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The Gerald Ford Museum



I spent the weekend in Michigan, where I was chairing a plenary session at the American Federation of Teachers Higher Education Conference. As I am always one to take advantage of opportunities to fulfill my obsessions (yes, there may be some Michigan graves in your future), I intentionally scheduled a late flight last night so I could spend yesterday driving out to Grand Rapids to visit the Gerald Ford Museum and taste a couple of that town’s 497 breweries (I went to Harmony and Founders; why Grand Rapids of all places in the beer capital of the Midwest is a mystery to me).

Presidential museums/libraries are very interesting places. They are nominally run by the National Archives and the actual libraries are. But the museums are heavily influenced by the private supporters of the president. This means that they are largely exercises in hackwork and apology, even for presidents I don’t hate. The message of the Carter Museum is that Carter was the human rights president because he told Argentina to stop throwing people out of airplanes. The message of the George H.W. Bush Museum is that he got us over the Vietnam Syndrome thanks to his leadership over the great menacing Saddam Hussein and, to a lesser extent, Manuel Noriega. The Nixon Museum is extra special. Over time, the partisanship fades away with the generation of presidential supporters behind the museum and thus the National Archives can do more. When I visited the Nixon a couple of years ago, this was just beginning. The Watergate section had been reintrepreted from actively defending Nixon’s innocence to text that was so opaque that no one without immense preexisting knowledge of Watergate could understand it. Whether this is an improvement, I’m not sure. I understand more changes have been made since. But when I was there, a lot of the original exhibits were there, discussing how Nixon saved the police from the horrors of the Miranda decision, among other insanity. Between that, the display of the rock Barry Goldwater sent Nixon because he claimed it was a profile of Nixon’s head, and the helicopter Nixon fled the White House on that you could tour and that still had the original blue shag carpet, this was heaven.

The Ford is less out of control in no small part because Gerald Ford is just less an absurd figure. It’s basically all about his fiscal conservatism saving us from government spending. Yet there are still some classic bits and artifacts here for the visitor. Here’s 5 images I took yesterday. These may not sum up the entire museum, but it’s a start.

And this, one of the most amazing artifacts I have ever seen.

That one blew my mind. That’s a pretty intense staircase! Unfortunately, one could not climb it and pretend you were escaping Saigon in 1975. No fun.

And a bonus one, with 1976 campaign horrors.

I can say, sadly, that the bathrooms at the Ford Museum do not have any of that Carter toilet paper.

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  • tsam


    • If they had sold those in the gift shop, I would have bought one.

      • tsam

        If I were to wear one of these, I would really need another one with SL Jackson: “WHAT’S FONZIE LIKE, YOLANDA?”

    • sigaba

      I inheirited my mom’s political button and badge collection (“Another Economic Patriot for Paul Tsongas”) and yes I would separate with some coin for a Jerry Ford Fonzie button.

    • Judas Peckerwood

      Wait, I thought that Nick Gillespie was the Fonzie of Freedom.

      • keta

        (rim shot.)

    • keta

      I’m so old I remember when Ford tripped over the shark.

    • Harkov311

      As a political item collector, I can confirm that one is rare and hard to obtain at anything approaching a sane price.

    • corporatecake

      This might be my youth speaking but

      Why? Why is that a thing?

      • njorl

        From 1928 until 1992, every Democratic candidate was introduced with “Happy Days are here again” playing when they accepted the party’s nomination.
        In 1976, “Happy Days” (whose most popular character was Fonzie) was the most popular TV show.
        The “Fordzie” button attempts to co-opt both to the Republican cause.

  • Ahenobarbus

    I can say, sadly, that the bathrooms at the Ford Museum do not have any of that Carter toilet paper.

    So you took a dump while you were there? Do you do this at all Presidential libraries or only Republican ones?

    • It’s worth noting that there are not separate bathrooms for separate functions.

      • Thom

        Only because the Republicans have not thought of that yet.

        • BiloSagdiyev

          Surge pricing!

    • McAllen

      I for one am certainly looking forward to trying out the Trump Museum’s gold-plated commodes.

      • foolishmortal

        Wait till you see their showers.

        • MAJeff

          Thanks to a generous donation from Gazprom.

        • Marlowe

          You mean the Sean Spicer Memorial Showers and Crematorium?

      • efgoldman

        I for one am certainly looking forward to trying out the Trump Museum’s gold-plated commodes.

        Since those libraries are largely built with donations, there probably won’t be room for more than a ticket sale lobby, souvenir store, and a row of pay toilets.
        Oh, wait. The Yahoos are the same rubes who send money to the holy roller grifters and Glenn Beck’s gold bugs. The thing will be a fucking palace.

  • Mike G

    Do they have special extra-slippery building steps for you to trip on to get the real Jerry Ford experience?

    • Warren Terra

      I have a vague memory of reading (or hearing?) a pained essay about how deeply unfortunate that Gerry Ford was, on the basis of a single accident, so frequently portrayed as a physically bumbling uncoordinated laughingstock, when in fact he was possibly the greatest athlete ever to become President – all-American collegiate football and all that. The person making this point didn’t think he was a decent President, but was tired of seeing him picked on for the one thing that wasn’t his fault.

      • BiloSagdiyev

        Yep. Have you heard that Bill Clinton got a blowjob? (OK, that wasn’t his fault, but then again, I’ve read that Gerald Ford, too, got a blowjob. Not necessarily while in the White House, but as a politician in DC.)

        I picked up a book of B&W photography by some famous photographer who covered the US Navy in WWII. Much to my suprise I saw a young Gerald Ford pictured playing basketball on an aircraft carrier’s elevator deck (lowered), going for a jump ball or rebound, and boy, was he athletic.

        I just grew up with him looking like a toe in a suit.

      • CrunchyFrog

        That was in fact an early example of piling on. I forget which late night host made the first joke – probably Carson – about Ford being injury prone. However the reaction told him immediately that there was comedy gold here. Soon Saturday Night Live, in its infancy, began opening virtually every week with a sketch of Chase as Ford ending with him falling down from his own clumsiness then showing the “Live from New York …” line. Each week his portray of Ford became more bumbling.

        Now, here’s the thing. This wasn’t done in the mainstream media, which at that time was completely under the Fairness Doctrine, fully independent from the media corporations, and doing straight news with a centrist bias all the the time. No, it was just the satire media – TV, radio, print – but decades before internet and social media that was enough to create the meme.

        So it shows how easy a completely unfair meme – one which was actually close to the opposite of the truth as Ford was more dextrous and physically capable than most men his age – can emerge and become believed by the population. Even without anyone trying to hurt Ford.

        Now, change the situation. A center-right media full of one-sided stories and broadcasts with a very loud, prominent hard-right segment. And a wealthy group willing to pay what it takes to spread the meme. And now you have the meme about Kerry, deserter and purple heart faker, up against war hero Bush. Of course people believed it. They’ll believe anything.

        As for Ford himself, well, the meme was unfair but it probably didn’t change votes and it certainly did not cost him the election.

  • Randy

    Did the gift shop sell branded chewing gum?

    Or t-shirts: “My Grandpa Went to the Gerald Ford Museum, and I Didn’t Even Get a WIN Button.”

    • They had Ford 76 t-shirts that were actually pretty cool, but they were also $28. I don’t think Mr. Fiscal Conservative would call that a good value.

  • Adam.379

    They don’t have 81 boxes full of Whip Inflation Now buttons?

    • DAS

      Whip Inflation Now? Kinky!

      • efgoldman

        Whip Inflation Now? Kinky!

        Inflated whips are for pretend sadomasochists.

  • ThresherK

    That’s a pretty intense staircase! Unfortunately, one could not climb it and pretend you were escaping Saigon in 1975. No fun.

    “Do Not Ride The Bomb”.

    • Ithaqua

      Now THAT would be a ride I’d pay good money for!

  • wjts

    …I intentionally scheduled a late flight last night so I could spend yesterday driving out to Grand Rapids to visit the Gerald Ford Museum and taste a couple of that town’s 497 breweries…

    I once had to kill a couple of hours in the Gerald Ford Airport in Grand Rapids. The airport bar is, somewhat puzzlingly, a Bell’s brew pub.

  • D.N. Nation

    The Carter Center as a building/museum isn’t that inspiring, though the farmers’ market they have on occasion in its parking lot is very nice. It’s also part of a long running trail/park constructed when Carter as Georgia governor nixed a freeway running through the middle of Atlanta. (Well, another one.)

    The grounds also contain the most ridiculous traffic merge in the entire city, which is saying a lot:


    These two lanes are going in the same direction. So the one on the left yields to the one on the right, which contains traffic that – and here’s the fun part – the merging lane can’t actually see. Exciting. Worth the price of admission!

    • markregan

      Isn’t there a merge like that in Boston, on Storrow Drive, near Mass General?

      • efgoldman

        Isn’t there a merge like that in Boston, on Storrow Drive, near Mass General?

        Is there still a sign on Storrow, about even with Dartmouth Street, which directs drivers to the “second exit” to Arlington Street and the Back Bay?
        The first exit closed in the 1970s, but as long as we lived there (until 2002) they never took it down or changed it.

    • JustRuss

      Dear god, do the signs read “Yield, or not, whatever”?

      • efgoldman

        do the signs read “Yield, or not, whatever”?

        What signs?

  • Paul Campos

    West Michigan as a whole is something of a beer Mecca. Kalamazoo and Battle Creek have several fine microbreweries, among which Bell’s is the best-known.

    • Morbo

      The Gazette (or mlive I guess) estimated that you could hit 38 breweries staying within a few miles of US-131.

    • Linnaeus

      Metro Detroit has a growing microbrew scene, too.

    • postmodulator

      Founder’s is in Grand Rapids, right?

      • Linnaeus

        Yes, it is.

  • jim, some guy in iowa

    I thought the staircase might have been a SNL prop

  • Dilan Esper

    The he saved New York exhibit is pure chutzpah. Remember “Ford to City: Drop Dead”?

    • Marlowe

      So, no framed display of the immortal NY Daily News headline? Along with the Nixon pardon, Chevy Chase lampooning his klutziness, and the ludicrous WIN buttons (Whip Inflation Now), that’s about all that I remember of the Ford presidency. (And I held my nose way harder than I ever did before or since in my life and voted for Jimmy Carter in ’76. Even harder than in ’80, since Reagan was so much worse.)

      • It was nowhere in the museum.

        • Warren Terra

          The Ford museum didn’t have the “Ford to city: drop dead” headline? It’s one of the most famous headlines in the country’s history, especially if you don’t count the moon landing or Pearl Harbor. This is like if the Truman museum didn’t have the “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline.

          • Ahenobarbus

            Or a strip club museum without “Headless Body in Topless Bar”

            • John Revolta

              Don’t remind me. I had just moved to NYC when that came out and I sent 4 or 5 copies to friends back in Chicago for the lulz. Did I keep one for myself? Naaaah.

      • tsam

        Chevy Chase lampooning his klutziness

        A very early memory of dad was of him joking that he was terrified that Ford would trip and hit the nuke button.

        • The museum expresses massive outrage over how the media and SNL portrayed him as a klutz. Over and over again, it emphasizes what a great athlete Ford was and how Ford was so much better to the media than LBJ or Nixon and they repaid him with cruelty. This is one place where Ford partisans still rule that museum.

          • JustRuss

            Isn’t that pretty much true? Ford was pretty athletic as presidents go, and couldn’t hold a candle to LBJ or Nixon when it came to asshholery, yet the media were hard on him. Nothing compared to the treatment Gore or Clinton received, but worth mentioning.

            • Bitter Scribe

              He may not have been an asshole, but he was dumb as a stump. Remember “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe”?

            • Lt. Fred

              Look, LBJ may have been an asshole, but he was our asshole.

              • Marlowe

                Exactly. LBJ was a despicable human being (though a saint next to you know who) and there’s no doubt Ford was a much nicer person. But if you’re a liberal, in the modern era only FDR was clearly a more positively consequential president. (IMO, he easily outranks the only arguable competitors: Truman and Obama.) If only he could have avoided the Vietnam debacle (and, yes, that’s a mighty big caveat).

          • tsam

            Right–he was a pretty stellar athlete, and the klutzy image was probably a bit unfair.

            But he WAS Nixon’s VP. He did pardon Nixon. So yeah, he was a blockhead.

          • Randy

            He always pretended to be a good sport about all the satire. When Ron Nessen hosted SNL, they opened with a video of him doing the “Live, from New York . . .” He also said “I’m Gerry Ford, and you’re not” before Chevy Chase did Weekend Update.

            The best part of that show was Nessen introducing Patti Smith.

  • Thom

    Does the Nixon museum gift shop have replicas of the “Phase 2–I’ll drink to that!” highball glasses? These were a real thing, in reference to wage and price controls, that I saw at the house of the Undersecretary of Commerce (I was in college with his son).

    • No, but it did have Silent Majority–Tanned, Rested, and Ready t-shirts.

      • Thom


  • Just_Dropping_By

    The embassy staircase was featured on the third episode of the second season of History’s Lost & Found on The History Channel, back when it actually ran historical programs: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_History%27s_Lost_%26_Found_episodes#Season_2:_2000

    • MaxUtility

      I’ll guess there’s some reasonable explanation. But how exactly did we manage to get the staircase out of Saigon while leaving many, many people behind? Did we evacuate the steno pool’s office supplies too?

      • Mike G

        The stairs were a gift from the Vietnamese government after diplomatic relations were normalized in the 90s.

        • MaxUtility

          Ah. Were they laughing when they gave it to us? “Here’s the stairs you used when we made you run away.” Still, it is a bizarre little piece of history to have been preserved.

    • Warren Terra

      There’s some incredible accounts – and, I think, footage – of the American ships that were receiving the fleeing refugees pushing helicopters over the side to clear the decks so more helicopters could arrive; they didn’t have time to refuel the helicopters, and in any case if they took off there’d by noplace for them to go, nor any pilot willing to fly back to Vietnam.

      I suspect those images aren’t in the museum.

      • postmodulator

        Probably not a situation that’s in the manual, but good for them for doing the right thing.

      • No Longer Middle Aged Man

        Yes. I remember seeing that so I assume the footage still exists.

      • wjts

        Pilots were also ordered to take off from the carriers, jump out, and let the helicopter crash into the sea.

  • why Grand Rapids of all places in the beer capital of the Midwest is a mystery to me

    While driving me around town about 25 years ago, my uncle pointed out that there was a church and a bar on every corner. I think one explains the other.

  • Bruce Vail

    Did they have anything about Betty?

    In our house, Betty was the popular one that the adults wished was POTUS instead of FLOTUS.

    • Yeah, a small section, including some Betty for President stuff.

      • rea

        Well, she (along with he) is buried right outside the museum.

      • Ahenobarbus

        Anything about Tennessee Ernie?

        • Now there’s a grave I would visit!

          • Bill Murray

            well next time you’re in Palo Alto you should go

            • Cool Bev

              Tennessee Ernie is buried in Alta Mesa Memorial? Wow, so is my musical hero, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan! Now there’s an unexpected duet.

  • My surprising recollection from the museum was that, compared to modern Republicans, the Fords were pretty supportive of women’s equality.

    • Betty was a big ERA supporter.

      • CrunchyFrog

        But so was the GOP in general. No, not in 1976 – Schafly’s group had taken wing in conjunction with the other hard right groups that took over the GOP. But in the first two years after ERA passed Congress it whizzed through approvals in most states before the opposition was organized. The ERA plank was in the GOP party platform in the 1950s and might have been their earlier.

        The Fords weren’t the Doles. Part of the reason Dole was picked as VP for the 76 election was to appease the harder right elements that were rallying around Reagan. More like the original George Bush before he underwent his principles transplant as part of agreeing to be Reagan’s VP. Pro-choice, pro-ERA, pro-gun control, etc.

        This isn’t to entertain the idea that Ford was a liberal or would be a Democrat today. Like the first Bush, he was a politician first and a man of principle never. As the GOP evolved so would have he, even while not believing 95% of the crap they spewed.

    • BiloSagdiyev

      Well, it was a long time ago. Newt Gingrich was still on his first wife!

  • Bitter Scribe

    While Ford was president, I considered him the most absurd possible president there could ever be.

    I mean, think of it: A guy was president whom literally no one in the entire country, except for two counties in Michigan, had ever voted for. For any office.

    I thought the Oval Office couldn’t possibly get more ridiculous. How wrong I was.

    • No one ever voted for Chester Arthur for anything at all except a meaningless VP slot where no one was actually voting because of him.

      • Bitter Scribe

        Except they did vote for him for VP, and one of the duties of the VP is to step into the #1 slot if he has to. Nobody outside those two counties voted for Ford for anything.

      • Warren Terra

        You could say that for Truman, too, though. Quite likely for Teddy Roosevelt. Likely other veeps I’ve forgotten.

        • Breadbaker

          Truman of course was subsequently elected President in his own right, so that’s a poor example.

          • Warren Terra

            I mean, so was Teddy. I’m just saying: Erik was making the point that Arthur might have been on the ballot but wasn’t a major contributor to Garfield’s victory, and so wasn’t really the people’s choice in any meaningful way when he succeeded Garfield to the Presidency – but in 1944 FDR could have named Hitler as his running mate (well, almost) and it wouldn’t have hurt his chances for re-election, so Truman was similarly a fluke.

  • socraticsilence

    The Hoover Museum in West Branch, IA is worth visiting, it’s roughly 50% an interesting focus on the man’s pre-Presidency life, 20% on his presidency and apologia and then 30% post-Presidency.

    • The other thing about the Hoover Museum worth noting is that after FDR invented the idea of the presidential library and museum, an extremely bitter Hoover decided he had better do that too.

  • elm

    Is it usual for the museum and the library to be on opposite ends of the state or in two separate locations to begin with?

    • Breadbaker

      That was a proposal for the JFK museum and library after the City of Cambridge went apeshit over the huge number of tourists it would bring in to its original proposed location (where the JFK School of Government is today), but eventually they placed it at UMass Boston entirely. Ford certainly had a reasonable footprint in both Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids.

  • efgoldman

    The Ford is less out of control in no small part because Gerald Ford is just less an absurd figure. It’s basically all about his fiscal conservatism saving us from government spending.

    At the time, it was pretty clear that when Ford was nominated and confirmed, he’d be a caretaker for however much of Tricksie Dicksie’s term remained. Then he issued the pardon….
    He was a bog standard Midwest Republiklown of the time (and minority leader in the house). A fiscal scold, but supporter of civil rights and women’s rights. I don’t remember how much an interventionist he was on foreign policy, but the Vietnam war was winding down, and there’s not a hell of a lot he could have done to change it, if he wanted to.
    He would not be welcome in today’s RWNJ flying monkey party, but he wouldn’t quite be a Dem either, unless maybe in the Heitkamp mode.

    • Breadbaker

      In his own district, he’d probably be primaried out for saying anything nice about abortion or women’s rights today. Betsy DeVos would not approve.

  • LeeEsq

    America might be a better place if Ford won the 1976 Presidential election because it would mean Reagan was unlikely to win the 1980 one since the Republicans would get blamed for stagflation.

    • Thom

      Good point. And for the Iran hostage crisis, which probably would have unfolded about the same way.

  • BiloSagdiyev

    Pedant point: I believe the iconic image of the chopper with string of people lining up to get on it, perceived as the last chopper out of Vietnam, was not the embassy roof, but a different building in the city.

    “Last Days in Vietnam” is a documentary now on Netflix if you want to see all that, and the choppers being pushed off the edge of the carrier one by one, and all sorts of other grim realities.

    What was our gift to the Vietnamese when they gave us those stairs? Ten empty steel defoliant drums? Oh wait, it’s still in their ecosystem. The gift that keeps on giving!

    • wjts

      I confess I am unsure how many Valuable Pedant Points this comment deserves. Although the iconic photo is of an apartment building and not the embassy, it is possible that the stairs did indeed come from the embassy and not the apartment building.

      • BiloSagdiyev

        Yeah, it wasn’t much of a point. Just trying to say, don’t look at the museum stairs and think of that picture. Same grim situation, though.

  • weirdnoise

    I’m so happy that Gerry Ford saved us from the light bulb tax!

    (Seriously, though, looks like a time-warped attempt to repeal a carbon tax; was this from the “Oil Crisis?”)

    • No, that’s very early in his career. 50s.

  • Breadbaker

    I’ll be forever grateful to Jerry Ford for being the subject of numerous conversations in my dorm dining hall between myself and the woman who has been my wife for over 37 years now about how dumb everything was he was doing as President. It made it clear we were compatible. If it was Nixon, it would have taken no discernment to agree; figuring out that Ford was basically Nixon without the personal evilness told me she was the person I’d want to spend my life with.

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