Politics & Policy

Michigan Journal, Part I

Gerald and Betty Ford at the Grand Rapids Airport in 1951. (Gerald R. Ford Library)

It’s a pleasure to land at Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, Mich. I like it better than landing at the airport in Little Rock: Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport.

And if she’s elected president, imagine the things that will be named after her! Let’s not think about it for a while …

‐Ford was from Grand Rapids, of course, but he started out in Nebraska — Omaha. He was born Leslie King, and his mother left his father days after his birth. The father had been violent toward the mother, his wife.

She moved with her son to Grand Rapids, where she soon married a man named Gerald R. Ford — who took the boy as his own.

Anyway, the story of President Ford is a magnificently American one, and it deserves to be better known.

‐It is also a pleasure to drive on the Gerald R. Ford Freeway.

‐And amazing to see Wealthy Street (in Grand Rapids). I’ve heard of Easy Street. Never Wealthy Street.

Later, I Google the history, which is that a judge named the street after his wife: whose first name was Wealthy.

‐In Michigan, we refer to a breezeway. (I say “we,” because I was born and raised in Michigan.) Do they say it elsewhere in the country? I don’t know.

According to the dictionary, a breezeway is “a porch or roofed passageway open on the sides, for connecting two buildings, as a house and a garage.” Sure. But we Michiganders use it to mean vestibule and other things.

A flexible word, “breezeway.”

‐On an old piano, I see an old book: Hymns of the Christian Life. The book seems not just of a different era but of a different planet — and a better one.

‐Out on the street, someone says to me, “You lookin’ for a smoke?” He does not mean a Camel.

‐An amazing sign on a large building: “Mary Free Bed.” That turns out to be short for “Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital.”

‐Another sign says “Baker Furniture.” Grand Rapids used to be a furniture-making capital. Is it still? Perhaps Baker is a remnant …

‐Grand Rapids has a Martin Luther King Boulevard, as many, many American cities do. Here’s my question: Why is it always Boulevard? I mean, I’m sure there are avenues and streets too, but mainly it seems to be Boulevard. “Martin Luther King Boulevard” is a staple of American life.

‐In towns all across America, large and small, there is a Bowery. I have seen many of them in the last few years. They seem to be getting worse — sliding. Perhaps it is my imagination.

‐How bleak it can be in my Michigan! So drear, so dim. So bitter, so raw. And how early the night comes …

‐Here’s a blast from the past: the Ladies’ Literary Club. Love seeing it.

‐Even better — on a different level — is the Kent County Civil War Monument. It is all spruced up. It honors the local fallen from 1861 to 1865. It names the sites of battles: Fort Sumter, Port Royal, Appomattox. It quotes famous statements, such as “The War for the Union was right — eternally right” (James Garfield).

Do people today know what these things mean? I hope so.

‐In every city, there are good neighborhoods and bad neighborhoods, good streets and bad streets — even good blocks and bad blocks. What surprises me is how abruptly they change. How strict the boundaries are. It’s as though someone has flipped a switch — good to bad, bad to good. There is little gradualism. And everyone stays on “his” side of the line.

Do you know what I mean by this?

‐“Meijer Heart Center,” I see. That must be a gift of the Meijer family, the grocers — the store magnates. When I was a kid, we had “Meijer’s Thrifty Acres.” You could get anything there. I think it was kind of a Wal-Mart before we had Wal-Mart. Now the store is just “Meijer,” I believe.

Some people cracked that Meijer’s Thrifty Acres was “Meijer’s Shifty Takers” — which was, of course, unfair. As I recall, Meijer’s offered good products at very good prices — a boon to people not very well off (as well as to everyone else).

‐“Fort Knox Self Storage.” Fort Knox used to be a byword for security and impregnability. Do people know it as that, still?

‐I see a large brick auditorium — and it is labeled, wonder of wonders, “Auditorium.” My heart does a little dance.

Recently, I wrote an essay on names: “Goodbye, McKinley: The rise and fall of names.” Let me quote a paragraph:

For years, I’ve teased a federal-judge friend of mine for working in the Daniel Patrick Moynihan United States Courthouse. (He and I are both Republicans; Moynihan was not.) “How’s work going down at the Moynihan?” I’ll say. One day, my friend said sternly, “You know what the best name for a U.S. courthouse is? ‘U.S. Courthouse.’” That statement ought to be in Bartlett’s.

“Auditorium” is a good name for an auditorium, too. (I’m sure there’s something more specific inside. Also, the auditorium must be part of some larger institution, probably a college.)

‐“Kent County Social Services.” Such a funny euphemism, “social services” — broad, too. What would it not encompass? I liked it when we had such things as “Ladies’ Aid Societies.” That was more understandable, and more candid.

‐“Kent County Human Services.” Even broader! Human services! What would that not encompass? The Pentagon, for example, provides human services (protection from murder or enslavement by foreign enemies).

‐Every Michigan town worth its salt has a Cass Street, or Cass Avenue, or what have you. An artery named after Lewis Cass.

Who’s he, you ask? Bite your tongue! He was secretary of state (under Buchanan). And a senator. And ambassador to France. And secretary of war. And so on. And a Michigander.

‐“You buy, we fry.” I like that slogan, and that notion. “Fish, Shrimp, Wings.” Better yet, the place is called Captain Jay’s — Captain Jay’s Fish and Chicken.

‐We’re in the middle of the World Series, Royals vs. the Mets, and what do my wondering eyes behold? A New York Mets flag, hanging from a Grand Rapids house. Swear. And we’re 750 miles away (from Queens).

‐This is cute: “No Child Left Inside.” It is a play on “No Child Left Behind,” of course, and it is apparently the slogan of the Environmental Science Academy.

The Acton Institute is a point of light, a jewel of Grand Rapids — and of America, and of conservatism. Its aim is “to promote a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.”

It is named for Lord Acton — who said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

I think of Bill Buckley — who was famous for saying “Demand a recount.” And the thing about the Boston phone book.

When he ran for mayor of New York in 1965 — in order to prove some points, and to write a (great) book — someone asked him, “What’s the first thing you would do if you were elected?” He said, “Demand a recount.”

The other quip goes, “I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the Harvard faculty.”

Anyway, Bill often referred to one or the other of those quotes as “my Prelude in C-sharp Minor.” That prelude was Rachmaninoff’s most popular piece, for a long time. He wearied of hearing it, and of being asked to play it, and of being known for it (to the exclusion of other pieces).

Is the power thing Lord Acton’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor? Well, at least he, and Bill, and Sergei, have one!

‐In addition to doing beautiful things, the Acton Institute is a beautiful place. Its auditorium is both an auditorium and a library. As I remark to an audience here, “If you’re bored by the speaker, you can always read.”

‐Michelle DeYoung, the opera singer, was born in West Michigan, and did some of her growing up in this region. A few years ago, she taught me a saying: “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much.”

West Michigan is full of Dutchmen. Indeed, there is a town called Holland. Before the event here at Acton, I see lots of Dutch names on name tags. One of them is Zondervan — the name of a prominent publishing house, specializing in Bibles and Biblical literature. I bet the fellow I see belongs to that family.

‐I’m given a very nice introduction by Acton’s Mike Cook. I’m here to talk about my book Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators. Mike notes that this is an appropriate book for Halloween (which is upon us): children, monsters.

I never thought of that. I should have, if only for marketing purposes!

‐The first question from the audience is from … a Dutch Reformed pastor. (It’s an excellent question, too.)

‐Another question comes from a Romanian priest — who grew up in Communist Romania, under the Ceauşescu dictatorship, which features in my book. It is moving to hear from him.

‐Afterward, I meet a member of the Meijer family — who, when he was a student, I believe, worked at the Meijer’s Thrifty Acres nearest me. It is a kick to meet him. Royalty, as far as I’m concerned.

‐I then have an interview — a podcast interview — with another wonderful Dutchman: Marc Vander Maas, of Acton. He is a terrific personality, and a superb interviewer. Ought to have a daily radio show.

In any event, I’m off to Ann Arbor. Thanks for joining me. Tell you about A2 — pronounced “A-squared” (for “Ann Arbor”) — later.

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