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.