If I told you I’d had half a dozen chats with Jerry Ford, I’d probably be stretching the facts. Three or four, maybe five — that would be about right. I remember the last time very well — there’s a little story about that.
It is true that I knew the former president, and there is a story in the way I, a kid without rich parents and coming from a hick down in western Michigan, could wind up working in the office of a congressman who would become minority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives and eventually, vice president and president of the United States. Quite a mouthful. And I was indeed pretty much without political connections, or so I thought. Well, anyone who knew me as a high schooler in Lowell, Michigan during the 1960s and later as a student at Kalamazoo College could have been forgiven for taking me as someone who didn’t exactly play his cards like a pro.
Just as there is a story in the manner in which I got the job with then U.S. Rep. Gerald R. Ford, R-Grand Rapids., so there are other stories. For instance, how I got advance word that the U.S. Marines would invade the Dominican Republic in spring 1965. Or there was that stroll through the hotel and up the elevator with a defeated candidate for U.S. President and California governor named Richard Milhaus Nixon. Or there was that wild ride through Washington, D.C. on the jump seat of Ford’s big limo with the license plate that said “53” with a U.S. rep from Wisconsin spouting off about how the proposed Medicaid law — this was ’65, remember — would be “the death knell of free medicine.” This was Melvin Laird.
It’s no exaggeration to say that I learned lessons in Ford’s office that helped me understand politics that later unfolded as I covered politicians like the late Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara or his deputy, Mike Duggan, when I worked as a reporter for the Detroit Free Press. The irony is that I may have misunderstood some of the things I was witnessing in and around H-230 and H-231, the U.S. Capitol offices assigned to Jerry Ford in January 1965 after the House Republicans elected him their Minority Leader.
There were things I saw, and then there were things I did not see. Some of those things not seen helped me understand Detroit and national politics, too. For instance, when I investigated U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr.’s abuse of legislative staffers in stories I wrote in 2003 and 2004 for the Free Press, an excuse given to me by an editor to explain why the paper wasn’t too interested in printing more of my findings was the old saw, “Everyone’s doing it.” Very few reporters could have responded as I did that I had worked for a congressman who could easily have done what Conyers did, ordering me and other staffers to do campaign hack work on the government dime, but he didn’t abuse his power and didn’t steal from taxpayers. It’s that kind of knowledge that puts the lie to editors’ and other apologists’ lame excuses that “everyone does it.” Goddamit, everyone does NOT do it!
I’ve known for years that the answers to many of my questions about things that happened in Ford’s office, things that I incompletely understood, might be found just a few miles west of my home in Plymouth, Mich. In Ann Arbor, on the North Campus of the University of Michigan, there’s the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library. Now that I’ve retired, I’ve made several trips to the library. I’ve been finding documents that have cleared up some mysteries. But some have only deepened.
I didn’t keep a diary of my three months as a $75-a-week clerk-intern in Jerry Ford’s office. I didn’t make notes and in those pre-Xerox days, I didn’t lug home reams of photocopied documents. Over the years, 43 of them, since I worked for Jerry Ford, I’ve relied on my memory alone. In some cases, I’ve had help. My office mate in Ford’s Capitol suite was also my roommate in the house where a few of us K College interns were living in Arlington, Virginia. Jon Muth is an attorney in Grand Rapids. Over the years, Jon and I have bolstered each other’s recollections of that very exciting time in our lives.
The archivists at the Ford Library want to do a video interview with Jon and me. It appears that former employees, even lowly interns, of Ford are a rarity at the library. In my case, it turns out that I can shed light on the very system, if that is the term, for organizing the records in Ford’s congressional office. I am the one who created the system that I’m sorry to say only partly reformed the filing of Ford’s correspondence. It is not always easy to find things in the archive. That too is part of the story.
Jon Muth and I have had some good laughs about some of the things we saw and heard in the so-called “Board of Education Room,” better known as H-231, the little annex office where he and I worked. The most amazing and enduring of my memories from working in Jerry Ford’s office flashed back to me around the time Jerry Ford died, Dec. 26, 2006. I read a newspaper report about Ford’s alleged comment in the 1970s to New Yorkers seeking aid for their financially strapped city. He supposedly told them, “Drop dead.” And then again, maybe not.
What Ford said about Fidel Castro is also a mystery, but one that fascinates me, since I played a part in suppressing the tale.
I plan to write occasional essays about my memories from Ford’s office and my experiences in the Ford library. First, I’ll tell stories as I recall them nearly a half century after they happened. Later, I’ll revisit them, having scrounged for corroborative or elaborative details in the Ford Library.
I’ll start with that elusive story about Castro.
Contact me at joelthurtell(at)gmail.com