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Scholars study Ford to understand Bush

P.J. Huffstutter
Vail, CO Colorado
AP Photo/White House, Courtesy Gerald R. Ford LibrPresident Gerald Ford meets with Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld, center and Dick Cheney in the Oval Office, April 22, 1975.
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. (Los Angeles Times) – If archivist David A. Horrocks could point to a favorite historical gem housed inside the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, it would be this: a single sheet of paper, outlining a 1975 senior staff meeting.

Ford had called them into the Oval Office, to iron out key staff changes. Donald H. Rumsfeld would become secretary of Defense. Dick Cheney would be named chief of staff. George Bush would “replace Bill Colby at CIA.”

“It’s the future unfolding,” said Horrocks, the library’s supervisory archivist who has worked with the collection since it arrived here in 1977. “To search through these papers is the closest thing most people will ever get to sitting in the same room with the former president.”

Inside a modest brick building at the University of Michigan’s northern campus rests the world’s preeminent collection of Ford’s papers ” a treasure trove of written documents from one of this country’s most controversial periods.

Buried amid this mountain of paperwork, photographs, audiotapes and video clips are insights into Ford’s most enduring legacy ” a staff of strong and powerful personalities, who still wield political influence today, say academics and researchers.

That tie has lured hundreds of journalists, authors and historians here to pore over the presidential papers, looking for clues about the Bush administration and explanations for the decisions it has made ” particularly as a growing number of documents have been declassified in the past decade.

Even without the new stuff, there’s still plenty of material to search through.

The amount of documents gathered during Ford’s brief presidency is as large as that saved by Franklin D. Roosevelt ” which encompasses more than three terms as president, World War II and the Great Depression.

“It’s simply one room, filled with tables and floor after floor of documents,” said James Mann, author of “Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet,” who has visited the library in the past. “All of the presidential libraries are terrific to work at, but there’s something about the Ford library that’s particularly great.

“It’s physically small, so it’s easier to navigate at times. And the material, given the current administration, is rich.”

There are thousands of national security staff files. Many were written by Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft, who would later become national security adviser.

There are family journals and letters, reflecting the emotional drain of leading a country furious over the pardoning of Nixon. Snippets of conversations with Soviet leaders, the notes jotted down by personal secretaries ” tossed in the trash but later salvaged. Memos about the plight of Vietnamese refugees. Millions of sheets of paper ” with several linear feet of shelf space devoted to papers signed by his hand.

And, of course, the talking points outlining Ford’s meeting with his senior staff.

The library is part of a nationwide network of repositories, managed by the National Archives and Records Administration and starting with the country’s 31st president, Herbert Hoover.

Most are located next to a presidential museum or in the same complex: Roosevelt’s center is in Hyde Park, N.Y.; Hoover’s is in West Branch, Iowa; and Harry S. Truman’s is in Independence, Mo.

But Ford’s papers and artifacts are divided between the library in Ann Arbor ” where he graduated from the University of Michigan in the 1930s ” and a museum in Grand Rapids, where he spent his youth.

The division dates back to Ford’s time in Congress, when the university secured his promise to give them his papers when he stepped down from his political tenure. When Ford later became president, his adopted home town made the plea to have his museum built there.

Ford said yes to both, and both opened in 1981.

Over time, the library became known more for serious research, while the museum attracted the more casual tourist. In fiscal 2006, about 60,000 people visited the facilities, with only 2,000 of them requesting research materials from the library, according to staff.

That number’s expected to grow now that Ford has died, as it has at other presidential libraries after the deaths of their namesakes.


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