected by the American people.
“I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your president by your ballots,” Ford said in his brief inaugural address, “and so I ask you to confirm me as your president with your prayers.” And alluding to Watergate, he added, “Our long national nightmare is over.”
But Ford was president during an unusually eventful 29 months, which the museum documents. What transpired included: His controversial choice of liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller as his vice president, rampant inflation and the brutal l974-75 recession, the Mayaguez incident, the fall of South Vietnam, a summit meeting with Leonid Brezhnev, his signing of the Helsinki Accords, two assassination attempts–within a month, a general gloom of the American psyche, and his defeat by Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election after a hard-fought primary battle with Ronald Reagan.
Quite a bit of bad stuff, to be sure. But the American Bicentennial was celebrated in 1976.
Oh yeah, Ford pardoned Nixon.
The current special exhibit at the museum is centered on his wife, Betty Ford, the centennial of her birth was in April. Her life was a momentous one too. Unlike her recent predecessors as First Lady, Betty was outspoken. Six weeks after moving into the White House she underwent a mastectomy–which brought much needed attention to breast cancer. Two years after her husband’s electoral defeat she was treated for alcoholism and an addiction to painkillers. Rather than hiding in shame, she co-founded the Betty Ford Center, America’s best-known substance abuse treatment center.
Yesterday during the Gerald Ford birthday celebration at the museum a statute of Betty was unveiled.
Jerry and Betty Ford–two Americans who had two remarkable lives.
If you are anywhere near Grand Rapids, a visit to the Ford museum is worth your time.
John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.