Gerald R. Ford's Remarks at the Dedication of the Law College Building, Detroit College of Law, Michigan State University

April 21, 1998

Thank you very much, Governor Engler, for that most generous introduction. May I congratulate you and everyone associated with The Detroit College of Law at MSU, not only on the completion of this magnificent building, but on the inauguration of a bold new venture in legal education.

Indeed, it's no exaggeration to say that at Michigan State University , breaking with tradition is a tradition. This new law school, the product of a happy marriage between a private school established in 1891 and a public land-grant institution chartered before the Civil War, will combine the age-old pursuit of justice with some decidedly nontraditional fields and students.

To tell the truth, I feel very much at home in these surroundings. I was something of a nontraditional law student myself. As a child of the Great Depression educated at that other Michigan university, I didn't think, in 1935, I'd be able to afford law school. Then I learned that Ducky Pond, Yale University 's head football coach, was coming to Ann Arbor in hopes of recruiting an assistant line coach. I signed up for $2,400 a year, but I had in mind combining the football coaching with Yale Law School .

At first Yale Law School was reluctant to admit a jock from Grand Rapids on the basis I couldn't handle a full time job and the Ivy League law school challenge at the same time. I managed to overcome their objections, and joined my place in a class that included Cyrus Vance, Potter Stewart, and Sargent Shriver--a pretty impressive law firm in themselves!

It was at Yale that I was first introduced to the law as a paradoxical discipline--both absolute and flexible, fixed and evolving. The law demands respect for institutions, yet it relies upon individuals to bring those institutions to life. It is conservative as tradition, and liberal as compassion. To the youthful student of Blackstone's Commentaries, the law may seem deliberately obscure. With time, study and practice, however, its full majesty begins to exert a hold upon your imagination. Certainly it did for me.

For all that, I can't honestly tell you that my youthful ambition was satisfied with the pension trusts, labor law, separations and divorces that fall to any young lawyer just hanging out his shingle. My first success was less than auspicious. For a routine title search, my law partner Phil Buchen and I billed our client $15. He said it was too much, so we cut it down to $10.

The, right out of law school, firm of Ford and Buchen didn't last long. Like any young and struggling attorney, I was in my office on Sunday afternoon, December 7, 1941 , preparing for a jury trial the next day. I didn't realize the United States was at war until I flicked on the radio while driving home that night.

So much for my youthful legal career. The next four years I wore the uniform of the U.S. Navy. When I came home in 1946, my views, especially in foreign policy, had changed dramatically. No longer did I believe that America could exist in splendid isolation, taking shelter behind two oceans, avoiding the price of leadership in a world whose peace was anything but settled. Like countless lawyers before me, I soon discovered that my training in the law was but a prelude to a life in politics.

Of course, in those days, it was said that every young lawyer aspired to the White House or the Supreme Court. Today's lawyers seem less interested in the high court than a seat on The People's Court. Not since Perry Mason have so many lawyers appeared on camera. Along the way the pursuit of justice has all too often degenerated into a pursuit of ratings. It's as if Clarence Darrow and Atticus Finch have yielded the floor to William Ginsberg and the Dream Team.

If the controversies now raging in Washington have produced any consensus, it is a popular disdain for lawyers and politicians alike. To be sure, much of what comes over the modern airwaves would strike any judge as irrelevant, immaterial, and highly speculative. But the law is supposed to teach us perspective. Come to think of it, so does life itself. Having lived nearly 85 years, much of it spent either making, enforcing, or debating the law, I hope I won't appear too immodest if I lay claim to being something of an expert witness regarding the intersection of politics and the law.

Since my days at Yale, I have seen the human race through unparalleled tumult and triumph. I have witnessed the birth and death of Communism, the bloody futility of two world wars, and the belated realization of equal rights for American women and minorities.

Amidst so much change, I cherish the law as a source of unchanging values. As a law-abiding people, we Americans long ago told ourselves that no first class democracy could tolerate second class citizens. In this century alone we won two world wars against foreign dictators and consigned Communism to the historical junkyard. At home we overcome the Great Depression of the 1930s - survived five major economic recessions since World War II--banned the hated practice of racial segregation and insisted that the law be colorblind.

All of this required a delicate balancing act, one first outlined by a great legal student named James Madison. "If men were angels," wrote Madison , "no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed--and in the next place, oblige it to control itself."

You don't have to watch Court TV to realize that not all men or women are angels. Nor do you require C-SPAN to demonstrate how unrestrained government can play the very devil with the rights of individual Americans. Lawyers have been accused of playing to the jury, but they have nothing over a Congressman hoping to amend the Constitution. Since James Madison helped draft the Bill of Rights, other politicians have stepped forward to offer more than 11,000 Constitutional Amendments. Only 17 of these have been approved, and one of them--prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages - was later repealed.

It's a good thing the Founders deliberately made the amendment process so difficult. Otherwise, our sacred Constitution might more nearly resemble the bylaws of your local garden club.

During my nearly thirty years in government, I learned that more law is not necessarily better law. Especially when dealing with our nation's organic charter. Having spent most of those years on Capitol Hill, it will come as no surprise to you that I oppose Constitutionally mandated term limits on members of Congress.

The essence of our republican form of government--and I say Republican with a small "r"--is that we organize ourselves from the ground up, not the top down. That means we depend on each individual voter to exert his or her own measure of control, and conscientiously assume one's own degree of responsibility.

If you don't like what your elected officials are doing, its up to you--not the Constitution--to replace them with people more to your liking. On the other hand, if you abdicate your oversight role, if you limit the terms of elected officials by law, you give unlimited power to unelected congressional staff, lobbyists, and bureaucrats.

To amend the Constitution should not be a final admission of political failure. Yet that is exactly what lay behind the recent movement to constitutionally mandate a balanced federal budget. Now don't get me wrong. No one is more orthodox in his economics than I am. No one worships more fervently at the shrine of fiscal conservatism. But there is nothing conservative about robbing elected officials of flexibility in the event of war or economic depression. According to Philip Kurland, Emeritus Professor of Law at the University of Chicago , loopholes in the proposed constitutional amendment practically guaranteed that its enforcement would fall to other lawyers in another venue. In his words, "Are you really going to ask the Supreme Court to balance the budget?"

During my own years in the White House, I reminded Americans more than once that a government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have. No doubt even as we meet there are some in Congress who may wish to amend the Constitution to address current problems with federal entitlements. I have a better idea. Just as Presidents Bush and Clinton, backed by Congresses of both parties, demonstrated the will and wisdom to lead in balancing the budget, so I am convinced that working together, we can honestly preserve Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. In the process, we can strike a proper balance between the Executive and Legislative branches--between the so-called imperial president and an office imperiled by legislative encroachment.

No doubt many of tomorrow's leaders will begin their careers here, at the Detroit College of Law at Michigan State University . Nearing the end of a century scarred by oppression and stained by war, I put my faith in you and in democracy. Democracy is often messy, and almost always noisy. But that is a minor price to pay for self-government under the law.

I put my faith in freedom. For only a free society has the courage to question itself. Only a brutalized one could endanger its future by denying its present imperfections.

I put my faith in free enterprise, in the extraordinary creative possibilities that lie within seemingly ordinary men and women. Finally, I put my faith in the law itself. For all its imperfections, it remains a guide to our conscience, a restraint on our passions and a constant reminder that no man or woman is above the code of personal accountability that is as old Magna Carta.

As proud as I am of America 's past, I'm even more optimistic about her future. That optimism is renewed at ceremonies like this. Because here we learn to revere America as a work in progress. Here we pledge to make ours not a perfect, but "a more perfect" union--fairer, freer, impatient for justice and scornful of complacency.

So on this day of dedication, may we all be rededicated in the words of our unofficial national anthem " America the Beautiful." We don't often sing the second stanza of that stirring tune. That's a shame. For there is more than legal inspiration in the patriotic refrain:

America ! America !
God mend every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
By liberty in law!
Congratulations, and God Bless you all.



Return to the Selected Gerald R. Ford Post-Presidential Speeches Page