By David M. Shribman
Executive Editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- The Gerald Ford Presidential Museum towers over the west bank of the Grand River here. The airport at the edge of town is named for the 38th president. So is the elementary school over on Madison Avenue. Though Ford was buried here nearly a decade ago, he remains a palpable presence -- and a symbol of a Grand Rapids persistence and pragmatism, even progressivism.
For nearly a quarter-century on Capitol Hill, eight months in the vice presidency and two and a half years in the White House, Ford personified a certain strain of Republicanism, wary of big government but willing to use it to assure the rights of minorities, stingy at home but generous abroad, willing to play the partisan but also willing to play 18 holes with his party rivals.
So much of that is gone -- the openness to bipartisanship, the instinct for compromise, the Jerry Ford notion, as John Inhulsen, the current chair of the county GOP here, put it the other day, of having "a practical approach to conservative government where he believed it was possible to disagree while remaining respectful to one another."
This is the point in the conversation where the name Justin Amash is introduced. Amash, 36, now occupies the Ford seat in the House. He is a Tea Party stalwart not given to compromise, a stickler for a strict construction of the Constitution, as much a conservative's conservative in the 21st century as Ford was a pragmatic's pragmatic in the 20th.
Therein lies an important story, the transformation of Republicanism (which once gave a warm but cautious embrace to liberals) into conservatism, and the journey of conservatism (whose adherents once described themselves as classical liberals) since the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan transformed the creed into perhaps the most intellectually yeasty element of the American debate.
Grand Rapids and the area surrounding it are ground zero for that transformation, for nowhere in the United States is that transformation personified more vividly than in the difference between Ford -- inevitably described as "good old Jerry Ford" -- and brash young Amash, whose conservatism matches his description.
This transformation can be measured statistically. In Ford's last three years in the House -- very partisan years, though with a fading Republican president, Richard Nixon, who nonetheless pressed several liberal social, environmental and diplomatic policies -- he won a tepid average score of 64 percent in the American Conservative Union ratings. In Amash's last three years of service, he scored a scorching average of 91.
Amash won his first term, in 2010, in a landslide -- some old Ford partisans claim some credit, tinged with regret, for this -- and won re-election two years ago by a healthy margin.
He was one of the principal mutineers against former House Speaker John Boehner, whom he regarded as a master of "intimidation and coercion," and last month used his Facebook page to urge his fellow Republicans not to compromise on gun rights. Amash, who refused more than a half-dozen requests for an interview for this column, is a virulent opponent of Donald J. Trump, whom he characterizes as "just like the establishment."
"Jerry would not be happy with Amash," says Peter Secchia, a former U.S. ambassador to Italy and a onetime outsider himself who became vice chairman of the Republican National Committee. "He became more and more proud of his position as one of the lone votes in Congress against things no one remembers. I hope he matures. I'll leave it at that."
What so many Grand Rapids grandees forget is that, like Secchia, Ford, then 35, once was an insurgent himself, and it was in that role -- much like Amash -- that Ford bucked the party establishment and took on an old bull of the Republican Party, the onetime isolationist Bartel J. Jonkman, a four-term incumbent, defeating him in a primary.
Like Amash today, Ford came to be regarded as a classic example of the Republicans of his time, which is why he won a bloody 1965 battle for House minority leader -- again as an insurgent, this time against Rep. Charlie Halleck of Indiana, who himself had toppled a Republican mastodon, Rep. Joseph W. Martin Jr. of Massachusetts, a onetime speaker.
Ford won attention for his votes on civil rights and consumer protection. "Ford strayed from the Republican fold more times than most other Michigan Republicans during the early years," Jerald terHorst, who briefly served as the president's press secretary, wrote in a Ford biography.
"Ford believed in the federal government and was willing to expand it to help people have better lives," says Douglas Brinkley, a Rice University historian and Ford biographer. "He was a very moderate Republican and in many ways he was a liberal."
Not a word of that applies to Amash, who has been criticized by business leaders for refusing to compromise or to trade votes to win support for local projects -- positions Inhulsen, the GOP county chairman, says are "points of pride" with the lawmaker, adding, "He's been open and honest and transparent about that."
But Ford is fast becoming a gauzy figure of the past and, while the museum chronicling his career was recently refurbished, he is increasingly a part of history rather than a part of the life of Grand Rapids, the Congress, the presidency or the Republican Party.
Even so, his memory and his record stand as something of a control group for the politicians who follow him.
"Whereas Ford grew ... into leadership material, Amash operates in a very different climate, with different measures of success: vastly less loyalty to party, to institution," says Richard Norton Smith, a former director of the Ford museum and the Ford library in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who is working on a biography of the president. "In a larger sense, though, it's really the story of how the GOP has changed: the rise of libertarianism, the backlash to Ford's generation and its version of internationalism." Once again, Grand Rapids is Petri dish to the nation.
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (email@example.com, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.)
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