American Dad

I spent last weekend in and around Grand Rapids, Michigan, for a number of reasons—to attend my nephew’s Eagle Scout ceremony, and to drink beer in what must surely be one of the best beer towns in America. Grand Rapids is the hometown of President Gerald Ford, and since the hotel was just across the street from the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Center, that seemed like a good destination for a couple of hours on Sunday morning.

Ford became vice-president in October 1973, a month in which America seemed to be falling apart, and the rest of the world with it. He became president 10 months later, after Richard Nixon resigned. The first gallery you visit at the museum sets the scene for the Ford presidency, and is devoted to the culture of the 1970s. For a geek such as I, it’s a stunner. Packed with period artifacts and pulsating with 70s audio and video, it was like nothing so much as the way the world is supposed to look and sound. Spending a few minutes in that gallery was like returning home after a long time abroad, and the feeling it gave me has lasted all week.

It occurs to me that Gerald Ford was the last American president who was like your father. Jimmy Carter was the overachieving older brother; Ronald Reagan was an uncle who’d run off to Cali and got rich; George H. W. Bush was your father’s slightly distant business partner; Bill Clinton was the neighbor kid who groped your sister; George W. Bush was the cousin one step ahead of the law; Barack Obama is your poli-sci professor. Ford? If not your dad, then your scoutmaster, or the chief usher at church on Sunday.

Illusory or not, there was a sense with Ford that nothing profoundly horrible was going to happen as long as he was in charge. Like a good dad, he’d do everything in his power to prevent it, and you could sleep peacefully at night in that knowledge. (As long as you lacked the knowledge that Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld were among his top aides.) And while the mid-70s were not glory years for America—energy prices remained high, the economy continued to weaken, the Communists won the Vietnam War—Ford was admirable because you sensed that he was doing the best that he could, which is all you can ask of anybody. Despite being a politician for most of his adult life, it was as if he was still one of us, a regular guy from the Midwest.

Ford took office when I was 14, just before my freshman year in high school began. He left office a month before I turned 17, in the middle of my junior year. When I think back on those years now—illusory or not—I remember a time when I felt secure in the bosom of my family, as if nothing profoundly horrible was going to happen as long as I held to it. As in the White House, so in my own house.

On the flip, seasonally appropriate toonage from the mid 1970s.

Gerald Ford was president during two springs. Looking over the Cash Box chart from this week in 1975, the song that brings back the season most vividly is still “Philadelphia Freedom,” which was billed to the Elton John Band. Here’s Elton’s famous performance on Soul Train from May 1975, on which he sings live to the record’s backing track. This was the Elton I worshipped, and I was almost certainly watching that day.

And from the Cash Box chart from this week in 1976, I could pick any one of approximately 100 songs to bring that whole year back. So here’s ABBA’s “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do.” Not much happens in the video—we see only two saxophones instead of 500, and there’s no maniac chime-banger in sight—but we do get to watch Agnetha and Frida for three minutes, so it’s all good.

9 responses

  1. Your roll call of presidents nailed them all, especially GWB and Clinton. As to Ford, I remember well the overwhelming feeling of relief when Nixon resigned and Ford took office. Ford’s basic decency – and I think he was a decent man, Cheney and Rumsfeld notwithstanding – was such a contrast to the Nixon years. Side trip here: Of all the turning points in American history in the past fifty years, one that gets missed a lot is the 1976 election: Had Ford won, what happens then? With Ford in the White House in 1980 – ineligible to run again but still the de facto leader of the Republican party – how much changes? Does Reagan get elected in 1980? Interesting to ponder.

    I need to get to that museum myself. Thanks for the post.

    1. You’ll be happy to know that not only is the Ford Museum within walking distance of several hotels, it’s also within walking distance of several prime beer joints. I could live in that town, really.

      I think if Ford wins a second term, Reagan still gets the nomination in 1980. Who the Democratic nominee might have been is an interesting what if. Ted Kennedy ran against Carter for the nomination that year—might he have had the juice to get it? Jerry Brown, who ran a strong campaign in the ’76 primaries? Mondale? Beats me.

  2. Actually, Gerald Ford was an uncle to me. The guy looked just like my Uncle Bud and my nine-year old self felt the need to personally inform our president that his doppelganger took me fishing on occasion.

    It did cause a bit of a hullabaloo when I brought the form letter reply from the White House to class one day in third grade.

  3. Obama reminds me of a certain psych prof I had in college. She wouldn’t listen and couldn’t explain herself out of a paper bag. How many more days till B.O.’s reign of insanity comes to a close?

    1. If Obama fails to listen to anybody, it’s his own base—he’s certainly listening to the Republican Party and trying to get them to like him by any means necessary, even if it means screwing his supporters. But given the Republican presidential clown car for 2012, I expect Obama will be around until 2016.

  4. I read an interesting book on Nixon and Agnew by Jules Witcover a few years back. The basic gist of the book was that Nixon had wanted to dump Agnew from the ticket in 1972 and replace him with former Texas governor John Connally on a cross-party ticket. For whatever reasons that never ended up happening.

    Nixon felt shortly into his first term that he’d made a mistake with Agnew and he kept him largely out of the loop. Agnew learned of Watergate the same time as the rest of the country– when the Woodward & Bernstein story broke. The book also insinuated that Nixon had wanted to resign long before he actually did but he knew Agnew was under investigation for income tax evasion and felt that if he resigned leaving Agnew as the President and then Agnew was brought down by his own scandal that it would be too much for the country to bear. The book claims that Nixon stayed in power long after he’d wanted to resign in order to ensure that he had a suitable replacement appointed as VP.

    Agnew wanted to fight the charges– he wanted to be impeached because he felt could clear his name. Nixon discouraged this and asked for Agnew’s resignation which Agnew eventually reluctantly granted.

    I don’t know how much stock I put in this theory but I do think it’s worthy of some consideration. If there is truth to it than in some regards Nixon might not have been quite as bad as he’s been made out to be over the years. I’m not excusing his misdeeds, just expressing an understanding for his motives in prolonging the whole mess as long as he did… and if those motives were to prevent 2 consecutive presidental scandals than he was actually acting in the best interests of the country.

  5. The Ford-father comparison falls, for me, at one major hurdle: I always thought my dad was pretty much competent at what he did.
    Ford, to me, seems like an honest guy, an upright guy, a trustworthy guy as far as federal politicians go … but I got the sense he was in over his head as President, and not just for his physical gaffes.
    (This opinion comes from someone born in 1973, so take it for what little it’s worth.)

    If I had to compare Ford to someone, it would be the likeable, good-guy assistant principal of a middle school.
    The guy who knew all the kids’ names, and who was as likely as not to tell kids who got sent to his office, “Look, we both know this isn’t worth making a federal case out of. Just keep your nose clean, and tell your teacher you won’t do it again, and we’ll call it even.”
    And the guy who was eternally remembered by all the kids for taking a line drive in the nuts during kickball at the big school assembly day.

  6. Your presidential comparisons made me smile. Spot on. I was between 10th and 11th grades when Nixon resigned, and I had watched the House Judiciary hearings on impeachment. I was angered when Ford pardoned Nixon a month later, but in my adult years I came to realize that it WAS the right thing to do so the country could move on. I agree with your assessment: Ford was an honorable and decent man, and that’s really what we needed in the years after Watergate. I voted for Carter in 1976 (my first presidential election) but never disliked Ford. I wonder what he would make of his party today. Whiteray makes a great point about that election, which was relatively close (not Bush-Gore close, but still pretty close). If Ford wins, he can serve only the one full term. So does Reagan get the 1980 nomination? He made his charge to the top against the perception that Carter was in over his head. But if Ford is president in 1979, are the hostages still taken in Iran? Does the U.S. still boycott the Moscow Olympics? Do we still have high inflation? Reagan’s campaign would have had to change gears since he was running to continue GOP governing, not defeat a Democrat. The Democratic nominee would have been running against a 12-year GOP government. And the what-if scenario continues for the next three decades. If Reagan doesn’t win in 1980, what happens to George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, etc., each of whose successes depending on what the predecessor did. The possibilities go on and on. Oh, and I love your description of the 2012 GOP field as a clown car.

  7. To Kinky Paprika’s point about Ford-as-assistant-principal, that was actually one of the examples I considered when I came up with scoutmaster and church usher.

    As somebody who was around in the mid 1970s, I didn’t get the sense that Ford’s physical clumsiness (strange as it was, because he was a talented athlete as a young man) reflected cloddishness as a leader, although looking back now the Ford years seem like a time in which America reacted to events instead of acting. But I could be wrong about that, just as I’m probably wrong to remember my family life in those years as warm-n-fuzzy, which it almost certainly wasn’t, not all of the time anyhow.

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