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Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy


Barry Rabe on Gerald Ford: The global president The University of Michigan invited Pr o f e sso r B a rry R a b e to address the 89th Honors Convocation of the University, an event that celebrates and recognizes outstanding academic achievement by undergraduates. • The theme of this year’s Convocation: “Making a Difference in the World: Do We Need to Travel to Understand Global Affairs?” • Rabe was named a Thurnau Professor in 2011 in recognition of his teaching excellence and commitment to enhancing undergraduate academic opportunities. Here is the speech he delivered to a crowd of 3,300 at Hill Auditorium on March 18, 2012.

Barry Rabe speaks at the University of Michigan Honor’s Convocation


ome 12 years ago, this marvelous auditorium was similarly packed. There was another celebration—and a bit of tension. Standing where I am today was Dr. Henry Kissinger. Then, as now, a controversial figure. One of the most influential 20th century Secretaries of State. As he began, so did heckling. A rather unflattering banner was unfurled from the balcony. (I can only hope that history does not repeat itself today.) But Kissinger kept going and gave what I still consider to be the best speech I have ever heard him deliver. He spoke about the challenges of American foreign policy between 1974 and ’76. And he spoke with deep emotion about the president he served during that period: The Accidental President. And yet a president who, borrowing from today’s theme, devoted six decades of public service to “making a difference in the world.” That president, Gerald R. Ford, was seated right behind Kissinger, about where Provost Hanlon sits now. The occasion was the transformation of the U-M School of Public Policy into the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. It was a grand day in every possible way. But as I sat there in the second row, I realized I knew very little about Gerald Ford. I finished high school and began college during his presidency. I had some aspiration to “make a difference in the world.” And as the first member of my family to attend college, I surely was not giving thought to “traveling to understand global affairs.” The farthest I got from my college campus in Wisconsin was Stratford, Ontario to see Hamlet. It is, I think, quite safe to say that in the years he spent at this university in the 1930s—and have we

ever had a president who so loved his alma mater as Gerald Ford??—the very idea of studying global affairs, much less traveling to understand them would have seemed absurd. Jerry Ford was a very busy guy in Ann Arbor. Four years of varsity football, in an era with no scholarships. A full academic load, with one of the strongest academic records of any 20th century American president. (Angell Scholar material except for his French language classes.) He worked two jobs, including waiting tables at the University hospital. He donated blood every second month in exchange for $25 that helped ends meet. Travel to understand global affairs? The farthest he travelled from this campus involved two trips to Minnesota to secure possession of the Little Brown Jug. Then an all-star game in San Francisco. In his memoirs, he readily admits he had little or no interest in global affairs and thought America’s role in the world should be minimal. He wanted to practice law in Grand Rapids. But then Gerald Ford got to experience global affairs, via the Navy in World War II. Lieutenant Gerald Ford saw heavy action in the Pacific, returned to Grand Rapids and was appalled to see that his Congressman was championing the cause of (literally) “No, no, no.” No to any America postwar engagement in global affairs; “not a penny for the Marshall Plan.” With that, Ford abandoned his law practice. He embraced the positions of Michigan Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg (class of 1901) on these issues, defeated the five-term incumbent from his own party, and won that seat. The near-exclusive focus of the Ford campaign was active and constructive American engagement in global affairs.

Profile for Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy

Spring 2012 State & Hill: American Electoral Politics  

State & Hill, spring 2012 edition: "American Electoral Politics." State & Hill is the official magazine of the Gerald R. Ford School of Publ...

Spring 2012 State & Hill: American Electoral Politics  

State & Hill, spring 2012 edition: "American Electoral Politics." State & Hill is the official magazine of the Gerald R. Ford School of Publ...