Gerald Ford museum has a Ronald Reagan problem

Nicholas G. Hahn III
The Detroit News

The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids will reopen this week after being closed for renovations, but there’s more to presidential museums than bricks and mortar. They are schoolhouses of presidential legacies. And even though presidential foundations might be expected to massage historical events, politicking just doesn’t seem right.

Gerald Ford’s slice of history is sometimes overlooked, and that might have something to do with when Ronald Reagan challenged Ford for the Republican nomination for president in 1976. A film shown daily at the Ford museum recounts that campaign this way: “Ford’s own future would be advanced that summer by the Republican convention, but only after he had beaten back a divisive challenge in the primaries from conservative champion Ronald Reagan of California.”

Reagan was a proud advocate of conservative principles, but that doesn’t mean his campaign was “divisive.” Craig Shirley, author of “Reagan’s Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All,” admits the Republican primaries that cycle were contentious, “but not because of Reagan. Ford ran a negative, personal campaign.”

Shirley points to a Ford commercial in which a narrator reminds voters: “Governor Reagan couldn’t start a war. President Reagan could.” That sent the Gipper, who campaigned on issues, for a loop.

Reagan, in spite of those who feared him a war-monger, won the Cold War without a shot.

There were also the personal jabs eerily similar to this year’s presidential contest. “Governor Reagan does not dye his hair,” Ford quipped at a 1974 dinner. “He is just turning prematurely orange.”

After that 1976 campaign, the Reagan-Ford relationship “never warmed,” Shirley says.

Yet the museum’s attempt to settle political scores from 40 years ago does a disservice to Ford’s legacy. It has been said that some fights never end, but the Gerald Ford Presidential Foundation should throw in the towel on this one.

Twitter: @NGHahn3