The town that runs America
JERRY FORD NEVER LEFT GRAND RAPIDS, HE BROUGHT IT TO THE WHITE HOUSE AND PUT IT IN CHARGE OF THE COUNTRY
“City of Grand Rapids,” the sign says, “a good place to live.” It is, too, for many of its inhabitants—a prosperous, smug, hardworking, decent, self-righteous, pious and conservative town, a place that turns out furniture, auto parts and patriots. It is lined with stately trees, well-kept homes and revealing signs. “Jesus will never fail you. Gateway Motel. Efficiencies.” “All Bibles 40%-70% off.” “Let us kneel before the Lord our maker. Yamahas, 25% discount.” Commerce and Christ are joined, free enterprise is a religion, and Gerald Lord is President. This is his town, not only in the sense that he comes from Grand Rapids but in the sense that he never really left it. He moved out physically in 1948, when he went to Washington and Congress, but spiritually, mentally, he is still part of this place and that time. After he became vicepresident, he came back one day and had
lunch with some of the boys in the cafeteria over at the Grand Rapids Press. They sat around digging into their meat pies with plastic forks and swapping political talk. “It was as if Jerry had never left,” said one who was there. An old family friend says: “The man and the city are one. They have the same strengths and the same weaknesses. You couldn’t pry them apart with a crowbar.”
Grand Rapids stands for Middle America, and Gerald Lord stands for Grand Rapids, and for anyone who wants to understand either this is an instructive city. It straddles the Grand River, 148 miles northwest of Detroit. It was settled by Louis Campau, a Trench trader, in 1826, but soon filled with English and German settlers from New York. Then, in 1847, came the Dutch, who were to dominate the area and set the tone—pious, Calvinist,
conservative—that still prevails. Until a few years ago, movies were forbidden at the local university. Today, with a population of 200,000, Grand Rapids has 523 churches (479 Protestant, 42 Catholic, two Jewish) and only four hotels. An industrial city, with 48.4% of the work force in unions, Grand Rapids hasn’t had a strike for five years. Striking is frowned on: it shows a lack of regard for the niceties, contempt for the status quo.
“They are an inbred, conservative, dedicated group.” The speaker is Duncan Littlefair, minister of the Lountain Street Church, a friend of Lord’s since the 1940s, but not a political ally. Littlefair is irreverent, a political and religious liberal who is tolerated by the good burghers of Grand Rapids, but not approved. “People stop speaking to members of their own families if they’re seen coming out of Lountain
Street Church,” he explains. “One of the first things they ask you here is, ‘Where do you go to church?’ and the answer seals your doom. The town has always been dominated by religion and commerce. About 60 top families ran everything forever, they ran it for themselves and everybody went along. It’s changing, but slowly. This is like a southern town, it’s a place you come back to. If you grow up on the wealthy side, you go away to university, but you always come back and take over the family firm. You don’t rock the boat. There’s total complacency: there is nothing to get upset about. The world is better than it was, and will be better than it is. That’s gospel. It is also gospel that some people are rich and some are poor—and the elect are never poor. So you don’t have to do anything about poverty or unemployment. That’s God’s will. You are not hardhearted, you give a little, you don’t let people starve to death, but that’s charity, not social conscience. And this religious town has not, to my knowledge, met its United Appeal target for the last 30 years.”
Here is Gerald Ford on the same subject: “The sacrifice may fall much more heavily on the less well off than the affluent. But this is part of the process of maintaining the strength of America. And the disadvantaged are as dedicated to America as the more affluent.” It is unpatriotic, for Pete’s sake, to deny the poor their hovels: it’s a knock on the American Way.
Jerry—everybody in Grand Rapids calls him Jerry—was not brought up to knock
the American Way. He was born Leslie Lynch King on July 14, 1913, in Omaha, Nebraska. His father was a western wool dealer, his mother a Grand Rapids girl who came home when the marriage went sour and married a sturdy local businessman whom she met at a church social. His name was Gerald Rudolf Ford, and the baby’s name was changed to his, although the son spells the Rudolf with a “ph.” He also spells the nickname with a “J,” apparently to prevent confusion with Geraldines who are called “Gerry.” Jerry Ford didn’t know he was a stepson until he was 17, and by then he didn’t care. He worshipped his second father, never thought of him as anything but “Dad,” a loving, ambitious, sometimes stern parent who brought him up to respect his elders, God, good sportsmanship, hard work, the Republican Party and the American Way. When the family paint business prospered, the Fords moved to eastern Grand Rapids, where they now live, and then, when the Depression struck and business faltered, they moved back to a less pretentious house on Union Avenue.
But no one complained: they went on as before, worked harder, scrimped more, and waited for prosperity to return, which, in God’s own sweet time, it did.
Jerry was a plodding student, an Eagle Scout, an outgoing friend, a gifted athlete.
(He still is: the constantly repeated stories of his clumsiness reflect the media’s fascination with trivia and a perception of the man as a political bumbler. The reports of his stumbles are a kind of journalistic shorthand for political criticism, and quite misleading. When Robert Stanfield
dropped a football, once, during the 1974 federal election, he was immediately portrayed as the great auk: in the same way, Ford’s public slips have been ballooned out of recognition. He has a trick knee and it goes on him: that’s all. At 62, he is an accomplished skier, a graceful swimmer, and fitter than most of the journalists who wheeze around after him, waiting for a boo-boo.) He was the centre of the South High School football team, the centre, a captain and an all-American at Michigan State University in nearby Ann Arbor. A curious and revealing thing happened to him there. On Michigan road trips, Ford roomed with a black athlete, a friend named Willis Ward. In 1934, when they were to play Georgia Tech, the southern school announced that if Michigan was insensitive enough to put a black out on the same field as their pure white boys, why, the game was off. The Michigan administration caved in, and ordered Ward off the roster. Ford was furious and considered boycotting the game: since he was the team captain, that might have caused a mass walkout. He phoned his father to ask for advice, but Dad Ford said he would have to make his own decision. After some agony, Ford wrestled his conscience to the ground, and led his team out onto the field. They won, 9-2, their only victory of the year. Ford had shown that he was not a bigot, that he was deeply troubled by injustice, and that he would not disturb the ordained order, no matter what.
He worked his way through university, waiting on tables and washing dishes, then worked his way through Yale Law School
as a coach of football and boxing. He took six years to complete his law degree, but graduated in the top third of his class. It takes time, but he gets there. He returned to Grand Rapids just as America entered World War II, so he joined the navy and emerged, after 47 months of active duty, as a lieutenant commander, with a commendation for steadiness and leadership. Then he came home again—prosperity had moved the family back to east Grand Rapids—and practised law just long enough to launch his career in Republican politics.
Grand Rapids was in a high old ferment as the Republican primary loomed in 1948. Preston Delano, controller of the federal treasury, was warning that inflation had become “active and dangerous,” and Ford could see that it had. In Grand Rapids, they were asking 40 cents a pound for coffee, peas had soared to 12 cents a tin, and you had to fork out 69 cents for a pound of sirloin steak. The Cold War was well launched, and in the Grand Rapids Press David Laurence was urging the Truman government, which everyone knew was about to get licked by Thomas Dewey, to “cooperate fully in exposing all those who were tied in any way with Russian spy rings and activities.” It was an unsettling time all around. Lana Turner, stung by charges that she was running to flab, lashed out: “I just saw Rita Hayworth, and she’s fatter than I am.”
There were even more serious problems. The fifth congressional district of Michigan, with Grand Rapids at its centre, was represented by Bartel Jonkman, a rabid isolationist, and, while the area had been
strongly isolationist up until World War II, it had learned—along with Ford—that there were perils to such a policy. Senator Arthur Vandenberg, the local hero, had renounced isolationism and now backed the United Nations, and many of the local establishment switched with him—although not Jonkman. Besides, Jonkman was the tool of the local Republican machine, dominated by Frank D. McKay, the party boss and fixer, and people were fed up with him. One of those ready to kick over the traces was Republican committeeman Paul G. Goebel, partner in a local sporting goods store. Like Ford, Goebel was a war veteran and a former football star at Michigan. (He went on to play professionally with Red Grange, and became one of the nation’s top referees.) Goebel was known as the grey eagle and looks it:he is 74 now,a tall, handsome and outspoken man who recalls that the issue in 1948 was pretty clear—“McKay was a crooked son of a bitch and Jonkman was his stooge, and everybody knew it.” Goebel thought young Jerry Ford, a longtime friend and the son of an even longertime friend, was just the man to beat Jonkman. “He is the finest maní ever met,’’says the grey eagle. “Not brilliant, but not dumb, either. That’s a bunch of crap.” Ford’s first debate with Jonkman took place in Duncan Littlefair’s church, and after it was over a local lady, learned in politics, took some of his backers aside. “You gentlemen will be sorry,” she said. “This young man is ignorant.”
It beats “dumb” and rings truer. After he became President, Ford told a reporter that he didn’t read books because he didn’t
have time. That was amended by his press office, which said he reads one book a month. In his 1976 state of the union message, Ford quoted approvingly from Tom Paine’s Common Sense, but showed no sign of knowing anything about Paine, a drunken jailbird, a political leveler and hell-raiser who would not be allowed across the threshold of decent Grand Rapids homes. Ford also went to San Francisco and praised the good folk there for having recovered from the 1906 earthquake by their own efforts—not like those leeching bums in New York. In fact, the West Coast city had received massive federal aid, much of it through the banks of New York. There has always been a magnificent ignorance about some of Ford’s public utterances, but in 1948 ignorance was not a crippling handicap to a man who was hardworking, outgoing, handsome and sincere. Ford roamed the fifth district shaking hands with everyone, and he hammered Jonkman on the crucial issues of the day: “You were not alert to the fact that the army and air force reserves were not paid for their drill time, while the naval reserves
were.” Oh, that stung. It was a walkover. Jonkman was beaten in the primary, tantamount to election in Republican western Michigan, and Ford was able to announce what had hitherto been concealed: that he was engaged to marry Betty Bloomer, who was not only a former member of the Martha Graham dance troupe—which was bad—but a divorcee—which was worse. The electorate survived the shock, and Ford went to Washington to battle the evils of government intervention, runaway inflation and Godless Communism.
He never forgot who he was, where he came from, or what he stood for. He remained immersed in the issues and outlook of Grand Rapids, circa 1948, and easily won reelection 12 times. He answered all his mail, performed thousands of favors for constituents, treated the party bosses with reverence and spoke often and glowingly of the American Way. He was loyal, as he had been brought up to be, and decent and kind and conservative. A Democratic opponent said of him that he would give his lunch to a hungry child, then go into Congress to vote against free milk for schools. He voted against civil rights legislation and welfare spending and for military appropriations. In this he was the fit representative of his people. Paul Goebel, who has been mayor of Grand Rapids three times, was described to me as a perfect sounding board for the city, so I asked him about welfare and defense. About welfare he said: “I don’t think people should be allowed to starve, but all these giveaways are killing us, fueling inflation. We have to have priorities.” About defense he said: “This is a very complex subject and I prefer to listen to the experts in the defense department. If they say they need the money, I say let them have it.” That was what Ford says, too. His 1976 budget calls for a cut of about $ 14 billion in social welfare spending and a jump of $8.4 billion in arms. Generals don’t spend inflationary dollars, only widows and orphans do.
Ford’s conservatism was consistent: he voted on 4,000 pieces of legislation as a congressman and did not initiate a single one. He became House leader and then, though he never dreamed of the job, President, by getting along and going along. He kept his word, never held grudges, and worked ceaselessly, accepting speaking engagements that crowded out his family life for more than 20 years. He earned the scorn of some politicians—such as Lyndon Johnson, who thought he was too dumb to walk and chew gum at the same time—but he earned the grudging affection of many more. When Watergate was over and the American people were thrashing around, full of incoherent rage and self-contempt, there was good old Jerry Ford in the White House, looking solid and stolid and secure. He didn’t want the job, he appeared monumentally unqualified to hold it, but he would give it a good old Grand Rapids try. He was a great relief. “They tried to pull
him down,” says Maurice DeJonge, a political reporter in Grand Rapids for 22 years. “They swarmed over this place looking for scandals. They even sent a guy down from Penthouse magazine to dig up dirt, but there wasn’t any.” (Grand Rapids does not raise her sons to cheat or steal or fool around. The 1948 issue of the Grand Rapids Press that contained Ford’s stinging attack on Jonkman also carried a story about a man who had won the paper’s snapshot contest. But he discovered that he had inadvertently violated one of the contest rules, which he had not read carefully until after he received his cheque, so he returned it at once with a note of apology.) Ford opened his income tax records, and they showed that he made about $75,000 a year in congressional salary and speech fees, and that he paid about one third of his income in tax. It was a far cry from Richard Nixon.
There were, in fact, black marks on Ford’s record, but they were political, not financial. He had, in what now seems like blind pique, launched an impeachment drive against Supreme Court Justice Wil-
liam O. Douglas, based in part on the fact that Douglas had written an article that appeared in Evergreen magazine, in an issue that also contained nude photographs— pornography, said Ford. Pornography by association was pretty bad, but Douglas had done worse: he had married a mere slip of a girl less than half his age, and he had done even worse than that—he didn’t give a hoot what people thought about his marriage. “He does not give a tinker’s damn,” said Ford, “what we think of him and his behavior on the bench.” Right-thinking folk reeled with shame, but the impeachment effort failed. Ford had also proven more loyal than sensible in his support of Nixon. As vice-president, he carefully avoided learning the details of Watergate so he could defend his chief with the confidence of ignorance. Even after he was told by Alexander Haig, Nixon’s chief of staff, that impeachment was likely, he stuck by the boss, protesting Nixon’s innocence even when he knew better, almost until the moment he stepped into the resigned President’s job.
Once there, he followed a pattern familiar to any student of Grand Rapids. He kept on most of the old staff until he could move “my guys”—Phil Buchen, his old law partner, as legal counsel, William Seidman, a Grand Rapids tycoon, as economic adviser, Jerald terHorst, once of the Grand Rapids Press, as press secretary— into place. He turned, for economic council, to Seidman, to William Whyte, a lobbyist for U.S. Steel, to Bryce Harlow of Proctor and Gamble and to Ford Motor lobbyist Rodney Markley. They told him
that what the country needed was lower taxes, less inflation, smaller welfare and fewer bureaucrats. He was glad to get this advice from such solid people: it coincided exactly with what they had been saying along Pearl Street in Grand Rapids back in 1948. He made Nelson Rockefeller vicepresident: Rocky was rich and therefore worthy. “Can you imagine,” he told his friend and photographer, David Kennerly, one day, “Nelson lost $30 million in one year, and it didn’t make any difference.” He pardoned Nixon, and that was a puzzler for some—certainly for terHorst, who quit as press secretary. Duncan Littlefair, who approved of the pardon and wrote a sermon to say so (although he now sounds as if he has changed his mind) thinks he understands what happened: “A lot of these other guys have used religion in the presidency—Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, they got their pictures taken at church, because it made good politics. But Jerry believes in a very old-fashioned way. After luncheon most days, about three of these guys in the White House have a little prayer meeting. That is a profoundly important thing. Ford has no sense of history: he didn’t think of the pardon in terms of what it meant to others, he saw it as a religious act. He prayed for guidance and gave the pardon and thought no more about it. He didn’t begin to grasp the importance, but he meant well. He always means well—why is he always so wrong?”
Ford tried to beat down inflation with WIN buttons and to persuade Congress that if only it would put up another one billion dollars something could be salvaged from
Vietnam. He lashed out at New York City for its profligacy, and then he extended a helping hand. Grand Rapids understands all that. “The point is,” says Paul Goebel, “he imposed conditions on New York: he made them admit they had done wrong.” First confession, then absolution. He deplored government spending (except on defense) and sabotaged, by public criticism, the Supreme Court’s busing orders to promote integration. Grand Rapids agrees with that, too. “Busing doesn’t solve a damn thing,” says Maurice DeJonge. He revived the Cold War rhetoric over Angola, and seems genuinely puzzled that Congress will not follow its army into another quagmire there—and again Grand Rapids agrees. “Those goddamn Commies,” says a General Motors worker in the Holiday Inn bar. “If we don’t stop them in Angola, we’ll have to stop them in Detroit. You wait and see.”
Ford used the veto 44 times in 16 months to strike down legislation: he used it more frequently than any recent President, including Nixon. If he could, he would probably veto much of what is happening in America today—the crime, the discontent, the violence, unemployment, unrest, disrespect, disloyalty, all those things that are only now beginning to lap at Grand Rapids. For, yes, there is trouble back home. The blacks are getting uppity. A charming lady in south Grand Rapids explains that she has one-way glass in her front door, be-
cause: “If I look out and there are seven or eight young blacks out there, I’m not going to open it. They come in and raid you.” Unemployment is soaring—locally, it’s 11.2%—and over at the federal building a near-frantic young man, jobless since last spring, is trying to find a place to stay the night, to put a roof between himself and his wife and falling snow. Within 100 yards, a businessman opines: “The young folks have it too easy today, all this welfare and stuff.”
Ford has yet to show that Grand Rapids thinking can solve America’s problems, but he, and his city, should be seen in the light of the competition. If they are stodgy and unimaginative and sometimes unthinkingly cruel, they are also candid and straight. An attempt was made to block the retrial of then Florida Senator Edward Gurney on corruption charges until after the Florida primary, for fear it would hurt Ford’s chances there. Political columnist Rowland Evans and Robert Novak were shocked that the White House did not intervene: but that would have been an appalling thing to do. Ford defended Nixon, but does not think as he does. Ford likes steak and butter pecan ice cream and homely cliches and Cannon, but he has also shown a preference for straight-ahead politics and uncorrupted judges. He should be seen whole: he may still be an Eagle Scout, but it beats being a hit man. He stopped referring to himself as “we,” as
Nixon and Johnson had done, and he stopped the playing of Hail To The Chief every time he entered a public place. A security guard at the White House says Ford walked up to him the day he became President, read his name tag, stuck out his hand and said, “Hi, Bob, I’m Jerry Ford.” Nixon had not spoken to the guard in six years. These are not prerequisites for high office, but they are qualities for decent humanity. It is easy to sneer at his old-fashioned piety, but harder to find superior qualities in his rivals for office. Ronald Reagan is at least as conservative and a lot meaner. (If the poor suffered under his proposed budget cutbacks, he said, they could always move to a state with more welfare.) On the Democratic side, the current front-runners are Jimmy Carter, a politician with more positions than a sex manual, George Wallace, a social neanderthal, and Hubert Humphrey, who has been retreaded so often even his rubber tongue is showing signs of wear. Behind them are clustered a chorus of unknowns, favorite sons and also-rans.
Political writer Richard Reeves thinks Ford was made President because he has always been “the least objectionable alternative,” and he wrote a book—A Ford, Not A Lincoln—to say how terrible that is. A sound point. But there are worse men than Gerald Ford, just as there are worse places than Grand Rapids, and if that is faint praise in American politics today who could ask for anything more?;4%