Full Episode Transcript
- [Presenter] We believe and have always believed in this country, that man was created in the image of God, that he was given talents and responsibility and was instructed to use them to make this world a better place in which to live. And you see, this is the really great thing of America. It’s time to discover what binds us together and finding it has the power to transform our world. That’s what I believe. How about you?
- Well, hello everyone. I’m Doug DeVos and welcome to “Believe”. We’re thrilled to have you join us again. And today we have a wonderful opportunity for a great conversation with a great friend, Steve Ford and we’re talking about leadership. What a great topic. In our world today, you’re always looking for great leaders. You’re looking for people of character and, you know, Steve Ford had a dad who we all looked up to and President Ford, who we got to know for those of us in Grand Rapids and just admire our whole community has a love affair with President Ford, Mrs. Ford and Betty Ford and the whole Ford family. And that’s continued on. Steve has served for many years as a chairman of the Gerald R Ford Presidential Foundation. And what a great opportunity we have to talk. So Steve welcome. We’re thrilled that you’ve taken a little time to join us today.
- Doug, thank you. It is just an honor to be on your program. I’m excited for your podcast. I’ve seen a couple episodes. I love what you’re doing. You’re getting people to kinda rethink issues and rethink a second time. Keep up the good work.
- Yeah. All right. Well thank you, my friend. I appreciate that. And you know, we talked about the, you know, “Believe”, that was the title of my dad’s first book that he wrote. And the whole idea is to talk about things that stand the test of time. What are the principles? What’s the ideas that stand the test of time, that apply in people’s lives. And certainly you got a front row seat of watching your dad live those principles, but before we kind of get into that, I’d love to just make sure everybody knows you, you know, so there’s a fun story of when I think you’re in the White House still at the time when you had a path to choose in life and you made a choice that you’ve joked about. That was kind of interesting. So why don’t you tell us about that and tell us what that path has led you to where you are today?
- Well, I’m not sure this is a story about character though, Doug, but I was an 18 year old kid at the time when dad became president. And all of a sudden I got 10 secret service agents, which trust me is not the group you’re hoping to hang out with when you’re 18 years old, but I’d been accepted to Duke University. I was three weeks away from going to Duke University in August, 1974. And I was trying to figure out how in the world am I gonna move into the freshman dorm at Duke, with 10 guys with machine guns and radios. And didn’t really feel like the right way to go. So I literally walked into my dad’s office, the oval office and said, “Dad, I’m not ready to go to college right now. I wanna take a year off. I’ll go back to school next year”. And he, like any good father, he says, “Okay, what’s your plan”? Right? He wants to know you got plan, right. And, and I said, “Dad, I’ve always had this dream to go out west and be a cowboy”. And he’s like, “What”?
- I love it. And this is in the oval office, right?
- We’re standing in the oval office and it’s not like he doesn’t have more important things like the energy crisis or the war in Vietnam, or something but his 18 year old kid doesn’t wanna go to college. And so he says, “A cowboy”, I said, “Yeah”. And that was like one notch above starting a rock and roll band in the garage. Right? But thankfully they let me take off and I headed to Montana and Utah and started working on ranches and cowboying and the rodeo. And in reality, it changed my life. I went on to study agriculture. I was a ag major. I thought I was gonna run a big cattle ranch. And I loved it. I rodeoed for 35 years and had horses. And it, you know, it was following my heart is really what it was.
- Well, following your heart, absolutely spectacular. And you’re still following your heart today, still involved with horses and that world?
- Not so much today.
- The old body’s kind of wearing out, too many back surgeries and not quite rodeoing anymore. I quit a few years ago, but still following my passion, just in a different way. I spent 35 years working as a TV and film actor and movies like. “Black Hawk Down”, “Transformers”, “When Harry met Sally”, stuff like that. And during that time, probably the biggest thing that happened to me about 29 years ago, I went through alcoholism and had to get sober. It was a time in my life when I didn’t have character and didn’t have integrity and had to learn those principles. And it was life changing 29 years ago, grace of God, and a good 12 step program.
- Wow. Wow. Well, and that, you know, when you talk about your experience, between acting and being a cowboy, being out west, how did you, and the challenges you faced personally, how did you reach those decisions to apply the character that you wanted in your life, in a way to go through by the grace of God, through a 12 step program to make those decisions and to move forward? Help us understand a little bit, what did you believe about yourself that, you know, that got you to a point of applying those principles in a way that you wanted?
- Well, I think, you know, I’m gonna relate back to a wonderful speaker we had at Dad’s museum years and years ago, and Billy Graham came there and spoke.
- And Dad relayed a story he told in the green room before he was getting ready to go out and speak. And Billy Graham said the greatest challenges for America in the new millennium is it’s not gonna be science. It’s not gonna be technology. It’s not gonna be math or medicine. He says, it’s gonna be taming of the heart, taming of the spirit. And that really hit me years ago because my spirit, my heart is where my values lie, where my character, my integrity lie. And 29 years ago, when I was having the time of my life as an actor and living in a selfish way, there was no delayed gratification in my own life. And wasn’t really serving others. That’s when my life came crashing down because of alcoholism and God put a stop to it and said, “You’ve gotta re-look at your life and try to transform yourself”. And again, I’m a grateful alcoholic because if it weren’t for my alcoholism, I wouldn’t have learned the principles I learned about character and integrity. And thank God, listen, Doug, you and I have great parents.
- We had a big safety net. I had a big safety net. So, you know, I just committed to going to AA meetings. And I don’t know if you know this, when I was getting sober 29 years ago, my dad and mom, you know, we talk all the time. And my dad sent me a book that your dad wrote. And he said, this is my friend Rich. And you oughta read this book. It’s got a lot of great principles and basic ways to live your life. And I’ll be honest with you at that time I didn’t know a lot about your dad. I knew who he was, but that book, your dad spoke a lot of truth. And so I was always very grateful for the things I read that he wrote. It was pretty simple formula, but again, it goes back to, we had a good safety net. I had seen what character is, I had seen what integrity is. I just hadn’t lived it. And the reference I would make, Doug, is today character is hard work. And it is deeper. It is like stain to wood instead of paint, paint you can chip off, but character gets in the wood and stays and that integrity doesn’t go away. So that’d be my best example of it.
- Yeah, absolutely. That’s a great illustration, has to be who you are from the inside out.
- And Steve, you talked about your challenges, but your mom talked about hers as well. And in many ways there’s so much impact that your mom has had when she talked about her challenges, when she started the Betty Ford clinic and maybe help us understand that period of time a little bit as well. And maybe how it impacted your journey.
- Well, I think Mom would tell you that she used to call herself an ordinary lady in an extraordinary time. And, you know, I think it first started actually, when they were in the White House. And two weeks after we moved into the White House, she got diagnosed with breast cancer. And at that time breast cancer, she was gonna have to have a mastectomy. Women did not talk about it. It was a closet disease. And I remember my mom and dad standing on the front lawn of the White House, holding hands saying, “Gosh, we’re gonna take the shame off of this disease”. And so that was her first challenge and women really rallied around her for helping them. And the next challenge was after the White House, when she too went through a problem with alcohol and prescription drugs, and listen, here you had a first lady raising her hand saying, “My name is Betty, I’m an alcoholic”. That was unheard of.
- And so I think God just put her in the right place at the right time to deal with two big issues that everybody deals with in their families. And she was a great inspiration. 10 years later, when I raised my hand, it was great to have her as a resource. And I didn’t get to go to the Betty, you know, she started the Betty Ford center.
- And everybody thinks I went to the Betty Ford center and it’s not like we had a family wing or something, you know, where you got everything. I couldn’t go to the Betty Ford center. So, but she was a great inspiration. And the way Dad loved her through both of those was a great inspiration to us as kids.
- Isn’t that a great, great story. Great example. And I know many of the times worked with the foundation, the story of your mom and your dad’s support for her, it was just, you know, new maybe for the country to see, or the world to see that level of transparency, that level of openness and that level of genuine affection. I love the quote in front of the museum in Grand Rapids where I’m beholden to no man, and only one woman. Yeah.
- Yeah, that’s right.
- You know, when he talk about transitioning the presidency.
- Think about this, Doug, Mom got hundreds of thousands of letters from men and women around the world for both the breast cancer and the alcoholism. The letters that inspired me the most were the ones that Dad got that said, “Dear Mr. President, thank you for showing me how to stand next to my wife if she goes through a trial”. So that, yeah, Dad was, he was beautiful with Mom. He loved her.
- Wow. Wow. That’s spectacular. Great. Thank you. Thank you for sharing those, you know, personal stories and things that are part of your life. I’d love to hear now, switch this transition a little bit, and talk about your experience to be the son of a president especially when you moved into that role quite quickly, under some pretty interesting circumstances. Help us understand that journey and what that was like for you and your family at that time, because for years you’d lived in DC, you’ve been part of the, you know, the community there. And we’ll talk a little bit later about the, maybe the community that existed then in Washington, DC, that doesn’t exist today, but walk us through your journey for you and your family.
- Well, our journey happened literally overnight. It’ll never happen like this again in American history. Just to give your audience who was a little younger, some background information, my dad had been a Congressman for 24 years from the district in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was the house minority leader, head of the Republican Party. He was getting ready to retire. They were gonna move back to Michigan and start his law practice again. My mother was excited. She didn’t like being in politics. And then Richard Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, got in trouble. He got caught in a bribery scandal and had to step down. And my dad’s name was put on a list with three or four other men that Nixon might pick as their next vice president. And nobody thought Dad’s name was on the top of that list, Doug, it was the top of that list was people like John Connally, former democratic governor of Texas turned Republican, Nelson Rockefeller, former governor of New York, more liberal of the Republican Party. And nobody really thought Jerry Ford, Congressman, Grand Rapids was gonna be the next president. And the way it happened was Nixon called in Carl Albert and Mike Mansfield. Carl Albert was a democratic speaker of the house. Mike Mansfield was a democratic leader in the Senate. And Nixon asked him who he could get through Congress to be the next vice president. And basically Carl Albert and Mike Mansfield were so upset with Nixon and Watergate and worries like that, that they told him if he tried to nominate John Connally it’d be a blood bath in Congress. He’d never get him through. And Nixon asked him, “Who can I get through”? Because the Democrats controlled Congress, both the House and the Senate and Carl Albert and Mike Mansfield said, “Jerry Ford is a guy that we trust, has great character. We know we can work with him. He’s willing to cross the aisle every once in a while and compromise and work on deals”. And so that’s how his name came up as vice president. Nixon appointed him. Congress passed that. And 10 months later, we all know our history. Watergate brought Richard Nixon down and Dad all of a sudden found himself President. Now, think about this, Doug, overnight Nixon resigns. We’re standing there on the front lawn of the White House as Nixon boards the helicopter to fly away. And Dad was gonna go take the oath of office at that time, to give your viewers a little history. The stock market had lost 60% of its value in the last six months, the price of oil had gone up three to 400% from $3 to $4, a barrel to $12 a barrel. There was an energy crisis, a war in Vietnam, cold war with the Russians. And we had a economic recession and unemployment was close to 10% and inflation, think about this though. Inflation was 14%. That is what dad inherited as he walked into the east room of the White House to take the oath of office. And the last point I’ll make, he’s the first man to become president of the United States that did not go through a general election.
- He was never on the ticket with Nixon. That’ll never happen. Most countries where you get a new president and there’s not an election, usually you have troops in the street.
- We found a way to do it. So that’s how we literally got catapulted overnight into the White House.
- Right. And so what’s that like to you? You’re 18 years old. You’re getting ready to go to school. You’ve already had a bit of a traumatic experience 10 months earlier, where you’ve taken the step in the vice presidency.
- What’s that feel like.
- It was just unbelievable because 10 months earlier, I used to walk by the White House like anybody else, looking through the big fence, wondering what the heck they do in there. And here I was standing there now. I still didn’t know what we were gonna do in there. It’s just a unique moment in history and we were so blessed to be part of it. What scared me the most was what I just talked about, was what was facing Dad, the war in Vietnam, the cold war with Russia, the economy was in shambles.
- And it was not a good time to be an American president. And then within weeks, as you know, Dad had to make the toughest decision in his whole political career and that was the pardon of Richard Nixon.
- Boy, we could spend a whole topic on that. And that was really, probably one of the truest tests of character, because he put the needs of the nation first. There was a lot of anger and he could have focused it all on Nixon, but he put the needs of the nation first towards healing, didn’t he?
- It really was a decision. Everybody around him told him, you can’t pardon Richard Nixon. They’ll crucify you for this. You’ll never win in another election. He knew that they figured the Nixon pardon would cost him anywhere from 10 to 15% of the vote later on. But I’ll tell you the thing I think changed Dad’s mind the most. And it’s really a story of having grace and mercy. Nixon was guilty. These things happened. But he called in Leon Jaworski who was a special prosecutor. And he asked him, he said, because once Nixon resigned, Doug, there were still criminal charges pending against Richard Nixon. And he called in Leon Jaworski and he asked him, how long can Richard Nixon drag this out in the courts? And Leon Jaworski said, “Three, four, maybe five years”. And I think at that moment, Dad realized the country just couldn’t go through another 3, 4, 5 years of Richard Nixon in the headlines. We had to get out of Vietnam. We had to heal the recession. We had to deal with the cold war. There were bigger things on the plate. And he decided there was only one person that could get him Nixon out of the way. And that was him as president to pardon. It cost him an election later against Jimmy Carter. You know, he only lost by 1% of the vote. And then the pardon probably cost him 10 to 15. But to me, it was really a story of grace and mercy to heal at the right time. I remember he pulled me aside. We were talking about the pardon one day and he said, “Sometimes a president has to be like a father of a family”. He says, “One of your kids gets outta line. They break the rules”, and he says, “There’s consequences and a father has to make a decision of what those consequences will be and how severe”. But he said, “A father sometimes realizes that to keep the whole family together, he has to have some grace and mercy on that child, or it’ll tear the whole family apart. And so he gives that child, grace and mercy for the betterment of the whole family”. And that was, I think what he was thinking long term, Doug, not short term, not an election. He was thinking long term health of the country. And I think historians have rewarded him with, he made the right decision, here we are 40 years later.
- Yeah, yeah. You know, we won’t go into it, but that’s you know, to make a decision to put yourself 10 to 15 points behind in a national election for the presidency of the United States and to say, “It’s the right thing for the country so I’m gonna do it”. What an incredible test of character. And I know we were involved together when the film was made with that title, “A Test of Character”, you know, about your dad’s life. And you talked about the speaker of the house at the time when Nixon was looking for a vice president, the speaker of the house and the majority of the Senate saying, “This is somebody we trust, this is somebody we can work with. This is somebody who stands on principle”. How did you see that beyond the pardon and beyond just being selected and going through that process, how did you see him carry that out in life, whether its during his presidency or after, how did you see some of the things he lived, the principles he lived by just to continue to show? Maybe there’s a few stories or memories that you may have of how he just stood on his principle, no matter what the cost.
- Well, I always say to young people when I speak to them and I speak in prisons and juvenile detention facilities and halfway houses about my sobriety and particularly young men, and I tell ‘em, you know, character, we live in this society that if you got a problem, you just download an app, right? You get a new app. That app only works for about six months and then you gotta download a new one. I said, “This idea of character it’s not an app you can just download. This is something that takes years of building”. And I think when you think of Dad, where it came from, I would trace it all the way back the furthest link is to his mother. A lot of people don’t know, Dad was brought up in a abusive family. His biological father used to literally beat his mother. He beat her on their honeymoon night. That’s how bad it was. And when Dad was originally born, his name was not Gerald R. Ford. It was Leslie King and his mother, Doug, was such a strong woman back in 1915, 1914, when Dad was just a baby, she fled in the middle of the night one night with dad, they lived in Omaha, Nebraska, and he’d just attacked her with a butcher knife. She took Dad as a baby and fled across the river to Council Bluffs, Iowa, and hid out for three or four days until her father came down on a train to pick her up and take her back to Chicago. She got a divorce. Now, Doug, you know, back in 1914 women…
- That didn’t happen.
- That just didn’t happen then.
- No, they would’ve said, “Well, what’d you do to make him beat you”? I mean, women did not have any rights. And she was a strong enough woman. She got a divorce, took Dad as a baby, moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan. And in Grace Church there, met a man named Gerald R. Ford, senior, and they married. And he took dad under his wings and his stepfather made sure he had the right church pastor, the right football coach, the right boy scout leader, Dad’s still the only Eagle scout to ever be a president and invested in him. And I think that’s where the roots of that character and integrity are, it’s Grand Rapids. It’s the Midwest, it’s kind of where it starts from.
- Wow, that’s a powerful story, Steve, of your grandmother.
- You know, and what she did and of her husband, of your dad’s stepdad, of how he invested in and taught those principles and characters. And we’re talking about it now over a hundred years later.
- Well, and you think about it, it proved to me that it’s that idea of love, not blood that raises kids, because his stepfather was not a blood relative. He’s a man that made a decision to invest in my dad’s life and that made it, that changed my dad’s life.
- Right, right. Wow. Powerful story. Thank you for sharing that. And you know, so many ways and again, another quote I remember at the museum from Tip O’Neill, you know, said, “God loves America” or again, I may not get it right. And in the darkest times he gave us Abraham Lincoln and the civil war and he gave us Gerald Ford. So the character that he just exuded was seen, so it was seen on the football field, it was seen at university, it was seen in his early days of Congress. Why do you think people saw it? What was it, you know, that they just saw in him, why would the speaker of the house and the majority leader from the other party say, “He’s the one”. What did they see?
- Well, I think that generation, that whole generation was like that. You know, that was the greatest generation. I remember reading in Dad’s book of the day Pearl Harbor got hit and he was driving home from his law office in Grand Rapids and turned on the radio in his car and Pearl Harbor’s been bombed. And the first thing he did was drive to his mother’s house and say, “I’m gonna join up in the Navy Monday morning”. And he did.
- It was a generation of people who knew how to serve. And so his way of working with people, which I think made him a good president in the end was as the house minority leader, he was about joining people together. If you’re the majority leader or minority leader, you’ve gotta get coalitions to get bills passed. And the Democrats, his colleagues trusted him. They saw that he was willing to work across the aisle. And Doug, I’ll tell you the one story I think speaks at all, the day after he pardoned Richard Nixon, I mean, the country was on fire with anger about that. Everybody wanted a pound of flesh from Richard Nixon and Dad called up the leaders of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, and said, “I have cleared my schedule this week. I will come and testify in front of any panel you have about any questions you have about the Nixon pardon”. And think about this, Doug. He was the first president since Abraham Lincoln to voluntarily ask to go in front of Congress and be grilled on any issue. Usually you get subpoenaed.
- Right. There’s a process here. You don’t normally volunteer for something like that.
- You don’t just show up in front of a house judiciary committee after the Watergate. And he told him, he says, “I’ve cleared today”. He says, “If you need five days, I’ll clear the rest of my week to sit there and answer any question”. And I believe he understood what America needed at that time was transparency that, you know, I’m here, I’ll answer questions. And that one story right there, I think speaks for who he was.
- I remember seeing some of that video and I remember, I saw it not that long ago. And I was just shocked. How can a sitting president put themselves in that situation? And again, it was service above self, whether it’s, as an Eagle scout and how he carried those principles through. Steve, talk a little bit about, and again, in our world today, we have challenges. You talked about the challenges your dad faced when he moved into the White House. We still have challenges today. In fact, kind of go through that list of stock market, oil, energy, war, you know.
- Like yes, in our world. But there seems to be a sense in a lot of ways, not just in Washington DC, but this leadership gap where leaders are kind of more out for themselves, you know, talk about that esprit de corps, those characteristics that you saw him display in Congress. And maybe just give a perspective, do you see that today? Or why don’t we see that today? Things seem so divisive, congressional approval ratings are as low as they’ve ever been and in many ways, my opinion, I’m curious your perspective, you know, my opinion, they’ve kind of in many ways, abdicated their role to make law or take a leadership position. They’ve kind of delegated it if you will, to the executive branch and all the agencies that make administrative law and do things or they put so much into the Supreme court because the courts will solve it rather than getting together and making laws about some of these issues we’re facing, especially when there’s some issues that there tends to be broad support in the public. What’s your perspective when you see that, how do you feel about that? Or what are the things that come to your mind?
- Well, it’s interesting if you go back and I think you’ll agree on this, the pendulum kind of swings. When Watergate happened, you saw Congress take a lot of executive power away and it swung back to Congress, to the legislative branch. And then it tends to swing both ways and move around. You know, Dad, he loved being a public servant and he was a moderate Republican. He was a conservative, fiscal conservative.
- He wanted balanced budgets, all those things, he was more liberal or more moderate on social issues. I’m afraid to be honest with you, Doug, I’m afraid he’d have a tough time finding a place in his own party today. And I think John F. Kennedy might have a tough time finding a place in his own party today.
- It changed so much. He again, used to travel around the country, campaigning, trying to get more Republicans elected, and he’d have to go to Arkansas or New York or Oregon or whatever. And he said the Republican party has to be a big enough party that you can welcome the politics of a governor from Arkansas, and also have a mayor in New York city, that’s a Republican, neither one of ‘em could get elected in the opposite state.
- Right, right.
- Still our tent has to be big enough to fit ‘em all under there. So I think that was his view and vision. And his best friend was Tip O’Neill, the democratic speaker at the house. Right. Tip O’Neill and there’s a funny story. They would battle all day on the floor of Congress, hammering out some bill. And then that night Tip O’Neill would be at our house for dinner. I mean, that’s just the way it went. And Dad, when he was president was playing golf with Tip O’Neill and Tip put his arm around my dad and he said, he goes, “Jerry, God dang it this a great country”. He says, “You and I can be best of friends, different parties, be out here playing golf”. And he says, “13 months from now, when the campaign starts back up, I’m gonna be traveling around the country, trying to kick your butt”. There was a respect and yes, politics is a tough game, but listen, I think you have the same view I do. I’ve got a lot of friends that still live in DC and they tell me Republicans and Democrats don’t meet, they don’t sit down to dinner. They don’t break bread. They don’t find out, you know, where’s your daughter going to college? What’s your dog’s name? It’s relational. And I think that’s Dad and your father the same way. It was all relational. It wasn’t just about politics. And today it’s just gotten so toxic. I wanna remind you of a story.
- About your dad and my dad and your dad told me this story. He said, when my dad was a young Congressman, probably 1948, brand new Congressman. He says, your dad said they were announcing a new product they’d developed, and they were doing it out of their back of their house, a garage or something. He said, “I thought I would call our young new Congressman, Jerry Ford and see if he’d come over and cut a ribbon at our house”. And so he called Dad and my dad, you know, when you’re a young Congressman, you’ll show up for anything.
- You’ll do anything. Absolutely.
- So your dad told me, he says, dad came over and they stood in front of the garage or the backyard and cut some ribbon for a new product that Amway or whoever it was at that time had. And I thought, “My gosh, didn’t both of these guys do pretty good”?
- What a great story, what a great memory. And I remember, you know, we had another event later on, your dad was still in Congress. It was I think 73. So just before things changed, he cut another ribbon when we opened our headquarters building. And that was the first time I met him. I was, you know, a kid in school. I remember I got outta school to go to the event. So I was pretty excited about that.
- Then lemme ask you this, Doug, let me ask you this. And I knew this show was gonna be on character. And I laid in bed last night thinking about it. And my thought is that character is kinda of like taxes. You don’t like paying it. It’s hard to pay but the way taxes are, you know, if you stop paying taxes, all of a sudden, there’s no money for the firefighters to come and put your fire out at your house or the roads don’t get paved. And the potholes get big and police don’t show up. And if you don’t pay taxes for a while, life starts getting kind of bumpy and rough and there’s not a lot of safety net. And character is the same way. If you don’t pay the tax of character, of trying to make the right choices and values and integrity, that’s when I found I became an alcoholic. I did not make the right choices to have character in my life and my life got pretty bumpy and finally crashed. And it’s a tough tax to pay, but it feels good in the end. If that makes sense.
- It’s a good, investing in character, thinking about it, paying attention to it, to establish, you know, what you believe. That’s what we talk about on this program. What do you believe and what do you believe about yourself and what do you believe about your potential and what do you believe about the opportunities that are ahead of you in your life and your determination to work through it? And let me ask you this, or ask you to talk about this, the forgiveness of having a tough time, but making a different decision and moving to a new place. A as you said, you made a decision 29 years ago, that you weren’t living the way you wanted to. And you made a decision. At your dad’s funeral, President Carter was there and spoke wonderfully about your dad’s faith. And it was a incredibly powerful, I think they had an agreement together that whoever passed first, the other would speak at the funeral and President Carter, again, here’s a relationship with the guy who beat him in the national election to be president. And yet they had a remarkable relationship and the genuine affection that President Carter had for your dad, just showed through. And he talked about his faith beautifully. Is there anything you want to share on that perspective that you saw with your dad?
- You know, Dad used to tell the story at the dinner table, when the president of Egypt, Anwar Sudat died, they were gonna send a delegation for the funeral. And they sent a delegation, was gonna be former President Nixon, President Carter, and Dad. They were all former presidents and Dad used to joke. They were gonna put ‘em all on Air Force One and send them to Egypt for Sadat’s funeral. And Dad said, you know, “More than one ex-president on Air Force One, is one too many”. And he said he was dreading the flight because how is this gonna work Nixon, and Carter and everybody. And he said, after the funeral, Nixon went on to Europe somewhere to make some speeches. And he and Jimmy Carter flew home together. And he said it was the most wonderful flight he ever had. He got to sit down with Jimmy and they talked about a lot of things, besides politics. They talked about family, they talked about their faith and they found that they were grounded in many of the same beliefs and this friendship developed. And it was a lifelong friendship. Then I think it’s a great example of, you know, how to do politics. And it’s relational again. It’s exactly what we talked about earlier, but yes, they had a deal, whoever passed away first, the other guy had to do the eulogy.
- Yeah. Yeah. Well, President Carter spoke just beautifully and the affection that they had. I love the story. I can imagine, where do you go on an airplane for all that time, with too many, with all those ex presidents there, what do you say, “Hey, so how’s things going”?
- It was like a 12 hour flight and, you know, there’s one presidential cabin and who gets to use that and, you know, yeah. He said it was kinda awkward.
- I’m just thinking through the logistics of that. Even when you’re a former president, you’re going, “Oh man, this is gonna be ugly”. There’s gotta be a different flight I can take or do something like that. Wow. Oh my, you know, Steve, you talked a little bit about your dad in a service in World War II and you talked about Pearl Harbor and then he went on to serve in World War II. And we had some time recently together at the launching of the Gerald R. Ford, the newest aircraft carrier in the fleet. How do you, you know, what sense of pride did that give you to see your dad’s name associated with the men and women in the US Navy who were so committed to defending our country and really those in the armed forces who he was a part of and he admired. How do you see that as part of your dad’s legacy?
- Well, if we talked earlier, he got handed one of the toughest jobs, which was bringing the troops home from Vietnam after we had lost 50,000 men in Vietnam over years and years. When he served in the Navy, he served on a aircraft carrier. He was a Lieutenant Commander. He was a navigator. He got caught, their fleet got caught in the still the worst typhoon or maritime disaster in the United States Navy. They got caught in a typhoon going through the Pacific and the ships were pitching, rolling, they’re right in the middle of this typhoon. And Dad got called to general quarters, up to the bridge. And as he was climbing the ladder, a rogue wave hit the ship and it pitched the deck of the aircraft carrier and he went shooting across the deck. He thought he was gonna just end up in the sea and around an aircraft carrier there’s a little two inch lip around the whole edge to keep tools from going off. And his heels hit that little lip, prevented him from going in the Pacific. He regained his strength and walked across the deck, climbed up into the bridge. And what had happened during the typhoon was because it was war time, all the planes were fully fueled and down on the flight deck and they had broken loose, and there was a fire down below. And so he had to go lead a team to fire fight. They lost two boilers. The ship was idle in the middle of this typhoon. They finally got the fire put out and they saved the ship. But when Dawn came, they looked out and they had lost two destroyers in the middle of the night, had rolled over and they lost a thousand men to the sea. And it’s still the largest maritime disaster ever. Now, Dad’s heart was in an aircraft carrier. He went through all that. And so for him to see his name on an aircraft carrier, and it’s a new generation, it’s a Gerald R. Ford class. That was a pretty proud moment, that made him very, very happy.
- And I think that was one of the pieces of news that happened shortly before he passed. Is that correct?
- He was aware of that?
- Dad, last month of his life, when it got passed by Congress that his name would be on that aircraft carrier, Don Rumsfeld, Secretary Rumsfeld called up, I was down with Mom and Dad in Palm Springs. And he said, “I’d love to come over and see the president and let him know we’re naming an aircraft carrier after him”. So we got Dad all set up and Don Rumsfeld came over on, it was Easter weekend. Oh, excuse me, Thanksgiving weekend and came through the front door and I’ll never forget my dad yelling. “Rummy”. He was a long time friend and secretary Rumsfeld let him know there’d be an aircraft. It brought a lot, that was about a month before Dad passed away. So that was a great moment for Dad.
- That’s wonderful. And your dad’s service in that respect and the sacrifices so many who served in defense of our country and defense of our constitution.
- And the respect and admiration that he had for, you know, living that character in so many ways. Maybe one more story. And I think we, again, through the foundation made a film about your dad’s football career.
- Yeah. And integration, I think it was “Black and Blue”, if I recall, the movie about your dad’s refusal to play because a black player was not allowed to play in a game, if I recall. Can you share with us again, another story of him standing up on his character and principle?
- Yeah, I will. And even before I do that, I’ll give you one of the other toughest decisions Dad made concerning the military, was after the Vietnam war, after he’d gotten all the troops home, he gave a conditional amnesty to all the young men that fled to Canada and decided not to serve. And he caught a lot of grief from that, from the military. And he gave a speech in front of the veterans of foreign wars and said, “If I can’t give this speech here, then I shouldn’t give it at all”. He says, “These young men need to know that it’s time to heal from Vietnam. And we need to bring these young men home. They’re gonna have to do some public service to earn their citizenship back, but we need to welcome ‘em home and heal this wound to Vietnam”. So that’s one thing where he stood on this principle. The Willis Ward story, Dad was playing at Michigan. He played on two national championship teams. It was his senior year, 1934, Michigan was playing Georgia Tech. And at that time, Georgia Tech was an all white school. And Michigan had one black player on its team, a star, guy named Willis Ward. And he and Dad were best of friends. They roomed together. And Georgia Tech found out that Willis Ward was on the team. And they said they wouldn’t take the field if Willis Ward suited up for the game in Ann Arbor. Now, this was kind of a tradition when the Southern schools came North, this is in the 1930s, the Northern schools, a lot of time would bench, you know, their black players so the Southern schools would come play ‘em, it’s the old Jim Crow, laws, and dad and several other team members were so upset at that, that they threatened to quit the team and not play the game against Georgia Tech. Now, Willis, after talking with the team, the coach and everything decided not to play and sat the game out. And I think he encouraged everybody to go play and Dad played the game. And now that year Michigan’s record was one in eight. They won one game and lost eight. But the only team, the only team they beat was Georgia Tech. I think it was nine to two and they kicked their butt pretty good. But dad and Willis Ward were long time friends and Willis went on to be a lawyer, a judge, I think. And he had a very successful career, ran for Congress, things like that. But yeah, that was a long time ago, 1930s.
- Yeah. But just speaks again to your father’s character and relationships, friendships, and how you do things together, how you bring people together.
- Yeah. And Steve, you did that a lot as well in your role leading the foundation, I had the honor of serving as a trustee and watch your leadership as you brought people together around the foundation, taking things forward, continuing to build on your dad’s legacy and expanding it to reach future generations. So a conversation like this can impact people’s lives going forward. So a story of your dad and your life and how we all, you know, imperfectly, but we all try to apply these principles and these ideas in our life. And so you two have just done a wonderful job of living out these values that I’ve seen and just grateful. So maybe in the time that as we kind of come to an end here, just your reflections on maybe the work of the foundation and how we continue to talk about these things and how we continue to share. You talked about how you speak regularly with groups and talk about these sorts of topics. Maybe just we can kind of wrap on that.
- Well, I’ll tell you the greatest joy for me is speaking to young people and particularly young men. And I know I got confused as a young man, and I think Doug, we live in a society today that there’s been a confusing message that has been sent, whether it’s from movies, TV, pop, culture, whatever, and particularly to young men and kids and young adult men. And when I sit down and talk with ‘em, I tell ‘em, I got confused. And I confused the idea of maleness with being a man. And I told them, I said, Maleness is just something you inherit, it’s a trait. You haven’t done anything to get it. Maleness is all those qualities of, you know, strength and domination and territorial and conquering and aggression, but being a man is the idea of taking those traits, that we didn’t do anything to earn, and using them for the good of others. Those that we’re trying to help, because I get scared when just those traits of maleness operate without character, without integrity and are untempered, that they visit damage on other people. And young men in this country have lost that idea of the difference between just maleness versus being a man and being a man is something you gotta earn. I had to go earn it. I did not have it. And thank God I had some great role models and I got sober and transformed my life. And I’ll leave you with one thought here. I was in Africa working for a group that was over there taking care of kids. Their parents had died of aids. We were working with churches over there, and I’m standing in the African desert and this wonderful man, Tanzanian guy says to me, he says, “Maturity is not how many books you’ve read, how many messages you can repeat. It’s only how much it has actually transformed you”. And it just brought it home. Like if you haven’t changed or transformed, doesn’t matter all those books you read, it’s about changing. And I think you and I both agree. We’d love to have a big impact on young people and the DeVos Learning Center at the museum does that, they’re working well with kids, they teach ‘em about civics and character and integrity. And hopefully it works out.
- Well it’s worked out because your leadership, your leadership of your family, and certainly the legacy of your dad and your mom. And so Steve Ford, I’m grateful for taking us through some lessons of character. And when we have worries about where the leaders have gone, maybe they’ve gone before us, but we can still learn from them and we can still apply those things in our lives like you have and like we all try because those as you mentioned, those values, you know, that ideas of character, and integrity need to live in all of us, that needs to be our belief system. So we can have a positive impact in the world.
- Well, thank you.
- Yeah, go ahead.
- I was gonna say, thank you for doing this show because again, you’re getting people a chance to hear things, rethink their lives and keep up the good work.
- We’ll keep at it. Thank you, my friend. So for all of you, who’ve joined us. Thank you for being with us. Thanks to Steve Ford, for his engagement, his example, and for sharing stories that he’s learned over the course of his life as well. So we’ll look forward to seeing you all next time on the next episode of “Believe”. Thanks everybody.