Thursday, March 03, 2005


There they were, in a little glass case in one of the display rooms of the Gerald R. Ford Museum: the 1972 Watergate Hotel burglary tools, complete with original evidence tags still attached. It’s an inspired choice for display. You could argue, in fact, that the whole museum -- a multistoried, angular facility smack in the middle of Grand Rapids, Michigan, on the banks of the Grand River -- revolves around that little display case.

It takes a little counterfactual thinking. But for the Watergate break-in, there would have been no Watergate scandal. But for Watergate, Richard Nixon probably would have muddled through the presidency until January 20, 1977, as he was re-elected to do. Had that happened, Gerald Ford would now be an obscure former congressman in his dotage, as opposed to a former U.S. president in his dotage. Obscure former congressmen might have government office buildings named after them, but they don’t get their own museums.

But for that third-rate burglary, and the security guard who interrupted it (Frank Wills), something else would be in that large spot in Grand Rapids now, who knows what. The photos, the videotapes and all the other artifacts assembled there would be in attics, landfills, possibly other historical collections or archives, or would not exist at all. Does this matter? I can’t say. But it is a lesson how small events reverberate until they affect larger ones.

I didn’t have a lot of time on Monday at the Ford museum, since I arrived only about an hour before it closed, but I went in and looked around. About five years ago I was in GR, and saw the museum from on high while in a meeting room in one of the city’s largest office buildings. During that visit, I barely had time to see downtown on foot, much less take a stroll through a museum.

On Monday, I had the place practically to myself -- a fairly frequent occurrence when visiting presidential sites. Besides the burglary tools, there were some other notable items, such as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme’s .45, with which she sought to be the first female assassin of a president. Had she been successful, no doubt the Ford museum would be very different, and somewhere in New York there would be a Nelson Rockefeller presidential museum.

The Ford museum also missed a few opportunities to spice up the place. For instance, in the faux Oval Office, there should be a wax figure of Chevy Chase sprawled on the floor. I also missed seeing a WIN button anywhere; surely they have one; it stood for the deathless slogan Whip Inflation Now, and I’m certain I remember pictures of the president wearing one. Finally, there was no mention (that I saw) of what Lyndon Johnson is reported to have said about Ford being so dumb he couldn’t chew gum and fart at the same time, or something along those lines, which was just the kind of thing that LBJ would say.

Anyway, I had an enjoyable hour at the Ford Museum even without such irreverent items. Most sites like this are usually of historical interest (See Feb. 13, 2004 ). But this museum is a little different, since I remember the time that it describes. It took me back to junior high school. That’s what I was doing when Ford became vice president and then president, though the ’76 election was during early high school.

So nostalgia isn’t quite the word. (Who feels nostalgia for junior high?) Still, I didn’t mind. I don’t overrate the period, but I also don’t share the reflexive disparagement of the 1970s common in people older, and younger, than I am.

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