Jerry Ford spent decades in Washington D.C, as a Congressional powerhouse. He spent about two-and-a-half years in The White House as president. He spent the last three decades of his life mostly living by a tony country club near me in Rancho Mirage, Calif.. But his real home, always, was the heart of America's heartland, Grand Rapids, Mich. This is farm country, small-business country, elbow-grease country.
Here, Jerry Ford worked in a paint factory, became an Eagle Scout, a star football player, a top student. Here the character of a rock solid man of unquestioned integrity was molded. The man I knew when I wrote speeches for him, the man the nation and the world knew, was the Grand Rapids boy who worked his way through the University of Michigan washing dishes in the Deke house, worked his way through Yale Law School coaching football, fought and nearly died on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific in World War II. He was molded of Michigan iron.
I first met President Ford when he invited me to sit in on Cabinet meetings where my areas economics and law were being discussed. I could scarcely believe his appearance: in a light blue checked, double-knit suit a total shock after Nixon's hand-tailored dark wool elegance from Saks Fifth Avenue. He was just a small-town guy. No pretence at all. None. But guts. Wow, did he have guts, to pardon Nixon when the liberal media were screaming for his blood, to spare the nation that agony, and to deprive the media of the circus they wanted. Guts to work his heart out even as his wife suffered with breast cancer. Guts to tell the truth about the Polish people that they would never be slaves to the Russians.
Defeated for election, Ford went peacefully into elder statesman mode, helped his noble wife dignify the fight against alcoholism and addiction, and stood for decades as a figure of grace and humility. Five miles east of the lovely home that Ford lived and died in in the California desert, there is a simple cottage where men and women go to attend meetings to bring peace and sobriety. On one wall there is a list of the people who have been coming frequently, just by first name and last initial. Two of those names are "Gerald and Betty F." Not President. Not Minority Leader. Just "Gerald and Betty F." Just two people trying to spread oil on the troubled waters of human existence. A Ford, not a Lincoln, but what a glorious Michigan-made vehicle of the human spirit.