Yesterday evening, well-renowned Presidential Historian Richard Norton Smith and Executive Chairman of Meijer and fellow Historian, Hank Meijer discussed the life of President Gerald Ford in Upper Baldwin. At the center of the discussion was Smith’s newly released biography of Ford’s life titled, “An Ordinary Man: The Surprising Life and Historic Presidency of Gerald R. Ford.”
The event was co-hosted by the Gerald R. Ford Institute for Public Policy and Service at Albion College and the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation. In attendance was 62nd District’s State Representative Jim Haadsma, recently re-elected this November.
The event began with a speech from Interim President Joe Calvaruso. After the event, Calvaruso gave the Pleiad a statement via email:
“This evening, we were treated to an intimate discussion about the life, legacy and presidency of Gerald R. Ford by two eminent scholars and historians who knew him, admired him and have become definitive experts on the man, the father and the leader,” Calvaruso said.
Following Calvaruso’s speech a member of Albion College’s Ford Institute, Farmington Hills senior Alyssa Myers, spoke on behalf of the “Fordies.”
“As a Fordie, my classmates and I are part of a long tradition of studying President Gerald R. Ford and emulating his life lessons,” Myers said. “President Ford was a big believer in giving back, helping those less fortunate and making life a little bit easier and a little bit more pleasant.”
In a pre-lecture phone interview, Ford’s daughter, Susan Ford Bales said how important public service is for the community, saying it can “get us out of ourselves” and help us “understand where people come from.”
Myers said that Fordies look for opportunities to give back to their campus and community. A community that Gleaves Whitney, executive director of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation, said he has been pleased to get to know. As he introduced Smith to the crowd, he said that no one could be better fitted to write this book than Smith because of how well he knew Ford.
“He interned for President Ford, wrote for President Ford, directed the Ford Presidential Library Museum, as well as a dozen similar such organizations. He has even lived over the Ford’s burial site and museum for a decade,” Whitney said.
After ten years of living over Ford’s burial site, listening to over 1000 interviews – including 170 of his own – and writing 40 drafts, Smith finally published the biography on April 11th.
In a question segment at the end of the lecture, Smith explained his writing process and why he chose to write about Ford, saying that he considers himself to be a “dinosaur.”
“The people I write about, you know, they’re quintessential, dead, white males who are not particularly in fashion right now,” Smith said. “I tend to write about people who either have not been written about or have been stereotyped, caricatured.”
Smith writes the stories that have not yet been told, he said.
“The thing about this book is, one story leads to another story leads to another story, like one generation of Ford’s story leads to another,” Smith said.
Smith said that a lot of the book was able to be written because he uncovered untold stories.
“We are 50 years since Watergate, you wouldn’t think there was much still to learn, but there is a lot that we still don’t know,” Smith said.
According to Smith, when the Ford Family started to create the Vice Presidential residence and as First Lady Betty Ford was starting to decorate it “Ford as Vice President had to go through the motions” of touring the house with her.
“On the ride back, Ford says, ‘Betty I don’t think we’re ever going to live in that house,’” Smith said.
That day, Ford had been informed that “barring a miracle, he would become President within a matter of days,” following the impending resignation of President Richard Nixon.
Following his unforeseen presidency, Ford had a choice to make: whether or not to pardon President Richard Nixon.
“One of the great unknown stories about the pardon was that he had a right-hand man, his close friend, the man he called his conscience,” Smith said.
The man’s name was Phil Buchen, who was friends with an “unorthodox” minister in Grand Rapids, named Duncan Littlefair, dubbed “Duncan Little Faith” by his critics, according to Smith.
“Let’s just say in his Christianity, there was no room for miracles, and not much room for God,” Smith said.
Buchen was not convinced that pardoning Nixon was a morally just thing to do, said Smith, and so he turned to Littlefair.
“He brought him to Washington, nobody knew. Nobody has known. I found the secret service log, confirming that Duncan Littlefair was in the White House,” said Smith. “I do not believe he saw President Ford face-to-face, that would’ve been too risky.”
Instead, he wrote a statement, “emphasizing mercy as a justification for a presidential pardon,” that made its way into Ford’s announcement of the pardon. However, the speech did not “accurately reflect the reasoning behind the pardon,” Smith said.
“He wasn’t interested in forgiving Richard Nixon, he wanted to forget Richard Nixon,” Smith said. “And his tapes and his papers and his legal prospects were consuming 25% of this new president’s time, and here is a man in a job he never wanted.”
Bales said her father’s integrity was at the heart of his decision to pardon Nixon.
“I think the one thing about my dad that never changed is his integrity. He did a lot of things, like the pardon, for the country,” Bales said. “It was a personal decision, but it was not to improve his resume – that’s for sure, because it certainly, you know, caused him a lot of problems when he ran for election.”
Smith said that the decision to pardon Nixon was a very “practical, almost ruthless decision” that was presented to the public as almost exclusively an act of forgiveness.
“The rest of the country was not eager to forgive Nixon, and Ford bore the burden of the pardon with him the rest of his life,” Smith said.
Meijer, the co-discussion leader, said to Smith that the pardon is seen as the signal of his presidency when in reality, there was so much more that he accomplished.
“He thought that his legacy would be his attempts to restore a measure of trust in American government that had been eroded,” said Smith. “We now know, with the advantage of time and papers that have become available, oral histories that have become available, Ford didn’t finish so many things as he started things. Things that affect our lives to this day.”
Smith said Ford was the first President to embark on economic deregulation and that the legislation that he started, was continued in a bipartisan fashion by the administrations that followed him.
Bales said that attending lectures like these and reading books like Smith’s are important for understanding history.
“You really need to go back and look at what came before us and how we dealt with it and how we managed it,” she said. “To learn about why people do the things they do today, and you just might learn something.”