Stories from the Road: Ford Presidential Museum - Grand Rapids, Michigan (May 25, 2018)
The feeling of catharsis that oozes from every exhibit at the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan is obviously intentional. In some ways, it was almost predestined. Ford, the respected and seemingly honest All-American football star who inherited the presidency by a series of historical coincidences, could only serve as the foil of his disgraced and crooked predecessor Richard Nixon. How could Ford be anything besides authentic when compared to the disgraced man he once called a friend?
Yet, no one could have imagined the way the museum would look through the lens of our current time. Just as no one could have imagined Trump.
The exhibits documenting Ford’s early life all feel similar to the narrative at any presidential library. Some formula of struggle paired with exceptionalism enables the future president to enter adulthood as some rough form of the diamond that they will supposedly become. Ford’s story of being abandoned by his biological father, only to find discipline and drive through his new stepfather and a combination of educational and recreational activities is no different. However, once the exhibits turn towards the winding road of political events that ultimately lead to Watergate, the museum begins to feel more familiar, but less banal.
The stories of Nixon attacking the press and denying culpability are similar enough to present day headlines that I can feel my stomach turn. As a video plays, I close my eyes and can easily imagine a slightly whinier voice with more extreme hand gestures expressing the same sentiment, albeit with a lesser vocabulary. The attacks feel no less dangerous with the passage of time, however, seeing them in this context is something of an exercise in fantasy. Within the walls of the museum, I know the outcome even before I reach the next room. I don’t have to teeter on the edge of what feels like insanity waiting for the next headline, poll number, or election result. They are simply one glass case away. The story has a happy ending here. Or, at least, an ending validated by history. Ford’s pardon of Nixon may have ensured his electoral loss to Carter in ’76, but history has continued to tout his virtues. He saved the country, the exhibit screams both implicitly and explicitly. He saved us all.
As I walk through the exhibits, I can’t help but wonder if this is how people will one day feel when they read about our current times. The same pang of fear in knowing that our country was once so divided, but also the relief in knowing that it’s over. Someday the Trump Administration will be nothing more than another exhibit in a museum. (I can’t bear to think about the Tweet laden wasteland that will one day be the Trump Presidential Library.) Kids will wonder what it was like to live through such an unusual time. The same way I am wondering about Watergate now, as someone who did not live through Nixon’s rise and ultimate downfall.
There is probably some comfort to be found in knowing that history continues on, but also dread at its proclivity for repetition. Just because the country seemingly survived our last round is no promise for the future. Watergate is not a roadmap for Trump. Instead, we are forced to try to chart the course and understand the topography as we go. A great unifier like Ford may be currently hiding in plain sight. Or maybe the great unifier is an extinct breed, driven away by the division and caustic nature of our current political climate. We won’t know until it is almost too late. The next president may bring catharsis or chaos. The only way to know is to continue.