Jerry Ford, whose funeral is taking place at this very moment, is still on my mind. I wrote a post for Unfair Park the day he died, recounting a brief encounter with him the day after Richard Nixon announced he would be the new vice president, replacing Spiro Agnew. In the last week since his death, I have been poring over the remembrances, eulogies and analyses, causing me to remember an irritation I felt with the national media when Ford was president.
But more to the point, a lady from Michigan wrote to Unfair Park taking me to task for misquoting the slogan of the town where I encountered Ford that day, which I said in my post was "Cedar Springs, Red Flannel Underwear Capital of the World." Sally Grayvold, who said she was the actual banner painter at the time, claimed in her comment, "Never did the word 'underwear' appear anywhere on any banner in Cedar Springs." She said the motto was, "Red Flannel Capital of the World."
She has to be right. It's hard to imagine now, in an age when people go to work in their underwear, but a reference to undergarments on a banner in Dutch Reform western Michigan in 1973 would have been unthinkable.
I was so certain -- I can see that banner in my mind's eye as if it were before me now -- and yet I was certainly wrong about it, and Ms. Grayvold is certainly right.
Her comment spurred me to re-read my little essay, and in so doing I decided I found at least one other error.
I quoted myself as blurting a challenging question to vice president-designate Ford without first identifying myself, and I would never have done that. I would have given my name and affiliation first -- "Jim Schutze, Free Press" -- and then my question.
That, by the way, would sort of explain the rest of the exchange. Ford knew I was a local guy asking a national question, awkwardly, so he knew I was running an errand. He wanted to know whose errand it was, which is why he asked me why I asked the question. I blurted that I didn't know why: They told me to. People laughed at me, and rightly so.
Here's something else I think I remember in re-reading my essay, but, you know ... memory does plays tricks, doesn't it, especially the memory of an encounter with an important person. Memory has a tendency to want to make a better story of itself.
But I swear I remember after re-reading the thing that Ford made some kind of little gesture -- he stepped forward and either shook my hand or touched me on the shoulder or said something -- when everybody was guffawing at me for admitting I didn't know why I was asking my own question. He did something, either physically or verbally, that made him my protector in that moment, as if to say, and this is not a direct quote: Give the guy a break. He's just a soldier.
So here's what I do remember about the Washington and New York press coverage of Ford, along with Chevy Chase. The media love histrionic personages -- people who make good copy and good pictures, who play to the stereotypes and shibboleths that are convenient crutches for bad writing. Nobody loves extravagance and royalty more than the media, and, of course, the entertainment people really don't know the difference between fantasy and fact.
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The treatment of Ford was always that he was this sort of simple-minded Middle Westerner, the iron-jawed doofus who played football too many times without his helmet at the University of Michigan.
Even though I disagreed drastically with his politics, I always sensed much more in Ford, and not just based on my sort of stupid two-minute encounter with him. To me, he seemed like the kind of guy who has the self-confidence to engage opposing and complicating views. In that, I saw a size and maybe even a very American kind of leadership and grandeur -- things notably missing in the sitting president, for example, who firewalls himself from contradiction.
The media, both in journalism and entertainment, painted Ford as a bumbling rustic. I always saw Gerald Ford as bigger than the media and, in his own way, smarter.
I haven't been back to Cedar Springs since. Please tell me they're not all walking around town now in red flannel thongs. --Jim Schutze