As is typical, the museum starts off with a 20-minute video, in which the late president himself takes some credit for ending the Cold War. While this may sound like an overreach, in reality, foreign policy regarding the Soviet Union was actually a consistent thread from Truman through George H. W. Bush. Reagan had great follow-through in knocking down what had been teed up for him by previous presidents. No doubt Ford getting Brezhnev to recognize the principle of human rights at Helsinki further eroded the foundation of Stalin's legacy.
The exhibits themselves started off with a cultural check of the mess that was the 70s. Personally, I could have done without the reminder that white guys wore Afros in the days that disco was king, as well as the persistence of bell bottoms. I suppose, however, a museum devoted to the 5th-most-short-lived presidency has to have some filler.
The next space is devoted to Watergate, the genesis of Ford's ascension. It doesn't pull any punches in detailing the disaster Nixon created, while detailing the justification of Ford's pardon of Nixon. I honestly think Ford truly believed it would help move the country forward.
Interspersed with the story of how Ford became the first person not elected as president or vice-president is the requisite biography. The most interesting detail is LBJ's insistence that Ford serve on the Warren Commission (and that Ford and JFK had been friends in the House).
The foreign policy area is the most compelling. During his tenure, Ford had a hand in the following:
- Overseeing the hasty evacuation of Americans from Saigon to close out the Vietnam War. Interestingly, he pushed to open America's borders to 130,000 refugees of South Vietnam, something Congress was reluctant to do. He saw it as living up to our commitment to those who support democracy and freedom. (The museum includes the stairwell used to get to the rooftop helipad of the American embassy...again, a symbol of freedom to Ford.)
- Evacuating Americans from Lebanon after the assassination of the American ambassador.
- Conclusion of Sadat's initiative for Egypt to sign peace with Israel. Kissinger had an active role, and Ford did his part by keeping all of Nixon's cabinet that remained at Ford's inauguration.
- The Helsinki meeting with Brezhnev and signing of Salt II.
- Starting the Group of 7, forerunner to today's G-20. Ford saw the G-7 as a way to figure out a way to break OPEC's lock on oil prices. Some people see the G-7/G-8/G-20 as a financial cabal, but we're probably better off when the world's richest countries try to coordinate efforts.
A section is devoted to Betty Ford as first lady. The one point that interested me was her support of the Equal Rights Amendment.
On the domestic front, Ford faced the following problems:
- Blowback from not writing a blank check for NYC's bailout. He tied any federal assistance to budget reforms that helped New York cut much red ink. Congressman Ed Koch blasted Ford, but the President foresaw other municipalities lining up if New York got its bailout.
- 9.5% unemployment and 15% inflation. The Democratic Congress wanted to tackle unemployment with more government spending. Ford dropped a number of vetoes on spending bills. The end result was expanded unemployment assistance, but less spending than Congress initially wanted. This paved the way for inflation to fall under 6% in Carter's first year. Fortunately for the current administration, inflation is not tying their hands.
- 2 assassination attempts in less than a month, one by a Manson follower. Did I mention how much the 70's sucked?