Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum
Grand Rapids, Michigan
While his obituaries acknowledged a leader who delivered Americans from their "long national nightmare," in life Gerald Ford never got much respect as President. He was the guy who pardoned Nixon, the one behind the ill-conceived campaign for WIN (Whip Inflation Now!) and the bungled Mayaguez rescue mission, the man in charge when the last helicopter left Vietnam. His wife, Betty, received better press than he ever did, even though he was nearly assassinated in office -- twice.
With so much awkward baggage, the Gerald R. Ford Museum could have dodged reality and created a sanitized, Ty-D-Bowl version of his Presidency. "Gerry" Ford, however, wanted his museum to be honest. That's what you'll find in Grand Rapids.
Honesty is not necessarily entertaining, and for many years the Gerald R. Ford Museum was as lifeless as the mid-1970s economy. That changed in 1997, with a multi-million-dollar infusion of cash. Now the Museum features light shows, surround-sound, and holographs to make Ford, and the years 1974-1976, seem like an exciting time to be alive and in the White House.
The museum's first stop is an air lock named "Gerald Ford's America," which helps thrust visitors backwards into the 1970s. Two disco dummies pose on a color-dotted Saturday Night Fever dance floor. They stand below a video projection screen that was showing a clip of Martin Luther King Jr when we passed by -- hey, wasn't he dead by the 1970s? Perhaps people in the '70s spent their time reliving the '60s....
No matter; we were mesmerized by the displays of a leisure suit, protester arrest photos, a smile button, a pet rock, and a poster for Enter The Dragon.
Next is Watergate. Video screens show TV footage of Nixon above exhibits such as Spiro Agnew's resignation letter, the actual tools used by the Watergate burglars (the Nixon Museum apparently didn't want them), and Ford's cue cards -- with emphasis underlines -- for taking the Oath of Office. Helpful signs inform you that the departing Nixon told Ford, "Gerry, I know you'll do a good job," and that Ford got 273,331 letters and telegrams in response to his Nixon pardon -- almost all of them hated it. "Shame, shame on you!" reads one from Rolland Truman, a former senator.
A glassed-in display shows faceless dummies with Betty Ford do's modeling ballroom gowns, and beyond it is the curiously-named "Leadership in Diplomacy" room, which features a Huey helicopter and the actual staircase (not a replica) that stood atop the U.S. Embassy in Saigon as the last Americans were famously filmed hightailing it out of Southeast Asia.
What's it really like to be president, you ask? The Gerald R. Ford Museum tries to answer the question with interactive replicas of the Oval Office and Cabinet Room. HEAR the disembodied voices of actors pretending to be Henry Kissinger and Nelson Rockefeller. SIT at a long table and DISCUSS whether or not to bail New York City out of bankruptcy. A sign next to the Oval Office notes that it was a gift from Gulf & Western Industries, and dedicates it to Bob Hope.
Set into a wall is an ATM, but it's not for cash withdrawals -- it's an exhibit. An adjoining plaque explains that Ford was the president who signed the legislation that made it legal to get money from a machine. When you need quick cash at a mall or a convenience store, thank Gerry Ford.
He was also the Commander in Chief during the nation's 1976 Bicentennial celebration (which yielded a healthy quantity of wacky roadside monuments and statues still visible in many town squares). Double-thank you, President G.
There's a small section of steel I-beam displayed from the World Trade Center. Both towers were completed and occupied before Ford was even VP, so it's here chiefly as a symbol for 9/11 remembrance. Likewise with the Ford Presidential Museum's tall slab of the Berlin Wall, a "Symbol of Freedom" now parked in the lobby, though it stood unmolested in Germany during the Ford Years (it was donated to the museum in 1991). And there's another small chunk of Berlin Wall next to the aforementioned ATM.
Between a case of WIN promotional propaganda and the Bicentennial room is the museum's most unique exhibit: the .45 pistol used by Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme to try to kill President Ford in 1975. She was tackled by a Secret Service agent before she could fire. Next to it is a halfhearted letter of apology written by Sara Jane Moore, who also tried to kill Ford -- only 17 days after Squeaky -- with a .38 Smith and Wesson. "Although part off me regrets not being successful in this task," Sara wrote, "I am very thankful that I did not kill another human being."
Despite his occasional knack for making messy situations messier, Gerald Ford had good intentions and was an unpretentious, down-to-earth kind of President. His museum reflects that personality. The gift shop sells Gerald R. Ford Museum golf shirts, size XL. A guard told us that Squeaky's gun is one of the few exhibits that's even alarmed. Gerry and Betty liked the vibe here so much that they arranged to be buried in the lawn, on a hillside just north of the building.
Gerald Ford was laid to rest on January 3, 2007. One imagines that he went in peace, thankful that he'll never again have to answer questions about that damned pardon.