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Ford library is a window on his unique legacy

A bounty of documents sheds light on a staff whose members continue to hold sway.

January 01, 2007|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

ANN ARBOR, MICH. — If 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 the aides 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 H.W. 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 on the University of Michigan's North Campus rests the world's preeminent collection of Ford's papers, a treasure trove of documents from one of the country's most tumultuous 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, 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 documents have been declassified in the last decade.

Even without the new material, there's a lot to search through.

The volume 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 during World War II and the Great Depression.

"All of the presidential libraries are terrific to work at, but there's something about the Ford library that's particularly great," said James Mann, author of "Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet." "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, each of whom served as national security advisor.

There are personal family journals and letters, reflecting the emotional drain of leading a country furious over Ford's 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 in Ford's 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 paired with a presidential museum: 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 1935, and a museum in Grand Rapids, where he spent his youth.

The division dates to Ford's time in Congress, when he promised the university his papers when he left politics. When Ford later became president, his adopted hometown made a plea to have his museum built there.

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

Over time, the library became known for serious research, while the museum attracted the more casual tourist. In fiscal 2006, about 60,000 people visited the facilities, with 2,000 requesting research materials from the library, according to staff. That number is expected to grow, as it has at other presidential libraries after the deaths of their namesakes.

Horrocks, however, won't be on hand for Ford's interment Wednesday on the museum grounds. Someone needs to remain at the library to man the condolence books, pull documents and answer questions.

"He only knew my name. But I knew him and admired him," Horrocks said. "Being here, keeping things going, is our way of honoring a great man."

p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

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