Gerald R Ford has the distinction of being the only person to have served as both President and Vice-President of the USA without being elected to either office. He became Vice-President in October 1973 when Spiro Agnew resigned after he was accused of tax evasion, and then succeeded to the Presidency in August 1974 when Richard Nixon became the only President in history to resign from office. Ford remained President till January 1977 when he handed over the White House keys to Jimmy Carter.
What’s all this to do with travel? Well, Ford was from Grand Rapids in Michigan. I was in Grand Rapids. I was told that the Gerald R Ford Presidential Library and Museum was the most popular visitor attraction in Michigan, which suggests either (a) there’s not a lot to do in Michigan, or (b) it’s well worth seeing. As I’d been having a great time in Michigan, and had never been to a Presidential Museum, I walked the few blocks from my hotel to take a look.
After an introductory video with an overview of Ford’s life, the first room sets the scene for the 1970s with some classic album covers of the time.
In the next room you’re straight into the Watergate scandal that propelled Ford to the Presidency, complete with video footage and Spiro Agnew’s resignation letter. I was already absorbed in the dramatic story of Ford’s rise to the Presidency, and loving the kind of museum where your face is a few inches from history, whether it’s a medieval document, Elvis Presley’s last guitar, or the resignation letter of a US President: that one came a few rooms later.
In fact one of the few black marks against Ford was that he gave Nixon a Presidential Pardon, an act that was far from popular. You can see the Presidential Pardon, and the pen with which Ford signed it, but even Ford’s own Press Secretary, and a long-time close friend, Jerald Franklin terHorst, resigned in protest over the pardon. There was speculation that Nixon only agreed to resign and allow Ford to become President if Ford would agree in advance to pardon him later. But that remains speculation.
What isn’t speculative and is fascinating is the way Ford’s life as President was mapped out minute by minute, as you can see in the Presidential Diaries on display:
1:13 The President went to the Oval Office
1:36 The President returned to the Roosevelt Room
There’s a life-size perfect reproduction of that Oval Office as it was when Ford was President, with tapes playing (using actors’ voices) of conversations that took place in that room. They’re so convincing that you keep looking to see who has walked through the door. The room includes the desk from which embedded microphones were removed in August 1974 on Ford’s instructions.
There are also sobering reminders of what life as President is like. Ford experienced two assassination attempts, within seventeen days of each other. In the first, a Secret Service agent grabbed the pistol as it was being fired, and that pistol is on display here. As a result, the Secret Service began keeping the President further away from crowds, which probably saved his life when, seventeen days later, someone fired a pistol from across the street, with the second shot – the gun this time being grabbed by a retired Marine as it was being fired – hitting the wall six inches from the President’s head.
Grand Rapids is proud of Ford, and the museum is a fine tribute to a man who lived through a very troubled childhood. He was born Leslie Lynch King Jr in Omaha to a violent father who, only a few days after the boy’s birth, took a butcher’s knife and threatened to kill the baby, his mother, and their nursemaid. A few days later the couple separated and Ford’s mother went first to Oak Park in Illinois and then to be with her parents in Grand Rapids, where Ford grew up. His mother married Gerald Rudolff Ford, and Ford began using his step-father’s surname, before legally changing his name to Gerald Ford at the age of 22.
Ford died in 2006 and lies with his wife Elizabeth in a peaceful spot alongside the museum and overlooking the Grand River.
The museum is currently closed for renovations and is due to re-open on June 7, 2016.
All photos (c) Donna Dailey.