"Learning from the Past, Living for the Future"
April 17, 1997
Thank you very much, Richard [Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum Director Richard Norton Smith], for those generous words. Exactly 40 years ago this summer Harry Truman--the first American President with whom I had the honor of being associated--dedicated his Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri. As befitting Mr. Truman's generous nature, he invited his sometime adversary and enduring friend, Herbert Hoover, to assist in the honors. Afterward, a woman in the crowd approached Mr. Hoover and asked him how former Presidents occupied their days. "Madam," said Hoover, "We spend our time taking pills and dedicating Libraries."
Of course, it wasn't true then, and it is even less true today. With his far-flung humanitarian work and his unceasing efforts to avoid conflict around the globe, it sometimes seems as if President Carter lives on airplanes. President Bush, on the other hand, in addition to his many other activities, prefers to jump out of airplanes. He even invited me to go along with him on his recent parachute mission. "Not gonna do it," I told him. "Wouldn't be prudent." Besides, after all those jokes about my golf swing, do you really want to tempt fate by having me jump out of a plane?
Along with Presidents Carter and Bush, I belong to a rather exclusive trade union, one that makes up in diversity what it lacks in numbers. On the surface Jimmy Carter and George Bush appear as different as peanuts and pork rinds. They hail from different backgrounds. They belong to different political parties. But they share a lifelong commitment to public service. They are patriots before they are partisans.
Moreover, their years in the White House remind us all that the essence of presidential leadership consists of taking risks--not polls. Jimmy Carter, at Camp David, took risks for peace in the Middle East. George Bush took risks in war against Saddam Hussein. History will be grateful to both. The same holds true for Ladybird Johnson, Rosalyn Carter and Barbara Bush. You have made your own contributions to America. The result is a nation more beautiful, more humane, and more literate.
On this day of reflection and renewal, you will forgive me if I acknowledge some debts of very long standing. In my first remarks as President, delivered at a time of national as well as personal soul searching, I said I was indebted to no man, and only to one woman, my dear wife. In truth, there are no words to fully express how much I owe to Betty. For almost fifty years she has borne with my shortcomings and I have rejoiced in her graces. Scarcely smaller is my debt to four wonderful children and the extended Ford family. Likewise the countless friends who have become family, and who have earned not only my gratitude but the nation's, for their service in and out of government. I especially thank the many Members of my Cabinet who are here. They were magnificent advisors and doers. I congratulate each one for their superb service to America.
Today is the latest, but by no means the last, chapter in a story that began over 80 years ago, when a courageous woman named Dorothy Ford, having escaped a disastrous first marriage, returned home to Grand Rapids to begin a new life with an infant in her arms. All that I am, and whatever I may have achieved in this life, I owe to my mother Dorothy and my stepfather Jerry Ford, Sr.--for the strength of their character and the example of their love.
It is no accident that this museum should be located where it is, or that its front should reflect the city of Grand Rapids. For what is my own life, except a reflection of this city's most deeply held values? Here is where I first gained a sense of place, faith in a moral universe, and the certainty that we are all God's children. Three cardinal rules governed the Ford household: work hard, tell the truth, and come to dinner on time. All this was once part of an unimagined future; after today it belongs to a history that others will judge.
Someone has defined history as an unending dialogue between the present and the past. In this ongoing conversation, many voices clamor for our attention. Almost sixty years ago Franklin D. Roosevelt had the inspired idea that it wasn't enough to preserve America's history--but that it must be disseminated as well. It was FDR who invented the presidential library system to share that history with millions of Americans who might never get to our nation's Capitol, yet whose voices should be part of the democratic dialogue.
President Roosevelt knew that Washington, D.C. is not the ultimate source of our strength or wisdom, that it most certainly should not be the final repository of our history. Which is why he began the practice of constructing privately funded presidential libraries and museums, close to the people, instead of locking away our heritage in some marble palace in Washington.
Thanks to the generosity of the Gerald R. Ford Foundation, FDR's vision takes on new form in a museum designed for the 21st century. Built with private funds--not taxpayer dollars--this is not a monument to any one man or any one presidency. Rather, it is a classroom of American democracy, a place where school kids as well as scholars will enjoy privileged access to the innermost workings of their government. This is hands-on history, the result of a creative partnership between the Ford Museum and Library staffs--past and present--and a remarkable team of designers, craftsman and work crews, led and occasionally goaded by Richard Norton Smith, a true visionary who said it wasn't enough to renovate the Museum--we would reinvent it.
Most gratefully, I thank the generous donors whose financial support made this Museum possible sixteen years ago and the outstanding version today. And so we have. With the added perspective of time and the very latest in technology, we won't just tell you the story--we'll put you inside the story: from a typical day in the Oval Office, to a behind the scenes look at how foreign policy is made. Museum visitors will be given a holographic tour of the White House.
They will attend a State Dinner. Stand on the floor of a tumultuous Republican National Convention. They will share in the pride of our Bicentennial and the pain of April, 1975, when I watched a 20-year commitment of American blood and treasure dissolve in a frantic airlift from the roof of American Embassy in Saigon.
While we learn from the past, we live for the future. This is especially true of the young people in our audience today. You will spend more time in the 21st century than anyone here on stage. Outwardly, your America will not look the same as ours. New technologies, new industries, new forms of communications; these and much more will expand the frontiers of life in the years ahead.
But amidst all these changes, some things must never change . . . things like individual decency and honor and compassion and service to others. Amidst all that is new, we must never lose the old faith in an America that is bolder and better with each passing generation.
In the White House I was called upon to help restore public trust in our government. Twenty years later I fear we have turned the clock back. Politicians today raise more money, and enjoy less respect. Many find it impossible to listen to each other, because they are busy shouting at each other. In some quarters civility is mistaken for weakness and compromise for surrender.
I know better. More importantly, so do the vast majority of the American people. Politics is a clash of ideas, not a blood sport. It is a contest of principles, not a holy war. So instead of blaming the people for their mistrust, maybe politicians in both parties should ask themselves why the public is so turned off to politics. They might begin by banishing the spin doctors who find their convictions in focus groups and who confuse leadership with salesmanship. For in the high stakes game of history, only those who are willing to lose for principle deserve to win at the polls. Anyone can read a poll; only a leader can move the nation.
You don't need to be president to make history. Make your own history by contributing to your own community. Then you will discover the joy of being part of something bigger than yourself--and the realization that, while we make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.
A legacy is a gift from one generation to the next. I hope that my legacy to young Americans is a freer, fairer America, where every day is a new beginning, and every life a vessel brimming with possibility. I hope that you see history--not as a catalogue of human folly--but as a source of inspiration that one man or woman, fired by an ideal, can make the world a better place. That's what led me into politics half a century ago. That's what makes me an optimist in the evening of my life.
Sometimes we stumble in the dark, uncertain of the best course for ourselves and the nation we love. But the past holds out its own lantern to guide our steps. More than 170 years ago, an elderly gentleman in Quincy, Massachusetts wrote to his friend atop a Virginia mountain top. John Adams, then in his 80th year, wanted to know whether the 73 year old Thomas Jefferson would be willing to live his life over again. Jefferson replied promptly and positively. He believed the world to be a good place on balance, one where pleasure outweighed pain. "My temperament is sanguine," wrote Jefferson. "I steer my bark with Hope in the head, leaving Fear astern."
I have never heard a better definition of what it means to be American. Like a runner nearing the end of his course, I hand off the baton to those who share my belief in America as a country that has never become, but is always in the act of becoming. Presidents come and go. But principles endure, to inspire and animate leaders yet unborn. That is the message of this Museum. That is the mission of every American patriot. For here the lamp of individual conscience burns bright. By that light, we can all find our way home.
Thank you very much.