and the life of a county clerk
Ann Arbor News Commends Ron Suarez Blog. Today's lead editorial in the Ann Arbor news praises one of our newest city council members for blogging, and mentions other local political blogs:
And kudos to the News for paying attention to the local political blogs.
Another side of Jerry Ford. This afternoon, I saw a big jet fly over downtown Ann Arbor, east to west, at what seemed like a dangerously low altitude. I didn't know it until later, but it was Air Force One, carrying the remains of ex-President Gerald R. Ford back to Grand Rapids. According to a radio report, they paused en route to buzz Michigan Stadium.
Update: The proprietor of Daddy Zine also noticed the jet. On Jan. 2, he wrote: "Air Force One just flew over my house at an altitude of, like, twelve feet. My guess is they were giving Gerald Ford one last look at the University of Michigan Stadium."
The news media have been full of adoring stories about the now-deceased former president, and indeed, he was an admirably unassuming guy who ended up in the White House without having spent his life fighting to get there.
Unlike most of my friends, I never held the pardon of Richard Nixon against him. My reaction at the time, and ever since, was somewhat along the lines of that scene in the movie Dr. Zhivago when word comes that the Czar has been shot. One of the characters essentially shrugs and says, well, it had to happen.
On New Year's Eve, a friend suggested to me that this reverential treatment of the Richard Nixon Pardon was intended to prepare the public and a future president for the upcoming George W. Bush Pardon — a wrinkle which had not occurred to me.
In any case, for me, the counterpoint to the recent Jerry Ford hagiography that stuck in my mind was not the pardon, but a story from about 18 months earlier.
In the spring of 1973, my friend Aubrey Marron was a senior at Lowell High School, in Ford's congressional district. Her government teacher (let's call him Mr. Smith), a Republican and an admirer of Congressman Ford, induced him to come to speak at the school.
All of the school's seniors were released from class to attend an assembly with Ford. Mr. Smith was the master of ceremonies. During the question and answer session, he wouldn't call on Aubrey, whose left-wing politics he was familiar with, but not all of the questions were friendly.
A transfer student from Yugoslavia asked a question about U.S. policy toward that country, and Ford went on somewhat harshly about "Soviet satellites". The student was becoming visibly upset at this characterization, but Ford didn't notice. Mr. Smith tapped the Congressman on the shoulder and whispered in his ear; Ford then reversed into shameless travelogue mode: "Yugoslavia is such a beautiful country! Why, Betty and I were in Belgrade last spring and ..."
The assembly completed, students were sent to their next class. Aubrey caught up with the Congressman in the hallway and asked him a probably challenging question about his support for the Vietnam War.
Ford, who was much taller than she was, looked down condescendingly, and said: "Don't worry, little girl, we'll take care of your country for you." And he patted her on the head.
"I wanted to kick him," said Aubrey. But she didn't.
The students dispersed to their classes, and it happened that Aubrey's next class was with Mr. Smith, the government teacher. The students sat down at their desks and awaited the teacher. Minutes passed — more minutes passed — and he didn't show up.
Half an hour into the class session, Mr. Smith came into the room looking distressed. "Aubrey, after class, I need to talk to you," he said.
What had happened was this: Ford had asked Mr. Smith for a copy of Aubrey's school record, including her full name and address and the folder containing her grades and so forth. The teacher, appalled, had stood his ground and refused. However, granting or refusing this request was up to the school's main office, and it was never made clear to Aubrey whether or not they complied.
So, what on Earth was Ford doing? When I first heard this story, many years ago, I took it for granted that the Congressman was "taking names" of suspected left-wing agitators, to turn over to some Red Squad. But why just Aubrey, and not the other students who asked pointed questions during the assembly?
Another possibility is that Ford was just playing retail politics as the hometown Congressman, wanting to send Aubrey a good-to-meet-you, thank-you-for-your-concerns kind of letter (not that it would have been well received). But if so, why didn't he ask for just her name and address, rather than her entire school record?
This episode certainly shook up the government teacher, and led those of us who knew the story to see Jerry Ford as a much more sinister figure than popularly supposed.
Today, it would be a huge scandal if a politician attempted such a thing, and anti-stalking laws would probably be invoked. But 1973 was more casual about the privacy of high school students, while political paranoia was just receding from highs we can hardly even imagine nowadays.
I was a high school freshman at the time of the Kent State killings in 1970, and along with millions of others in the antiwar movement, I thought those four deaths were just the beginning of a bloody crackdown on dissenters like us — even high school students. Meanwhile, other millions, seeing threats and disorder in what we thought were peaceful protests, feared an organized effort to overthrow the United States by force and violence.
I do not defend the establishment of Red Squads like the one in Michigan, the use of illegal wiretaps, and the compilation by police of dossiers on millions of law-abiding U.S. citizens, but I'm sure those actions were founded in fear of the violent revolution that was openly discussed on the Left and in popular culture.
But back in the fall of 1976, what seemed the final argument against Ford's re-election (persuasive to at least one friend who would otherwise have voted for a third party candidate instead of Carter) was the apparent tolerance for sneering racist views in his administration. Yes, Earl Butz was forced to resign over his infamous joke about "what coloreds want," but only after it was published and became an embarrassment.
Of course, when the funeral bell tolls, most of us are inclined to be more forgiving than vindictive. Jerry Ford was a man of his times, and (yes, as the obits all say) the man the times needed. Coming into the White House without a vast campaign apparatus or a cult of personality, and with Nixon's operatives in place throughout the Executive Branch, his options were severely constrained. I freely concede that he did the best he could as President. May his memory be for a blessing.
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