Gerald Ford May Have Been too Much a Product of Grand Rapids for His Own Good (And Ours)


Mr. Jelks is Associate Professor of History at Calvin College and the author of African Americans in the Furniture City: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Grand Rapids. Mr. Jelks is currently on sabbatical and is a Fellow at the National Humanities Center in Research Park Triangle.

Gerald Ford placed Grand Rapids on the map, even though it is the second largest city in Michigan. Until Ford's ascendancy to the presidency, Grand Rapids was Michigan's second city, and, perhaps, it's most overlooked city. Ford, as often repeated in television reports valued the lessons of life he learned in Grand Rapids. And yet, few, if any, reports have explored exactly what those values were and how we might understand Ford's decision making at the time of the Watergate crisis.

 Grand Rapids is a city of churches. A city, whose Christian majority is Catholic, but whose culture continues to be dominated by Yankee Calvinism that was reshaped by Dutch Protestant immigrants, who brought from Holland a strict Calvinist theology that still influences the city's life today. The Grand Rapids of Gerald Ford's upbringing was a city where institutions were respected and viewed as necessary for the well ordering of the common good. People in the city take the New Testament of the Apostle Paul that government is placed by God for the good order of humanity.

Notable cultural stars of Grand Rapids such as the writer Peter Devries have written about the city's subculture of Dutch immigrants with hilarity (see his novel The Blood of the Lamb). Screen writer and director Paul Schrader alluded to the city's cultural history in Taxi Driver, referring to the Dutch surnamed parents of the adolescent prostitute played by Jodi Foster. More recently there was a similar allusion to Dutch names in the film American Pie, written by East Grand Rapids native, Paul Weitz. These cultural producers showed that underneath the tidiness of well-ordered appearances the city of Grand Rapids has a messy and, one might say, a naughtier side. And yet, the city that shaped Gerald Ford works hard to keep a lid on its libido.

 This was done through a kind of thinking that valued a governing consensus. Unlike bigger cities with a history of rancorous political decorum, Grand Rapids was and is the kind of place where debate is welcome, but it must be put forth in a reasoned and nice way. Ad hominen attacks are forbidden. It is the kind of city, where political yard signs signal one's political viewpoint, not rough and tumble tactics and dirty tricks. It is the kind of city that values respectability of family and community over brash individuality and flashiness. The consensus that life should be lived in a kindly and democratically ordered world has many good lessons to offer all of us in the United States about dutifulness, civic responsibility, and steadiness; all virtues that Ford exuded in the time of the nation's crisis. However, there is a down side too.
The consensus thinking that governed Grand Rapids's cultural and political life, also hid, and sometime silenced, discord that should have been heard. Grand Rapids, like the entire Great Lakes region, had its politics of racial exclusion, which led to a race riot in 1967 while Ford was in the Congress. Grand Rapids, like the nation that Ford would come to govern, was full of antagonism about the war in Vietnam, and the inclusion of women as a whole into the full spectrum of America's civic and economic life. And this aspect of Grand Rapids is still being played out in the poverty of some of the city streets, the local chamber of commerce, and institutions of local government. Ford's generation of governing men, however, believed in a consensus on how things were to be ordered. They believe, with some justifiable prudence, that governance could not be carried forth without a consensus. The downside of this consensus thinking was the rush to silence discordant viewpoints, especially if they were stated in highly inflammatory words and tactics.

 Ford in the manner that the political cultural of Grand Rapids bequeathed to him attempted to make a responsible choice in pardoning Richard Nixon, arguably, for the good of the country. He was trying to reach the center and build a governing consensus. The other side of the pardon, however, was that the nation's people never got to hear the angry truth that the governing consensus and presidential administrations of Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations were based on half-truths and some huge lies. By not allowing some of the rightful anger about President Nixon's obstruction of justice to fully surface through democratic procedures, it could be argued that the country had no real opportunity to reckon with its wounds. Historians of this period in the future could argue that President Ford closed the process too abruptly with his pardon of Nixon and allowed American political governance to metastasize into the failed Bush Presidency. It must be remembered that Ford's advisors included former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney . The lessons these two public officials took away from the Watergate era was a deep cynicism about democratic processes, which has led us to our current predicament in Iraq.  The latter debacle of his staffers cannot to be blamed on the late Mr. Ford. However, what Mr. Ford must be held accountable for was his unwillingness to allow a process of investigation to bring out the truth about both Nixon's wrongdoings and the governing consensus in our country. It is always good when a political consensus can be reached—governance can only happen when a consensus of opinion occurs. However, in order to reach a better political consensus anger and resentment must be given free expression in the body politic too.

 Mr. Ford opted for closing down discussion and getting on with the country's business at that time. As President he testified before Congress and tried to get the governing machinery back in order. It was responsible politics Grand Rapids style. When sixty thousand citizens of Grand Rapids turned out for his funeral they recognized one of their own. He was a decent man who tried to be a responsible public servant in a time of national crisis.

However, the historic opportunity that the Ford Administration missed in the 1970s is something we still must be concerned about in order to create a healthy democracy. That is, we must figure out how to democratically talk about the underbelly of our country's politics that still lingers with us from the Watergate era for the sake of a truer political consensus today.

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More Comments:

Vernon Clayson - 1/9/2007

Mr. Loewen, I could ask you the same thing, "how would one quantify - or measure in ANY way" -- "ideological content" in my comment.

James W Loewen - 1/8/2007

Authors need to realize that their contributions to HNN are not copyedited, so they should write better. "Grand Rapids was Michigan's second city, and, perhaps, it's most overlooked city." Really? Since "it's" means "it is," the last clause makes no sense. "The lessons these two public officials took away from the Watergate era was a deep cynicism about democratic processes..." Really? "The lessons was"? "The latter debacle of his staffers cannot to be blamed on the late Mr. Ford." Really? Would you accept such writing from a first-year college student?

James W Loewen - 1/8/2007

As a sociologist, I must ask, how would one quantify -- or measure in ANY way -- "moving on"? Or, to put it another way, the previous comment has ideological content but no other kind.

Vernon Clayson - 1/8/2007

Chances are Gerald Ford would have been the same man wherever he was from, Grand Rapids is Syracuse is Wichita is Milwaukee. What he did that was different from presidents before him and especially after him is he moved on, it was so stark and dramatic that the media was flustered and is still flustered. I watched much of the ceremony involved with his funeral and expected any minute that one of the liberals, Russert, Brokaw, whoever, would say that Ford Dead is better than Bush alive. Time will tell that Bush was somewhat like Ford, he moves on, and time will bring similar admiration. Kerry, Gore, Clinton(both), and Ted Kennedy have no concept of moving on and their supporters in the media have even less of the concept.