By Jelane A. Kennedy
Ford was a bridge builder and an honest guy who could not believe the dishonesty of others in powerful positions; he felt his role, as President during the tumultuous ‘70’s was to heal the country.
After we finished inside the museum we then walked out to see the burial site of both President Ford and Betty. We then sat out at the fountain. I think for me I was surprised at how many of the energy and economic programs that I had always attributed to Jimmy Carter era were programs that started with Ford. I was also surprised with the support of education through the establishment Special Education programs throughout the United States, and that he and Betty were supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment for women along with being pro-choice. These are things that I nowadays don’t think about being connected to the Republican Party.
As we sat out at the fountain:
“What did you think about the Museum Eileen?” I asked.
“I was surprised at all I learned and didn’t know. I do wish though that the Betty Ford section was bigger.”
“Me too. I think we don’t really understand what all The First Lady does, or can do. She was the unpaid partner and many times was doing some amazing work on her own.”
“She was one to not be always behind the scenes. Did you know she was she was a proponent of equal rights and rights for women in general like abortion?”
“I had no idea, and that she had been an accomplished dancer and later work with children and kids with disabilities.”
“Then there was her openness about breast cancer and her treatment when people didn’t talk about those subjects.”
“Yeah, and then after they left the White House, she was very open about her addiction and created the Betty Ford Clinic when women or anyone for that matter didn’t talk about substance abuse.”
“They were quite the couple. A lot more liberal than I expected.”
President Ford had the shortest Presidency for a President that did not die in office (895 days from August 9, 1974-January 20, 1977). He became President in a very unexpected way, and at the time had been considering retiring from public service. He served Michigan in the House of Representatives for 25 years. He had moved to the position of Minority Leader and had hoped when President Nixon was running for re-election that he would become House Leader after the election. Little did he know that in a few short months after Nixon’s second inauguration that he would become Vice-President (not through election but by appointment, after Spiro Agnew resigned), and within months become President of the United States of America again not through an election but because Nixon resigned under impeachment.
Visiting the Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan was on our list as we headed to Michigan this summer. When I was growing up in Michigan the Museum did not exist and did not open until 1981. I actually didn’t know Ford had a Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids until this last year when I first saw a list of all the Presidential Libraries. We had never really considered visiting the Presidential Libraries until after visiting the JFK library in Boston one summer. That was really the start of it all.
It appears that Ford is the only President that has a Museum in one location and a library in another (Ann Arbor, Michigan). The Ford’s Museum was in downtown Grand Rapids, we went on a Saturday, the traffic was light and we found easy parking near the building that sits along the Grand River. As we approached the building there was a large shooting fountain that grabbed out attention along with a garden and statue of his wife Betty Ford.
The museum was on the second floor of the building. The first floor had restrooms, gift shop and a conference room. As we began our tour we learned of his humble beginning. We were surprised to learn that he started his life not as Gerald R. Ford but as Lesley King. His parents divorced early after is birth and his mother made her way with him from Nebraska to Grand Rapids where he grew up. In 1935 he formally took the name Gerald R. Ford in honor of his stepfather although he was know as Ford junior early on.
When we planned this trip to the library we both had thought we would just be there for a short visit. We had not realized we would become pulled in by his story and what was happening during his Presidency. As a teenager during that time I have memories of Nixon’s impeachment and of the energy crisis.
During our visit I came to understand so much more about what a true leader he was. The economy was a mess, high inflation and high unemployment rate. The war in Vietnam was coming to an end. Nixon was impeached. The populace was distrustful and angry. What a way to start a new job! He thought his job was to help the country heal and many of his decisions seem to be made with that always on his mind.
The museum starts with a section on his early years, growing up and his schooling. We learned that he had been a Boy Scout and was one of the first honor guards to spend his summer on Mackinac Island. He earned the highest honor in Boy Scouts – Eagle Scout and has been the only President to be an Eagle Scout. Now both Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have the same opportunity to serve at Mackinac Island. He later went onto the University of Michigan where he studied economics, history, business and political science. He was a star football player and Captain of the team. Then it was off to Yale where he worked full time as a football and boxing coach. Later he studied law on a part time basis while coaching. When he finished law school he returned to Michigan to practice.
One of the other exhibits we saw was a replica of the oval office and of the cabinet meeting room. Both spaces were very impressive. We had been watching the television series Madam Secretary just before we went to the museum. So seeing these rooms in the series then seeing the replicas added a whole new context for me. The rooms were impressive and thinking about what happens in these spaces was awe-inspiring.
We also watched the film called “A time to heal: Gerald Ford’s America.” It really set the context for understanding what was happening and how he felt he needed to negotiate the rocky climate in the country. As I mentioned earlier that responsibility to consider what was best for the country not what was best for President Ford to get re-elected. He pardoned Nixon because he felt that there needed to be an end to the impeachment mess. This was a hard decision and he was given a lot flack for this decision.
I also really enjoyed the exhibit area dedicated to Betty Ford. I wish actually that she had a larger exhibit. I think that we underestimate and don’t really understand the work of the First Lady.
Ford had the job to build bridges and find a way to bring the country back together again. In many ways he and President Grant both had the job of leading when the country was getting through traumatic events. Ford was awarded John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage in 2001 for his pardon of Nixon, Senator Teddy Kennedy later stated though he originally opposed he now saw the wisdom, as did history.
© 2019 Jelane A. Kennedy & Eileen A. McFerran